The Strengths and Weaknesses of Compulsory Unionism


The idea that compulsory unionism might not be in the interest of either unions or employees first came to my attention in 1947, in a conversation with my employer, the president of the Pulp and Paper Mill Workers Union. John P. Burke, who had been president of the union since 1917, had a strong Socialist background, with a deep commitment to the labor movement. He was a remarkable man in many ways: intelligent, well informed, hard working, shrewd, and charming, with a very modest life style. He had that now rare notion that a union officer’s income should be related to that of the members and not to the salaries of corporate officers with whom he bargained. He was also a consummate politician, in the best sense of the term.

He was concerned about the failure of international representatives and local officers to maintain close and regular relations with the union membership and their preference for talking with management, on or off the job, rather than listening to member complaints and problems. As a result, problems festered, and either developed in ways that were difficult to handle, or contributed to a diminution of member commitment to the organization. At the end of the conversation he said, “The union shop is going to destroy our union. The union shop makes it unnecessary for our staff and local officers to keep in touch with employees. The staff and the officers don’t hear complaints, they don’t learn what is going on at the plant or the shop. They can’t do their jobs properly. Besides, with the union shop, we are leaning on the employers to do our work for us, and this weakens our position.”

However, when I asked if the union ought to bargain the union shop provision out of some agreements, he said reluctantly, “I’m afraid the time is not ripe for such a change, and right now we need all the revenue we can get.”

Over the years since that conversation, I have become convinced that the union shop is indeed the disaster that John Burke believed it would be. Unfortunately, the right-to-work movement is a major obstacle to achievement of voluntary unionism in northern industrial states. The movement has successfully, perhaps unintentionally, identified the advocacy of voluntary unionism with antiunionism and thus buttressed the position of union leaders who argue that compulsory unionism is essential to survival.

Before I go on, definitions are needed of terms related to union security.’ The two extremes, both now illegal, are the open shop in which employees are fired for joining unions and the closed shop in which only persons who are already members of the union may be hired. The permitted forms include:

Union Shop: the employer is free to hire anyone he wishes, but each employee must join the union thirty days (or some other brief time) after hiring.

Modified Union Shop: present members must remain members, new employees must become members, but present employees who are not members are not required to join.

Maintenance of Membership: employees who are members must remain members, sometimes with an option of withdrawing during the two weeks or so preceding the expiration of the contract.

Voluntary Unionism: employees may become members at any time and may withdraw at any time, often with some kind of advance notice.

Agency Shop: an oddball divergence which is identical with the union shop except that each employee has the dubious right to avoid all the duties and privileges of union membership except the obligation to pay dues or a “service fee” equal to dues.

When I use the term compulsory unionism here, it is normally meant to include the union shop, the modified union shop, and the agency shop. The agency shop is mainly a characteristic of public sector employment, which is peripheral to the paper. Also ignored here are the hilarious discussions which are taking place concerning what part of union activities are not to be regarded as “services” and therefore should not be included in the calculation of the agency fee. From my perspective, the compulsion of the agency shop is even worse than that of the union shop, because it assumes no participation in union activity by the fee payer.

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