Union decline: a geography based assessment.

AuthorBalasubramanian, Girish


Scholars started inquiring into the trend of unionization around the early 1900s. John Commons is considered a pioneer who studied unionization trends around the early 1900s and tried to predict patterns of growth and decline of unionization (Ebbinghaus & Visser, 1999). It was furthered by Ashenfelter, John Pencavel, Bain and Elsheikh mainly in the British and US contexts. These scholars for a long time believed that unionization trends followed the business cycles in an industry. When the industry flourished, there was a growth in the unionization and vice versa. It has been established beyond doubt that globally, unionization has been on the decline. The debate about the exact year of decline continues but there is a broad consensus amongst scholars of industrial relations that unionization has been on the decline since late 80s around the world (Checchi & Visser, 2005; Ebbinghaus & Visser, 1999; Visser, 2003; Western, 1997). Pattern of union growth and decline was predominantly studied on the basis of the effect of cyclical factors like unemployment and inflation on the unionization along with factors like major disturbances or a catastrophe and real wages (Ashenfelter & Pencavel, 1969; Bain & Elsheikh, 1976). This strand of research on the patterns of growth and decline of unionization has moved since then from UK & US and has been studied in other economies and geographies like Germany, Scandinavian countries and Canada. The scope of the research has expanded to include structural, economic and sociopolitical factors along with cyclical factors. It is also important to note that the trade unions are actors embedded within the social structure (Polanyi, 1957 for embeddedness). While trade unions perform the important function of representing the workers, the geographical context within which they are located leads to some differences (Herod, 2002; 2003). Hence viewing union decline through the lens of labor geography would nuance our understanding.

The aim of our paper is to present an integrated view of the factors that have led to decline in unionization, established in literature based on geographies. Since there are differences in connotations about unionization and union practices, we first clarify and define the scope of unionization. We present our analysis of the factors that have led to decline in unionization in terms of geographies and specific to some countries namely the USA, Britain, Germany, India, and China. Finally we discuss the implications and future research possibilities.

Definition & Scope of Unionization

Since there are wide differences in the understanding of unions and their activities, which could lead to different connotations of unions and unionizations in different geographies (Visser, 2006), we present a definition of Union and the scope of the union activities. For the purpose of this paper union has been defined as, "an organization of employees which seeks to represent the job interests of its members to employers and in some circumstances to the state, but which is not dominated by either of them" (Bain & Price, 1980: 2). Unionization can be defined in terms of union membership, union density, union activities and union power. Union membership is simply a dichotomous variable in the form of yes or no. Union Density is the ratio of unionized workforce to the total workforce. Net union density is the ratio of current unionized workers who are working and total workforce while gross union density is the ratio of unionized workers including retired and unemployed individuals who are drawing unemployment benefits and the total workforce. Union density has been used as a proxy for union power in studies (Addison, Bailey, & Siebert, 2003). Union activities include involvement in activities like strike, collective bargaining and worker representation. Studies however use strike action and collective bargaining settlement as a way of operationalizing union activities. For the purpose of our review we have taken unionization as any one or a combination of the above mentioned factors (Kuruvilla, Das, Kwon & Kwon, 2002; Machin, 2000).


Of all the geographies, Africa has dismal rates of unionization because the continent is plagued by serious problems that need attention like war, mass exodus, extreme poverty, hunger, AIDS epidemic, religious and divisive forces. Major part of Africa was colonized for the better part of the 20th century which has impacted unionization. While the struggle for independence did forge a close relationship between the politics and unions, post-independence the conflict for supremacy between unions and political parties has been widely observed.

Countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda and Zambia have state controlled union federations. Independent unions are outlawed. Cold war also played a part in Angola, Mozambique, Congo and Kenya. There was a constant tussle between the union federations either under the American influence or under the communist influence. (Visser, 2003). Dictatorial powers in Zimbabwe and Malawi also led to low unionization rates (Visser, 2003). Apartheid movement did encourage unionization in South Africa, but decline in the manufacturing and mining sectors coupled with weakening of Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) have contributed to union decline. Due to Apartheid movement in South Africa, union movement received some fillip, however finally there was a decline due to decreased mining and manufacturing activities and the traditional stronghold Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).

Based on the review, it can be concluded that the level of unionization has been impacted by three major issues namely political situation, large informal sector and priority to serious issues. However three factors contribute to our lack of more knowledge about the African continent. Most of the studies on unionization trends have been carried out in developed economies. The studies on union growth and decline are generally with a lag. Africa, apart from being a third world economy, studies are rare due to the non-availability of reliable data and burgeoning informal sector.


Asia is the biggest continent and hence too vast to generalize any trend of union decline however we gain a better perspective by dividing Asia into four groups of countries namely West Asia, New Industrializing countries of East Asia (Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan), the Tigers and South East Asia (Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam) and the large and populous countries of South Asia (China and India) (Visser, 2003).

West Asia consists of Arab countries where immigration is a huge concern. The debate still continues as to the rights of an immigrant with respect to unionization. In Israel, unions were routed with the defeat of the Histradrut (the powerful and the sole union confederation formed in 1920 to take care of the labor welfare) in 1994 and the change in the National Health Insurance Law under which health insurance was made compulsory for every Israeli citizen and all citizens were eligible for a uniform benefits package. The state took over some of the health insurance under its control (Visser, 2003) which weakened the union's influence over workers. Countries like Malaysia, Singapore, and Philippines also face the problem of immigrants and trade unions are grappling with complexities of collectivizing them...

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