Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Bogus new study by Merit Contractors

A couple of labour day stories in the newspaper this weekend. The Journal ran a piece linking this summer’s strike activities using the notion of precarious work. More interesting was an article on another “study” done by Merit Contractors advocating employer friendly changes to the Labour Relations Code. The original study is available on Merit’s website.

Before delving into Merit’s study, some background is useful. Merit Contractors is an association representing non-unionized contractors that has been seeking employer-friendly changes to Alberta’s labour laws for more than a decade. This includes releasing studies, lobbying MLAs and making donations to Tory leadership candidates. This context should make us skeptical of Merit’s “study” at the outset.

The “study” saw 501 Albertans surveyed on various questions about unions. It is important to note that this was a non-random survey. That means that the results are not generalizable to the whole population. So we can’t say “on the basis of this study, XX% of Albertans think Y”. Merit acknowledges this (in small print) but then basically ignores it when it presents the results. It is also important to note that “results have been weighted by age and gender to ensure demographic representation”. I have no idea what that means exactly, but that totally sets my spidey-sense tingling.

Merit also notes that 78% of Albertans in its study are non-unionized, including 58% who have never been unionized. Yet the opinions of those who have never been unionized (58% of the “sample”) are generally given as much weight as those who have union experience. Are those who have never been unionized really able to give meaningful answers to these questions? Do their opinions really matter since they are basically unaffected by the laws and practice of unionization and collective bargaining? Does putting their responses into the mix not skew the results in favour of anti-union conclusions?

The bottom-line question is whether the results of this “study” are meaningful? Broadly speaking, we have a non-random sample (that we can’t then generalize from) that has been tinkered with in some way that reports the opinions of those who appear to have little persona knowledge of or stake in unions. Not an auspicious start.

But let’s look at some of the results.

Merit presents “data” on whether or not union membership (among the 42% of respondents who are/were unionized) was mandatory. In its summary, Merit presents this information in a way that hints there is something wrong with this state of affairs:
For the majority (85%), becoming a part of the union was a mandatory requirement for the job, and most (68%) were unable to resign from their union membership while maintaining their unionized job (p.7).
Setting aside the difficulty with such self-reporting (e.g., memory decay, lack of knowledge), Merit fails to query whether anyone actually wanted to resign their membership! We have no idea what these respondents think about their compulsory membership. Further, Merit presents this finding in a vacuum, ignoring the free-rider problem that is used to justify many cases of compulsory participation. By the implicit logic, I should be able to opt out of that portion of my taxes that goes to prop-up failing businesses.

Merit presents “data” on whether or not unions should have recourse to automatic dues collection (the alternative being the much less efficient approach of unions have to collect dues individually from each member each month). The results of this are evenly split. But when you look at what current union members want (and it is their wishes that ought to count, since they are the ones affected), only 17% agree with making unions collect dues individually from members.

This finding reveals the anti-democratic bias of Merit’s study. Dues provisions are approved by the affected workers via ratification of a collective agreement. If the workers didn’t want these provisions, they could elect an executive slate and negotiate these provisions out of their contract. Of course, this never happens because it would financially hamstring the union. Merit’s conclusion?
Employees want more choice (making it optional) when it comes to paying union dues… a majority (63%) agree that … employees should have the option of opting out of all union dues.
This is, of course, only true if we accept that this survey is representative (it isn’t) and that the wishes to employees who are not affected by union dues ought to drive public policy on union security matters (they shouldn’t). Isn’t the more democratic option to leave these decisions to those who are affected to vote on in their workplaces? The only group that benefits from Merit’s recommendation are employers, who would face weaker unions.

Merit asks the respondents whether they think unions have a positive effect on:
  • Employee job security (81%) 
  • Promotion of an innovative working atmosphere (35%) 
  • The ability of a business to compete (32% 
  • The ability for a government to use your tax dollars (26%) 
These results are not surprising. Unions are perceived to be (and in fact are) good at protecting job security, because that is their purpose.

That largely non-unionized workers think unions do a poor job of make businesses competitive or innovative is both irrelevant (that is not the job of a union) and meaningless (how would they know?). The question “Do you think the presence of a union in a workplace has very positive/somewhat positive/somewhat negative/very negative effect on the ability for a government to use your tax dollars” is simply non-sensical. Whether there is a union in a workplace has no direct effect on the ability of a government to use tax dollars.

What these questions are about is reframing the debate. Merit is trying to get policy makers and the electorate to view unions as impediments of economic growth. But economic growth isn’t the job of unions: unions exist to protect their members from the depredations of employers seeking maximal profitability even it means killing some workers or kicking them to curb and letting their families starve. Little wonder unions focus on job security (and other employment rights) rather than helping out the wealthy.

Merit asks questions about unionization drives, questioning whether workers should get information from both employers and unions during them. There is huge support for this proposal (87%) yet it is asked without any context. Merit didn’t inform respondents about the tactics employers have (and do) use to interfere with unionization drives, which is why the state finally told employers to stop screwing around and let the workers decide for themselves about whether they want a union.

Merit asks about whether a secret ballot vote is a good idea. Again, Merit fails to mention that secret ballot votes demonstrable reduce the success of unionization drives and, indeed, the number of such drives because they give employers an opportunity to put the chill on organizing efforts,

Merit asks whether governments should restrict bidding on public contracts to unionized companies. I can’t think (off hand) of an instance where this happens. Rather, this seems to be part of the broader “unions are bad and get special treatment” theme of Merit’s “study”.

Merit asks whether union members should be able to opt out of “non-core” union dues. Merit’s rationale for this line of questioning? According to the Calgary Herald:
Peter Pilarski, Merit Con-tractors Association's vice-president for southern Alberta, said he believes changes to legislation are important because employees are fed up with having their union dues used to make political contributions or support certain social causes.
It is touching that Merit is so concerned about the well being of unionized workers. It is strange, though, that Merit ignores that union expenditures are approved by their memberships each year so they don't really need a nanny state telling them how to run their union. Unless what Merit is trying to do is create public policy that reduces the money unions can spend supporting worker-friendly political candidates.

Overall, this is just another cravenly self-interested employer lobbying effort dressed up as research. Hopefully the government will use actual evidence to guide public policy making. If not, organized labour should do some surveys of its own. It could ask a non-random sample of Albertans questions like:
  • Do you want to make more money? 
  • Do you want better benefits and a secure pension plan? 
  • Do you want clear criteria for hiring and promotion? 
  • Do you want your employer to have to have an actual reason to fire you? 
  • Do you want to have an accessible route of recourse if your employer violates your contract? 
I’m guessing we’d get 80%+ agreement with these outcomes. These are, of course, all outcomes of belonging to a union.

-- Bob Barnetson

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