Union Membership Statistics in 24 Countries: An Analysis of "Adjusted" Union Membership Data in 24 Countries Yields Past and Present Union Density Rates; the Data Provide Explanatory Factors for the Differences and Trends in Unionization

By Visser, Jelle | Monthly Labor Review, January 2006 | Go to article overview

Union Membership Statistics in 24 Countries: An Analysis of "Adjusted" Union Membership Data in 24 Countries Yields Past and Present Union Density Rates; the Data Provide Explanatory Factors for the Differences and Trends in Unionization


Visser, Jelle, Monthly Labor Review


In 1991, Monthly Labor Review published an overview of union membership statistics in 12 countries, presenting broad trends in unionization from 1955 to 1990 and raising various critical issues concerning the comparability of the data? In this article, the analysis is extended to a wider set of 24 developed countries and to recent years. Unlike the 1991 article, only "adjusted" membership data are presented, satisfying minimum comparability criteria and used as a basis for calculating union density rates, defined as union membership as a proportion of wage and salary earners in employment. Like the previous article, this one starts with a discussion of comparability issues--related to the use of sources, definitions, data coverage, reporting errors, special groups outside employment, and the selection of the employment base for calculating density rates. Next, the main findings for 1970, 1980, and 1990-2003 regarding union membership and density are presented and evaluated. The final part discusses some explanatory factors for the differences and trends in unionization, and confronts union membership statistics with data on bargaining coverage, measuring the proportion of employed wage and salary earners directly covered or affected by union-negotiated collective agreements.

Use and comparability

Union membership, relative to the potential of those eligible to join a labor union, is the most commonly used "summary measure" for evaluating the strength of trade unions. If defined and measured in a comparable way, it describes how the position of unions changes over time and differs across countries, industries or social groups. If large variations or swings in union density rates are observed, then there have been major changes in the legal-political, social, or economic environment of labor unions. In this sense, the union density statistic provides a useful comparative indicator in industrial relations research, as was claimed by George Bain and Bob Price in their seminal work on union growth. (2)

It does not tell, of course, the whole story. Other relevant indicators of "union presence" include the following: bargaining coverage--that is, the share of workers covered by labor contracts negotiated by one or more labor union(s); election results of union candidates in employee works councils; union representation in advisory, consulting, and legislative councils; and the standing of labor unions and union leaders in public opinion. (3) Although the union density rate captures a major aspect of union bargaining power--it is probably more difficult to replace striking workers in the short run when most of the firm's or industry's workers are unionized--as a full measure of "what unions do" it is inadequate. For instance, the organization and coordination of collective bargaining over employment conditions, probably the main activity of labor unions everywhere, varies a great deal even in developed economies. Estimating the effects that labor unions have on economic performance and distribution of income requires a great deal of knowledge about union structure and government, bargaining practice and collective action among employers, the aims of unions, legal rules, and public policy. (4) Whereas union density is closer to measuring potential union bargaining pressure, the other measures, especially bargaining coverage, are closer to measuring the effectiveness of unions in providing and defending minimum standards of income and employment protection in labor markets. Between the two measures there are considerable differences, as will be shown in the final section.

In this article, great care is taken to assure minimum comparability of the membership data. However, even when high comparability standards of counting union members are met, "membership" of a labor union may not mean the same thing in different countries. Obviously, membership can involve variable degrees of personal commitment, sacrifice, social pressure, and coercion, and it may come with various collective and individual benefits. …

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Union Membership Statistics in 24 Countries: An Analysis of "Adjusted" Union Membership Data in 24 Countries Yields Past and Present Union Density Rates; the Data Provide Explanatory Factors for the Differences and Trends in Unionization
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