CEPR Report on Unionization Trends

Posted in In the News

The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) released a report last month on trends in unionization over the past fifty years.  The report, which was written by John Schmitt and Alexandra Mitukiewicz, challenges the claim that globalization and technological forces are largely determinative of declining union influence and membership.  Instead, the report finds that domestic political climates play a large role in explaining trends in unionization.

Commentators have proffered a variety of explanations for the declining rates of union membership in the United States and many other developed economies.  Two of the prominent factors many point to are globalization and technological change.  The CEPR authors conducted a comparative study of 21 advanced developed countries with a variety of political systems and found that union coverage (the percentage of workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement) and union membership (the percentage of workers who are union members) have varied widely over the last fifty years.  Because all of these countries have all been impacted by globalization and technological advances in similar measure, the high variation in unionization trends calls into doubt the claim that those two forces alone control union membership and coverage.  Instead, the reports points to another explanation: the domestic political environment.

The report classifies political regimes in four broad categories: social democratic; Christian democratic; liberal market; and ex-dictatorships.  In general, social democratic countries—such as Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden—have seen high levels of union coverage since 1980 and steady levels of union membership, or tiny declines of the same.  Christian democratic economies—including Austria, Belgium, France, and Germany—have experienced high (though lightly falling) levels of union coverage and have had moderately declining levels of union membership.

Liberal market economies such as the UK and many of its former colonies have experienced sharp declines in both coverage and membership.  Finally, in post-dictatorial Greece, Portugal, and Spain, the trends are mixed.  Union coverage in Spain has increased slightly over the past 30 years, while it declined to varying degrees in Greece and Portugal.  Membership declined in all three countries.

With such divergent trends across countries that have been similarly impacted by globalization and technological forces, it is hard to claim that those factors alone can explain changes in unionization.  Rather, one must look to other factors, including political regimes.