Bryan Caplan  

What Happened to American Unions?

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My favorite subplot in Brink Lindsey's "Nostalgianomics" is his tale of the decline of American unionization rates.  He begins by ridiculing people who blame the change on virtually non-existent policy changes:
Scrounging about for a policy explanation for declining unionization, Levy and Temin point to the failure of a 1978 labor law reform bill to survive a Senate filibuster.  They might as well have added the failure in any year to pass legislation requiring all employees to be union members. In any event, maintenance of the policy status quo is not a policy change...
Brink then highlights some fascinating evidence that I should have heard about long ago:
As economist Henry Farber of Princeton and sociologist Bruce Western of Harvard have pointed out, the main cause of declining unionization has been a dramatic difference in employment growth between unionized and nonunionized workplaces. Between 1973 and 1998, employment at unionized firms declined on average by 2.9 percent a year, while jobs at nonunion firms grew at an average rate of 2.8 percent a year. To counteract this differential and hold union density constant would have required torrid rates of organizing new workers. Yet organizing rates have been in long-term decline since the early 1950s. Only organizing rates at early-1950s levels would have sufficed to prevent the drop in union density experienced since the early 1970s. (emphasis mine)
Tell your friends.


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COMMENTS (5 to date)
The Snob writes:

Isn't the whole point that the other team thinks organizing levels have been excessively constrained by a combination of nefarious legislation and false consciousness?

On one hand, we have a drop in union participation as manufacturing employment has moved from unionized firms in the rust belt to non-union firms in the sun belt. This is clearly happening because evil factory owners are moving to places where workers have fewer rights.

On the other hand, we have manufacturing employment staying stagnant while software-related employment has grown enormously. But what makes all those support techs and QA engineers different from the machinists and mechanics of yore? They should realize that their business-casual CEOs who ask everyone to call them "Jim" instead of "Mr. Smith" are no different than the evil steel mill owners of yore.

I don't see how Lindsey's formulation moves the ball down the field on either side. Of course organizing levels are lower--that's the point!

Ed writes:

"employment at unionized firms declined on average by 2.9 percent a year, while jobs at nonunion firms grew at an average rate of 2.8 percent a year."


Telling isn't it.

Felix writes:

That last, quoted paragraph sounds less like evidence than restating the assertion with more precision. (The assertion being that unions have declined.)

Evidence for such an assertion seems pretty easy to come by.

Explanation for the decline?

How about:

Unions make sense when there is a large imbalance of power, employer over employee. They don't bring anything to the table where there is no significant imbalance of power.

Where are unions still with us? Let's think of an employer with a *lot* of power - employing people who value lifetime employment security over fending for themselves on a more frequent schedule.

wintercow20 writes:

Don't you think it is worth noting that decline in unionization has been met with a virtually one-for-one increase in the share of the workforce covered under occupational licensing restrictions? This is yet another way we are getting "closet statism" ... I prefer the honesty and the transparency of the real deal.

Larry Peoples, Sr. writes:

Could it be that the American worker is becoming more enlightened? Perhaps they realize that the modern labor unions are merely socialist organizations whereby the least talented and qualified are protected and treated as an equal to the most talented and qualified. Or perhaps people are no longer willing to feed the big belly of labor unions and their partner at the trough - the Democrat Party.

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