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  Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century
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What Do Nonunions Do?
What Should We Do About Them?

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


Nonunion representation is a matter of considerable debate in the United States, with arguments both for and against changing American labor laws to permit employee representation to be practiced overtly by nonunion workers and nonunion companies. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) currently places significant constraints on the structure and operation of employee representation committees in nonunion companies. Critics of the NLRA claim that its strictures constrain employee voice and inhibit the ability of American companies to form and operate employee involvement and participation programs in nonunion workplaces - to the detriment of both national competitiveness and cooperative employer-employee relations.

Written for the May 25-26, 1999, Symposium on Changing Employment Relations and New Forms of Worker Representation - co-sponsored by the Task Force on Reconstructing Americas Labor Market Institutions at MIT and the U.S. Department of Labor - this paper provides a background for discussing the potential of nonunion representation through an account of its history, use in contemporary practice, and policy implications. The first section, the Introduction, includes a comparison of the treatment of nonunion representation in U.S. and Canadian labor laws. The second section reviews the empirical findings on nonunion representation and summarizes both the key points of agreement and the areas that have sparked controversy in America over the legalization of nonunion representation. The authors find that in the long-run, nonunion representation works best when practiced in the shadow of a viable union organizing threat. The third section demonstrates that many U.S. employers are already practicing forms of nonunion representation that are contrary to the language of the NLRA. Finally, the paper’s fourth section discusses the authors' recommended policy changes: they believe NLRA Section 2(5) should be amended to allow collective action by nonunion employees, but in tandem with changes in other sections of the NLRA that bolster the ability of nonunion employees to exit ineffective nonunion plans in favor of unions. Because they found from their research that nonunion systems operate best when they exist in the shadow of a viable union threat, the authors believe it is vital that any softening of the nonunion representation ban be accompanied by changes that increase the ability of workers to join bona fide unions. Moves to make nonunion representation lawful must not jeopardize the nation’s already low levels of unionization.

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