A long time ago in a sub-thread at one of my guest posts Over There, Brandon Berg raised in the comments an interesting question about unions (in particular about conscience exemptions for union dues and the free-rider problem that union shop provisions are meant to resolve):

I’m not sure I understand the free rider problem. Why can’t unions negotiate for their members, and only for their members? Is there some regulation that requires the unions to negotiate for all employees regardless of membership, or is the idea that simply having the union negotiate wages for its members somehow makes it easier for non-members to negotiate higher wages?

Personally, of course, I don’t see the free-rider problem as a problem at all—the government shouldn’t be in the business of making it easier to form cartels

And James K. chimed in

What you describe is how it works in New Zealand. Union membership is voluntary but the union only negotiates on behalf of its membership, and will only represent its members in other forms of labour dispute. There are a couple of other differences as well, like only union members can strike.

This seems to be an entirely adequate solution to nay free-rider issues.

At the time, I filed it under “interesting things I don’t know much about.” I still don’t know much about it, but I recently ran across a book that addresses Brandon’s and James K.’s points in the American context. It’s The Blue Eagle at Work: Reclaiming Democratic Rights in the American Workplace, by Charles J. Morris (2005). His argument seems to be that our current labor law, initiated by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (Wagner Act) and amended subsequently, permits the situation Brandon and James K. describe, at least in some instances. His claims that few since the 1930s have recognized that fact, but he hopes that union supporters will endorse partial representation contracts (my term, I forget which he uses) as a step toward full-shop unionization.

I’ve read only the introduction, so there’s a lot I presume is missing from my synopsis of his argument. And I can’t speak to whether he’s right or not. But I thought I’d bring it up, especially in light of our recent discussion of minimum wage exemptions for union contracts.

Category: Market, Statehouse

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13 Responses to Briefly, on unions

  1. Vikram Bath says:

    I actually know this one! One of the first things negotiated by any union is exclusivity. Their contracts don’t allow for their employers to hire non-unionized workers to do the same work.

  2. greginak says:

    I don’t understand how this works in practice. Based on Vik’s fairly obvious response. If a union isn’t exclusive then the business just doesn’t hire anybody in the union. They only hire non-union workers.

    What am i missing?

    • Oscar Gordon says:

      Company hires worker. Worker is approached by union regarding joining up. Worker evaluates membership versus non & joins union. Laws prevent company from hiring with contingency against joining union, and is not allowed to interfere in union membership activities (and likewise, union is not allowed to harass non-members).

      • greginak says:

        But in practice businesses would go to great lengths to try avoid hiring anyone who would join the union. In fact if joining a union was that kind of option a person might just get a harsher evaluation before their probationary period was ended. In theory i can see it, just not in the actual world. Maybe it works in some places, but US businesses seem to aggressive towards unions it seems less likely to work here.

        And sort of OT but you get blowhards like Chris Christie saying the NEA should get a smack in the chops. I heard many years ago from ex wife who worked at an anti-union casino, Harrahs, they were trained that businesses get the unions they deserve. Harrah’s treated their staff very well.

        • I guess I should read the rest of the book, or study other countries’ approaches, to be able to know how such a system would work (or not work). (I was kind of hoping that James K or Brandon or someone else who knows more would chime in with an explanation.)

          The scenario you describe, where employers would just hire more and more people who aren’t or won’t become union members, seems very plausible to me and I don’t know what the counterpoint to that scenario would be. I do wonder if the employer gets some kind of benefit from the union workers? I don’t know what that would be.

        • James K says:

          Oscar has the right of it. Refusing to hire someone because they want to join a union (or for that matter, because they don’t want to join a union is illegal). And unions have a strong incentive to closely monitor the process (and the law requires unions be given access to employees), so there’s a motivated party making sure employers don’t cheat.

          If anything our system creates less of an incentive for union-busting than yours does. Getting a critical mass of pro-union employees represents a massive loss in power for an American employer, while in New Zealand it matters much less. No wonder your companies are so aggressive, given their incentives.

        • Thanks for stepping in, James K. I think that’s probably Morris’s argument, although he sees partial unionization as a step toward full-shop unionization.

          I have a question that I could probably google, but I’ll ask you: Does New Zealand have an “at will” employment policy, where employers can fire people only for cause? I ask because I assume the anti-union-discrimination provisions you describe would probably work better under a “for cause” system than under an “at will” system like the US’s.

        • James K says:

          In New Zealand, firing has to be for cause, but there is a 90 day trial period that is effectively at will.

        • Thanks, James K., for letting me know. To my knowledge, the only “for cause” state in the US (Montana), allows for a 1 year probationary period before “for cause” kicks in.

  3. Greginak and Vikram:

    I haven’t read the book, of course, but perhaps it’s somewhat analogous to the situation at my workplace: we have some people who are tenured faculty, others who are contingent (usually year to year) faculty, others who are civil service, others who are grad students, and others who are undergraduate students.

    A lot of these people’s duties overlap, sometimes so significantly that it’s hard to tell who’s supposed to do what, but we’re all paid and compensated according to different schemes. The civil service people have civil service protections (and union protections), the tenure track and some contingent faculty have union protections, grad students, in addition to having their own union get compensation/protections by virtue of them being students.

    Perhaps the system that Morris has in mind runs comparably to that. Or perhaps not.

    I will say that Morris seems to claim that pre-ca. 1935, the union agreements Vikram mentions in his comment above weren’t as reliably exclusive in the sense that the union wanted to be recognized as the sole bargaining agent for all workers in a shop. In other words, Morris is saying that it wasn’t uncommon for unions to claim to represent only a part of a workforce at a shop. If he’s right, perhaps that has something to do with the AFL’s focus on trades unionism. Most of its unions were organized along craft lines, i.e., around what one did, and not around industrial lines, i.e., around in what industry one worked.

    I should also say that Morris sees this type of unionization as a stepping stone to the union being the sole bargaining agent.

    • Vikram Bath says:

      Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that they were so exclusive that *no* non-unionized workers at all.

      • I think I understood what you meant (though maybe not). My reading of Morris is, he claims that unions sometimes didn’t even start off trying to become sole bargaining agents, even for people who did the same work. That’s one reason I used my workplace example above, to demonstrate how an employer might opt to treat some workers who do similar work differently.*

        When I read that claim in his book (of which, again, I’ve read only the introduction and perhaps part of chapter 1), I was surprised.

        I’m also not sure if he’s right. US Labor history is supposedly one of my specialties and I hadn’t heard that claim before.

        *That said, the fact that some are unionized is almost beside the point. The real reasons my job is thus organized are probably 1) we’re a pubic bureaucracy, with all the complex and overlapping rules such bureaucracies have and 2) we’re a small-ish, in some ways independent and autonomous department in which it is difficult to measure/quantify what we do but which is important enough that we’re given a lot of leeway to do it.

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