Universal Unionism

Should union membership be extended to every un-represented worker?


Rafael Gomez is professor at the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources, University of Toronto. Alex Bryson is senior research fellow at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and Research Associate at the Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics


Two of Canada’s largest unions – the CAW and CEP – have recently merged creating the largest trade union in Canada. Named Unifor, the union comprises over 300,000 workers. Regardless of the merits of such a mega-merger, one idea that has been centre-stage in the new deal is the idea of extending  Unifor’s membership privileges to workers who lack workplace representation. The proposal has garnered considerable media attention because of its supposed novelty and applicability to today’s younger, more mobile and precarious workforce. “It’s a thought we have worked on for many years” said CEP president Dave Coles “but we have not been able to get our head[s] around how to do it” This last comment is somewhat surprising given that academics have been writing about this idea for some time and that peering back even further, to  the foundations of the labour movement both in North America and in Europe, one finds plenty of examples ‘unaffiliated membership’ (i.e., accepting workers who are favourable to unionisation but who are otherwise not members of any trade union at work).


The idea of extending membership to all workers, even if they fail to have a certified union at their workplace, was actually floated a decade ago by two academics; Richard Freeman (an economist) and Joel Rogers (a sociologist) in a piece published in The Nation titled “A Proposal to American Labor”. In it the authors spell out just how such a proposal could work and be financed for little or no cost given the ease in which the internet  – which at that time did not even include social networking sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn —  had allowed groups to communicate and share vital information.


Opening up to new members who are in favour of unions (or even neutral about representation) would open up doors to employees who  work for an employer in which collective bargaining is not on offer. Freeman and Rogers cleverly termed this idea “open source unionism” (OSU) and argued quite persuasively how this could give labour an immense boost in its leverage and reach as well as gaining strategic information on employer behaviour. For workers without majority status at the workplace, the OSU model would mean access to some of the bread-and-butter services that unions traditionally offer (e.g., advice and support on their legal rights, career guidance, access to training and so on).


Elsewhere we have argued how unionism is and always has been an ‘experiential service’ in the sense that the true benefits of being part of union and having access to the benefits of some form of collective representation are revealed with experience at work and over time. The fact that a worker with access to union services is more likely to have a pension plan, a grievance procedure, more vacation time and family friendly polices is not something obvious. It has to be learned and experienced. The idea of extending some of these privileges to the unrepresented worker can only enhance the view workers have of a ‘union’ job.


The roots of this idea go back to the birth of the labour movement. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, directly affiliating with a union was not only possible but actively encouraged. It is only in the last half-century that labour has become closed in its membership, extending privileges only to those workers where a majority support unionisation and the union is recognized by the employer as the exclusive representative of workers for the purposes of collective bargaining. In the first half of the 21st century that model has come to its nadir, and it’s about time more trade union officials ‘got their heads around that.’




Posted in: Blog Posts |

Leave a Reply