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U.S. Department of Labor Futurework
  Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century
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What Do Nonunions Do?
What Should We Do About Them?

by
Daphne Gottlieb Taras, University of Calgary and Bruce E. Kaufman, Georgia State University
Task Force Working Paper #WP14
Prepared for the May 25-26, 1999, conference
“Symposium on Changing Employment Relations and New Institutions of Representation”

September 1, 1999

Two Taken-for-Granted Topics:
A Lack of Representation, and Worker Views


There are two additional brief comments we must make before turning our attention to the specific public policy issues arising from our previous discussion. The first is that we tend to compare nonunion representation systems with unions, and in so doing may muddy the waters. We must not overlook the comparison with worksite conditions for workers who have no form of representation or participation whatever. The second is that apart from our empirical finding that nonunion representation is employer-promulgated, we have had little to say on the very workers whose issues we are disputing. What do workers think?

Nonunion Representation Versus No Representation

The tendency of industrial relations scholars, the natural instinct borne of generations of scholarship and training, is to compare NERPs to unions. We become so preoccupied with the union-nonunion question that often we simply forget to compare NERP to no representation. Do NERPs provide advantages to workers over no representation? NERPs may be on a continuum with, on a separate domain from, or be substitutes or complements to individual bargaining as well as to collective bargaining. However, there is no dispute in our research volume that NERPs provide workers with benefits that exceed what they could accomplish on their own. The positive benefits include improved communications, both bottom-up and top-down, greater access to managerial decision-makers, the venue and means to express voice, opportunities for leadership positions, and some specific skills training. Without NERPs, firms wishing to hear from their workers is move to a new “small group” approach (e.g. focus groups, sensing sessions), together with an arsenal of survey instruments. Fear of reprisal surely is high when individual employees are forced to speak directly to their employers. Managerial prerogatives are strong, the notion of democratic methods of collective action are lost. As imperfect as NERPs can be, they certainly can bring advantages to employees over a strict individual-based employment relationship. Other benefits depend upon the form and function of particular plans. Managers also claim advantages for their firms. Were it not for the question of the relationship between unions and NERPs, we believe there would be little hesitation on the part of the majority of academics and practitioners to endorse NERPs as an improvement over traditional, autocratic and nonparticipative human resource systems.

Workers’ Views

But what do workers want? In a multi-wave survey of American private sector workers, Richard Freeman and Joel Rogers asked respondents to choose between two hypothetical employee organizations, “one that management cooperated with in discussing issues, but had no power to make decisions” and “one that had more power, but management opposed.” Non-managerial employees chose the weak organization over the stronger one by a three to one margin. Astonishingly, there were no appreciable differences between unionized and nonunion respondents (Freeman and Rogers 1998, p. 12). When given a choice between joint committees, unions, or laws protecting individual rights, 63 percent favor joint committees, 20 percent prefer unions, and 15 percent choose laws. (Ibid, p. 15). When offered a choice between an organization “jointly” run by employees and management or one run by “employees” alone, eighty-five percent of respondents favor the former option, while only 10 percent opt for the latter (Ibid, p. 16).

Our research volume included statements by workers representatives, who described their participation in remarkably similar terms. Cathy Cone, of Delta, defined her company’s nonunion plan as a “means for establishing greater cooperation and integration through improved communication and mutual understanding.” Russ Chiesa and Ken Rhyason, of Imperial Oil, wrote that the “key factor in the success of the JIC is trust and cooperation, and that open and honest communication is crucial to achieving these. We also emphasize that the well-being of employees and the company are interdependent and that we all gain from cooperation and collaboration.” Similarly, Kevin MacDougall, of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, stressed that his nonunion plan eschewed aversarialism. It is not difficult to discern that these employee representatives would echo the majority responses in Freeman and Roger’s survey.

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