Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

The Impact of the Closed Shop on the Union Movement: A Preliminary View

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

The Impact of the Closed Shop on the Union Movement: A Preliminary View

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

The closed shop is a classic perennial and controversial issue in industrial relations. Most countries have some form of union security arrangements (Cordova & Ozaki, 1980), the exception being some European countries (Kassalow, 1980). Apart from the individual freedom arguments, research has focussed on management attitudes towards the closed shop (Geare, 1989; 1990: Dunn & Gennard, 1984); and the economic impact of the closed shop on certain variables such as productivity, pay, profitability and employment (Metcalf, 1989a; Blanchflower & Oswald, 1988). There has been little research into the impact of the closed shop on trade unions themselves. This is surprising, when the state of trade unions seems to be perilous in most western industrialised economies. Although there has been some discussion amongst labour movement researchers and activists of the need for a new focus on services, on targeting special groups, recruitment drives and so on, there has been little discussion of union security arrangements such as the closed shop and their possible impact on membership, service provision and organisational effectiveness. The closed shop may also have other unintended consequences for unions. For instance, in Australia it is estimated that at least 25 percent of unionists were unwilling conscripts in 1990 (Rawson, 1990). That is, one quarter of all unionists would leave their trade unions if it were not for closed shops. Moreover 82 percent of all union members favoured voluntary rather than compulsory union membership (Rawson, 1990). This is a sobering fact from a union viewpoint. If legislation were introduced to outlaw union security provisions (legislation to outlaw preference to unionists clauses was re-introduced in the NSW Parliament at the time of writing; see Brown & Wadhwani, 1989; and Metcalf, 1989c, for the UK experience); or employers mounted an offensive against compulsory unionism, union density may further dwindle.

This paper attempts to remedy this lack of concern with the closed shop from a trade union perspective. It is not meant as a complete literature review, nor are more objective techniques such as meta-analysis appropriate given the nature of the subject matter being investigated. Thorough reviews have been published of the US literature for instance although these have not explicitly focussed on the impact on unions themselves (Moore & Newman, 1985). This paper uses these reviews as well as other studies on the closed shop and closely related forms of union security, gleaning that evidence which is pertinent to the question of whether the closed shop is a help or hindrance to the union movement. It should be stressed at the outset that the impact of the closed shop on unions will not be uniform. It will vary according to the type of union, industry, occupational and institutional variables. Therefore the discussion which follows is not intended to imply some global effect of the closed shop, but more as a stimulus to debate and the setting up of various hypotheses for future research to test.

2. Definitions and hypotheses

The definition and terminology of the closed shop needs to be addressed. This becomes particularly important, because the paper uses evidence from many different countries, and the closed shop takes on different meanings in different institutional contexts. Table 1 attempts to compare the various terms and forms of the closed shop in order to avoid confusion. This table lists the terms most commonly used in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States with respect to whether the form of compulsory unionism gives the union the ability to influence what labour a firm can employ. For instance, in Australia and the UK, the pre-entry closed shop refers to the situation where workers must be members of a union before being employed in a particular job. This is known as the closed shop in the US and Canada. …

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