Why don’t people always act in their own collective self-interest? This classic puzzle in sociological analysis led us to question why so many workers – even the most precarious among them – were so disinterested in unions as a means to achieve higher pay and better working conditions.  If the benefits of unionization are so obvious, why don’t more workers join? For many union leaders and activists, the answer is obvious: anti-union labor laws and employer-led union avoidance strategies impede organizing efforts, while corporate media dupe many working-class people into thinking that unions are outdated, disruptive, and ultimately unnecessary. But the answer is more complicated and the findings in our recent study should sound alarm bells for unions seeking to build working-class power.

The study

In 2017, we surveyed about 700 people living in Ontario’s Niagara Region and asked them about their jobs. For context, the Niagara region is not entirely dissimilar to the U.S. Rust Belt insofar as it is former manufacturing hub that lost stable manufacturing jobs over decades and gained jobs in healthcare, education, gaming, and tourism. Based on 10 questions about the nature of their work, we were able to assign each respondent a score on a precarity index.  We found that about 25% of the people we surveyed were doing precarious work and another 25% were considered “vulnerable” to becoming precarious.  “Precarious” is the enduring buzzword to describe jobs without paid sick days, benefits, and an uncertain work schedule, among other characteristics. Precarious employment can have negative effects on household well-being, workers’ relationships with friends and family, and social cohesion. Research has documented poorer physical and mental health and increased stress in people whose jobs have precarious elements.

Union vs. non-union differences in precarity characteristics

Our survey confirmed that there was a union advantage as it relates certain characteristics of precarious work.  Specifically, unionized workers were more likely to have paid sick days and access to other benefits. The union advantage held when we controlled for age, sex, race, university degree, and, perhaps most significantly, income. In other words, among workers with the same income, those in a union were likely to have a lower score on the precarity index. Looking at the numbers, over 60% of union workers were in a standard employment relationship compared to just over half of non-union workers. A similar union advantage applied to the issue of paid sick days. Over 60% of unionized workers were paid if they missed work due to illness compared to just over 50% of non-union workers. We saw a more pronounced union advantage when it came to employer-provided benefits. Seventy percent of unionized workers received full benefits, typically understood as extended health benefits, disability insurance, and pension, compared to only 42% of non-unionized workers. Only 7.7% of unionized workers received no benefits at all compared to about a third of non-unionized workers (32.6%).

Desire to unionize

Since the results of our study demonstrated clear, if modest, benefits to working in a unionized job, we might have expected that most non-unionized workers would be interested in joining a union if they had an opportunity. However, only 19% of non-union workers surveyed wished they were unionized. The data revealed, however, a statistically significant relationship between precarity status and a desire to be unionized. As precarity got worse, non-union workers were more likely to want to be unionized. For those in secure non-union employment, only 10% were interested in being in a union compared to about one third of non-union workers in precarious employment.

Unions not seen as a panacea

Given that only one in three precarious workers in Niagara was interested in joining a union, we sought to better understand workers’ ambivalence. Union avoidance strategies have a long history in Niagara, with employers using company unions, anti-union public relations campaigns, and relocation to avoid unions and unionization as far back as the 1940s. As the region’s economy shifted away from manufacturing towards service-based industries, the region’s employers did not shift their attitudes towards unionization. Rather, union avoidance strategies were simply transferred and refined to suit the needs of employers in the hospitality and tourism sectors. Multiple failed campaigns by the Canadian Auto Workers to unionize thousands of Niagara casino workers throughout the 1990s and 2000s effectively demonstrates this point. Here, a sophisticated mix of union suppression and substitution tactics helped keep the workforce from unionizing.

Beyond typical employer-led union avoidance tactics, there were also plenty of examples of worker anti-unionism that deserve closer attention. Whether it’s the sense of resentment brought about by a union-negotiated two-tier contract, or a union’s inability to adequately address worker grievances or secure significant bargaining breakthroughs, we cannot discount that some workers have had legitimately negative experiences with unions.

No easy explanations

Disinterest in unionization is not easily explained. There are a range of factors that influence workers’ perceptions. Socio-cultural biases, economic factors, the labor relations framework, workers’ own lived experiences in and around unions, union avoidance strategies, and union responses thereto can all play a role. Local factors and dynamics may also help to undermine interest in, or support for, unions. In short, the answer is complicated and context specific.

It is important to remember, however, that anti-union attitudes are not inevitable. While it is true that union avoidance strategies and hostile corporate media frames and anti-union legislation undermine support for organized labor, unions are not simply victims of external circumstances.

Labor organizations are also agents of change. Having a better understanding of worker disinterest in unions is a necessary first step towards overcoming it. Whether tackling this strategic dilemma is best addressed through a public relations campaign or deeper forms of worker organizing is a matter for debate — one that very much extends to the broader labor movement. Either way, there is clearly much work to be done in Niagara and beyond to re-establish the same level of union power that workers enjoyed in previous generations.

Jonah Butovsky is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Brock University

Larry Savage is a Professor of Labour Studies at Brock University

This article is based on Jonah Butovsky and Larry Savage, “Precarious Work and the Union Advantage: Paradoxical Findings from Niagara,” Journal of Labor and Society, published online September 26, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1163/24714607-bja10081

Image: Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation members on strike, Kitchener, Ontario, February 2020, by Ken Whytock, via Flickr