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A second explanation for the decline in the share of unionized workers looks at import competition. Starting in the 1960s, U.S. carmakers and steelmakers faced increasing competition from Japanese and European manufacturers. As sales of imported cars and steel rose, the number of jobs in U.S. auto manufacturing fell. This industry is heavily unionized. Not surprisingly, membership in the United Auto Workers, which was 975,000 in 1985, had fallen to roughly 390,000 by 2015. Import competition not only decreases the employment in sectors where unions were once strong, but also decreases the bargaining power of unions in those sectors. However, as we have seen, unions that organize public-sector workers, who are not threatened by import competition, have continued to see growth.

A third possible reason for the decline in the number of union workers is that citizens often call on their elected representatives to pass laws concerning work conditions, overtime, parental leave, regulation of pensions, and other issues. Unions offered strong political support for these laws aimed at protecting workers but, in an ironic twist, the passage of those laws then made many workers feel less need for unions.

These first three possible reasons for the decline of unions are all somewhat plausible, but they have a common problem. Most other developed economies have experienced similar economic and political trends, such as the shift from manufacturing to services, globalization, and increasing government social benefits and regulation of the workplace. Clearly there are cultural differences between countries as to their acceptance of unions in the workplace. The share of the population belonging to unions in other countries is very high compared with the share in the United States. [link] shows the proportion of workers in a number of the world’s high-income economies who belong to unions. The United States is near the bottom, along with France and Spain. The last column shows union coverage, defined as including those workers whose wages are determined by a union negotiation even if the workers do not officially belong to the union. In the United States, union membership is almost identical to union coverage. However, in many countries, the wages of many workers who do not officially belong to a union are still determined by collective bargaining between unions and firms.

(Source, CIA World Factbook, retrieved from www.cia.gov)
International comparisons of union membership and coverage in 2012
Country Union Density: Percentage of Workers Belonging to a Union Union Coverage: Percentage of Workers Whose Wages Are Determined by Union Bargaining
Austria 37% 99%
France 9% 95%
Germany 26% 63%
Japan 22% 23%
Netherlands 25% 82%
Spain 11.3% 81%
Sweden 82% 92%
United Kingdom 29% 35%
United States 11.1% 12.5%

These international differences in union membership suggest a fourth reason for the decline of union membership in the United States: perhaps U.S. laws are less friendly to the formation of unions than such laws in other countries. The close connection between union membership and a friendly legal environment is apparent in the history of U.S. unions. The great rise in union membership in the 1930s followed the passage of the National Labor-Management Relations Act of 1935, which specified that workers had a right to organize unions and that management had to give them a fair chance to do so. The U.S. government strongly encouraged the formation of unions during the early 1940s in the belief that unions would help to coordinate the all-out production efforts needed during World War II. However, after World War II came the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which gave states the power to allow workers to opt out of the union in their workplace if they so desired. This law made the legal climate less encouraging to those seeking to form unions, and union membership levels soon started declining.

The procedures for forming a union differ substantially from country to country. For example, the procedures in the United States and those in Canada are strikingly different. When a group of workers wish to form a union in the United States, they announce this fact and an election date is set when the employees at a firm will vote in a secret ballot on whether to form a union. Supporters of the union lobby for a “yes” vote, and the management of the firm lobbies for a “no” vote—often even hiring outside consultants for assistance in swaying workers to vote “no.” In Canada, by contrast, a union is formed when a sufficient proportion of workers (usually about 60%) sign an official card saying that they want a union. There is no separate “election date.” The management of Canadian firms is limited by law in its ability to lobby against the union. In addition, though it is illegal to discriminate and fire workers based on their union activity in the United States, the penalties are slight, making this a not so costly way of deterring union activity. In short, forming unions is easier in Canada—and in many other countries—than in the United States.

In summary, union membership in the United States is lower than in many other high-income countries, a difference that may be due to different legal environments and cultural attitudes toward unions.

Visit this website to read about recent protests regarding minimum wage for fast food employees.

Key concepts and summary

A labor union is an organization of workers that negotiates as a group with employers over compensation and work conditions. Union workers in the United States are paid more on average than other workers with comparable education and experience. Thus, either union workers must be more productive to match this higher pay or the higher pay will lead employers to find ways of hiring fewer union workers than they otherwise would. American union membership has been falling for decades. Some possible reasons include the shift of jobs to service industries; greater competition from globalization; the passage of worker-friendly legislation; and U.S. laws that are less favorable to organizing unions.

References

AFL-CIO. “Training and Apprenticeships.” http://www.aflcio.org/Learn-About-Unions/Training-and-Apprenticeships.

Central Intelligence Agency. “The World Factbook.” https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/index.html.

Clark, John Bates. Essentials of Economic Theory: As Applied to Modern Problems of Industry and Public Policy . New York: A. M. Kelley, 1907, 501.

United Auto Workers (UAW). “About: Who We Are.” http://www.uaw.org/page/who-we-are.

United States Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Economic News Release: Union Members Summary.” Last modified January 23, 2013. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm.

United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2015. “Economic News; Union Members Summary.” Accessed April 13, 2015. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, University of houston downtown: microeconomics. OpenStax CNX. May 28, 2014 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11651/1.2
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