By Professor Andy Charlwood,
Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change,
It is a well-established research finding that union members in a number of countries, including Britain, the USA and France, tend to be more dissatisfied with their jobs than non-members. The American economists who originally observed this phenomenon thought that it was because unions induce their members to complain about aspects of the employment relationship and this union-induced complaining reduces job satisfaction.
If this is true it suggests a problem because employers collectively spend hundreds of millions of pounds a year on surveys and initiatives to try to manage the satisfaction of their workers. They do this because job satisfaction tends to be associated with more engaged and productive workers. If unions cause job dissatisfaction perhaps they undermine these considerable investments?
The theory that unions cause job dissatisfaction has been challenged by two alternative explanations. First, that perhaps working conditions tend to be worse in the union sector and it is this difference in working conditions that explains lower job satisfaction. Second, it has also been suggested that perhaps workers who are temperamentally more inclined towards job dissatisfaction because of their values and priorities are also more likely to join unions.
I first became interested in this question twenty years ago when working for the TUC. I presented the finding that union members have lower job satisfaction to a group of union reps. Some thought this was a bad thing because unions should make work better for their members. Others were pleased because they thought that dissatisfied members were more willing to take action against employers to try to improve working conditions. What wasn’t clear to any of us then was whether or not unions were actually causing job dissatisfaction.
Since then, a number of articles have been published that show that union members are more dissatisfied even after we account for the fact that they might be temperamentally inclined towards job dissatisfaction, but it has proved difficult to convincingly address the issue of whether unions cause dissatisfaction or not.
To study the question of causality, we need to be able to observe an event that we might expect to cause a change in job satisfaction, we can then study whether this event makes union members more dissatisfied than their non-union counterparts. If it does, we can reasonably infer that it is unions that cause the additional dissatisfaction.
My paper, written with CERIC colleagues Danat Valizade and Ioulia Bessa and recently published by the British Journal of Industrial Relations is the first study of the relationship between unions and job dissatisfaction to examine the causal nature of the relationship in this way. We looked at what happened to the job satisfaction of union members and their non-union counterparts in the wake of changes to public sector pensions in the UK, which resulted in public sector workers have to pay more for smaller pensions. We found that this change and the associated industrial dispute did appear to reduce job satisfaction of those affected but there was no difference in the size of the change in job satisfaction between union members and non-members. Therefore there was no evidence that union opposition to the changes made union members more dissatisfied with their jobs than their non-union co-workers.
In the light of this finding we conclude that unions probably don’t cause job dissatisfaction among their members. We think it more likely that union members tend to be more dissatisfied because they experience more changes at work that cause job dissatisfaction.
For me, conducting this study increased my job satisfaction because I have been thinking about whether unions cause job dissatisfaction or not for over twenty years. It feels good to have an answer. Some trade unionists will welcome the findings because they are uncomfortable with the idea that union membership might make their members unhappy at work. As one Irish trade union official Tweeted in response when I shared the article on Twitter “Are we the baddies? Spoiler: No”. However I suspect some union activists may be disappointed, because for them a successful union campaign gets members dissatisfied so that they are fired up to take industrial action. If unions aren’t making their members dissatisfied perhaps they will not be able to accumulate the industrial muscle to bring about change. This divergence of opinion speaks to a wider point. Just because unions did not cause job dissatisfaction in the UK pensions dispute of 2011 does not mean that they never cause job dissatisfaction. More research drawing on our approach is needed to investigate the effects of unions on job satisfaction in other contexts.