Book Solves Conundrum of American vs. Canadian Unionism

Book Solves Conundrum of American vs. Canadian Unionism

Fazzi, Cindy

Book Solves Conundrum of American vs. Canadian Unionism The Paradox of American Unionism: Why Americans Like Unions More Than Canadians Do But Join Much Less. By Seymour Martin Lipset and Noah M. Metz with Rafael Gomez and Ivan Katchanovski. Ithaca, New York: ILR Press, an imprint of Cornell University Press (, 2004. 208 pages. $32.50.

With the ballyhooed democratic tradition in the United States and popular support for workers’ rights, one would think that Americans would be joining unions in droves. Not so, according to this book. In fact, our Canadian neighbors claim higher union membership, even though they are less likely to express support for unionism. Why do Americans approve of unions more than Canadians, yet since the mid-1960s have joined unions to a much lesser extent? This is the conundrum that the authors try to solve. They begin by noting that the border separating the United States from Canada is the world’s longest undefended border. It is often called an invisible border because Americans and Canadians seem so much alike, at least superficially. In fact, as readers of this book will see, Americans and Canadians are quite different, especially when it comes to unionism.

In 1963, 29% of Canadian and American employees belonged to unions. But 38 years later, by 2001, only 14% of U.S. employees were union members compared with 30% in Canada.

Four Hypotheses

In explaining this divergence, the authors present four hypotheses about the labor movements in the two countries. First, the surge in union membership between 1938 and 1958, relative to the growth of the labor force in the United States, was an anomaly in America’s overall experience with unions. It was the Great Depression-an extraordinary event-that pushed the United States into communitarian values and unionism. And when the Great Depression ended, the country’s pro-union values began to wane.

If such gains were an anomaly, then why is there still a high level of public approval of unions in the United States? It’s quite ironic, but the authors’ second hypothesis is that this is a result of the union movement’s relative weakness. In other words, if American unions had been stronger, as they were in Canada, there would be less union support. This isn’t too surprising if you look at it this way, since Americans like to root for the underdog.

The authors’ third hypothesis is that, even though Americans express a greater desire to join unions (as shown by survey results discussed in this book), they have more difficulty in doing so compared to Canadians. This is largely because labor legislation and efforts to enforce such laws have not been as strong as those in Canada.

Their fourth hypothesis has it that if Americans were to choose between freedom for the individual and collective rights for the group, they would pick the former. They point out that it’s no accident that the U.S. Declaration of Independence speaks of an individual’s “right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” while the Canadian Constitution speaks of “peace, order, and good government.”

Other Factors

The authors also show that American employers are much more aggressive in opposing unions than their Canadian counterparts. “In the United States, there is even a highly visible industry providing advice to companies on how to avoid being unionized,” they point out.

It is noteworthy that Canada has more public sector employees than the United States, which translates into more union members. Canada has a great deal more state ownership, not just in utilities, but also in transportation, communication, and liquor sales. State ownership arose as a result of private-sector bankruptcies in the 1920s and the need for economic stimulation in the 1930s.

The authors also make a keen observation about the importance of political activism in developing unionism: “The real problem for unions in the United States,” they write, “is that they never created their own labor or social democratic party nor did they support one.” They show the crucial role that Canadian labor activists played in the formation of the first electorally-viable social democratic party in Canada.

Labor scholars and researchers need look no further than the 208 pages of this highly readable and informative book to answer the question that has baffled many social scientists for a long time.

All reviews in this section have been written by book review editor Cindy Fazzi.

Copyright American Arbitration Association Nov 2004-Jan 2005

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved