What are the worst unions for workers

Unions on the retreat? Myths, Facts and Challenges

During the 20th century, trade unions in most developed countries increasingly established themselves as important actors in the labor market and in the political arena. Trade unions are one of the main pillars of the German system of industrial relations and the regulation of labor market issues, and they are also given an important role in the social dialogue at EU level. In the 21st century, however, they are often viewed in the media and by some observers as relics of the past industrial age, which are no longer able to cope with current challenges such as globalization and digitization.

The existence and the economic and political influence of the trade unions depend not least on how they manage to attract and retain members in an increasingly difficult environment. It is therefore important to know whether and to what extent union membership is actually eroding and what factors are influencing membership. In addition, the question arises to what extent trade unions reflect the working population of the 21st century and whether they can still be viewed as representative representatives of the workforce.

Membership strength in an international comparison

The ICTWSS database makes it possible to analyze union membership in an international comparison and over time.1 Table 1 shows the development of the union density (i.e. the percentage of employees who are members of a union) in 20 developed countries. If one initially only looks at the 17 countries for which largely consistent data are available back to 1960, union density fell in 12 of these 17 countries from 1960 to 2013, but it also increased in five countries. Since 1980 the degree of organization has even fallen in 18 out of 20 countries examined. During this period, only Spain and Belgium are interesting exceptions to the rule that union membership tends to decline in developed countries.

Table 1
Trade union organization levels in an international comparison, 1960 to 2013
countryDegree of organization (share of union members among the employed, in%)Change (percentage points)
Great Britain40,444,851,739,730,125,7-14,8-26,0
New Zealand---56,569,149,722,319,4----49,7
United States30,927,422,315,512,810,8-20,1-11,5
Coefficient of variation 17 countries0,3530,3160,3760,4790,5680,604
Coefficient of variation 20 countries------0,4270,5180,6020,621

1 Value for 2012.

Source: ICTWSS Database, Version 5.0, 2015; own compilation and calculation.

Although a cross-sectional comparison of data originally obtained from different sources should not be overinterpreted, it can be stated that the degree of unionisation differs widely between countries. The latest data for 2012/2013 show degrees of organization ranging from almost 70% in Finland, Sweden and Denmark to less than 11% in the USA and France. There are also clear differences in previous years, and the degree of organization has increased over time. The coefficient of variation calculated in Table 1, which tends to increase over the years, shows that there is no convergence (rather divergence) in the degrees of organization of the countries under review.

Membership development in Germany

Table 1 shows that the level of union membership is also falling sharply in Germany. Until 1990 around a third of (West) German employees were members of a trade union, but this no longer applies to one in five employees in Germany. This is confirmed by current evaluations of the representative ALLBUS population survey, which for 2014 show organizational levels of 17.5% in Germany as a whole, 18.7% in West Germany and 11.8% in East Germany

The erosion of the (absolute as well as relative) trade union membership in Germany becomes clear when one looks at the aggregated membership figures of the German Trade Union Confederation (including the formerly separate DAG), German Civil Service Federation and Christian Trade Union Confederation shown in Figure 1. The peak of the membership of these three large organizations in West Germany in 1981 was 9.6 million. In the course of their expansion into the new federal states, the unions were able to increase their membership to 13.7 million (1991), but they were able to manage the majority of those who had taken over Members of the Free German Trade Union Confederation of the GDR did not stop. Since then, they (with the exception of the German Association of Civil Servants) have seen their membership decline year after year. The total number of members in unified Germany since 2001 has been below that in West Germany before German reunification and, at just under 7.7 million, currently corresponds to the West German membership of 1959. However, this number of members includes an increasing proportion of inactive members (especially retirees), so that the actual anchoring of the German trade unions in the workforce is much weaker. In addition, the composition of the union members does not correspond to the current structure of the labor force but, with its above-average proportions of men, older industrial workers and civil servants, reflects the social structures of times long past

illustration 1
Union membership in Germany

Note: Sum of the members of DGB, DAG, DBB and CGB (up to and including 1990 West Germany).

Sources: Federal Statistical Office: The trade unions; own calculations.

Explanations of Member Erosion: Some Myths

Against this empirical background, the question arises of how great the explanatory power of some popular descriptions of union membership erosion actually is. Is the decline of the trade unions a global and unstoppable phenomenon in which the Anglo-Saxon countries set the pace? Are there growing groups in the labor force that simply cannot be recruited by unions? Are trade unions really a victim of structural change, globalization and the decentralization of collective bargaining? International empirical research, which can increasingly rely on transnational cross-sectional and longitudinal data, has provided some interesting insights into this in the last ten to 15 years. Among other things, it makes it clear that we have relatively little reliable knowledge of the factors influencing union membership strength and development, and that some popular explanations seem to fall short

Table 1 has already shown that union density has declined in most developed countries over the past few decades. However, membership sizes and their developments vary significantly between the countries, and there is no convergence of the other countries towards the low level of organization and membership erosion in Anglo-Saxon countries. So trade unions are by no means facing extinction worldwide.

Contrary to what is often assumed, the increasing globalization of economic activities in recent decades does not seem to have substantially impaired the membership of the trade unions. Although globalization can weaken the bargaining power of the trade unions and thus also their attraction for members, trade unions may also benefit from globalization, e.g. by offering protection to an insecure workforce threatened by job relocation. Most international comparative empirical studies do not find any clear connections between different measures of globalization and the development of union membership.5 The decentralization of collective bargaining and industrial relations that can be found in many countries cannot simply be blamed for the decline in union membership. The connection between the structure of the wage setting system and union membership is theoretically open, and the international empirical evidence is anything but unambiguous.6 It would therefore be premature to predict a comprehensive collapse in union membership due to the trend towards decentralization.

Economic Influences

The international empirical literature has not only cast doubt on some popular explanations of union membership development, it has also identified some connections that can now be viewed as established knowledge. For almost 100 years, research has been conducted into the extent to which changes in union membership are based on fluctuations in the business cycle. Across many countries, union membership growth has been shown to be usually pro-cyclical, i.e. membership increases when employment or inflation rises and decreases when unemployment rises

Economic policy measures to combat unemployment and stimulate employment should therefore also benefit trade unions. This implies that, from a recruitment point of view, unions should support rather than hinder such measures. What is worrying for the German trade unions is that they have apparently not been able to translate the long economic upswing and the strong increase in employment since 2005 into increasing membership numbers (see Figure 1).

Structural change

In addition to cyclical changes, structural changes in the economy are also often blamed for changes in the number of union members, which would have led to a shift in weight from highly unionized to weakly organized sectors and companies. However, this apparently plausible explanation does not seem to be quite as sound as is often assumed. If one considers the structural change from the industrial sector (the traditional bastion of trade unions) to the service sector that has taken place in every developed country, some, but by no means all, international empirical studies find that this structural change has reduced the level of union membership. For Germany, too, the empirical evidence is inconclusive: while one study identifies a dampening effect of the growing service sector on membership numbers, another study indicates that the contribution of sectoral change is rather marginal. 8

The influence of structural shifts in the public sector is becoming clearer, the scope of which has recently shrunk in many countries as a result of privatizations and outsourcing. Due to its homogeneous organizational structure, low employee turnover and lack of employer resistance, member recruitment in the public sector is considered to be relatively easy, and accordingly the degree of organization there is usually significantly higher than in the private sector.9 While the employment share of the public sector with the expansion of the welfare state over a long period of time As time increased and thus stabilized the unions, the observed decline in this share of employment does not bode well for union membership development.

The same applies to changes in the company size structure, which predominantly reflect the change in the production structure. The likelihood of union organizing is usually higher in large companies because there the union recruiting costs are lower and there is a greater need for union representation due to the more impersonal working conditions. Empirical studies find for many countries that the degree of organization increases with the size of the company, and this is also evident in Germany.10 The decline in the average company size observed in many countries, e.g. due to the change from large industrial companies to smaller service providers, thus weakens the trade unions .

Change in the employment structure

In addition to the sectoral structure, the composition of the working population has also changed significantly in recent decades. In most countries, the employment shares of women, white-collar workers, atypical workers and better-qualified workers have increased. Since these groups are considered to be more difficult to organize and, in some cases, are less tied to the labor market, this change is seen as a major challenge for the unions.

Looking first at the increasing participation of women in the labor force, the resulting increase in employment may have helped unions attract new members, but the effects on union density are unclear. While in the past it was often assumed that women are further from the trade unions, there is no clear connection between gender and union density in an international comparison. In quite a few countries (especially in the Nordic countries) the degree of organization of women is even higher than that of men. A clear exception, however, is Germany, where women are still much less organized than men.11 The traditionally male-dominated German trade unions have therefore begun in recent years to focus their membership recruitment more on women. They were also able to more or less stabilize their level of organization among women, while it fell significantly among men. 12

While the increase in female labor force participation should not in itself pose a fundamental problem for the trade unions, the situation is quite different with the increase in atypical employment relationships often carried out by women. Atypical employment (such as part-time jobs, agency work and fixed-term employment contracts) is a major challenge for the unions because the workers there usually have a weaker bond with their current job and are more difficult to recruit and retain as members. Some national and international studies suggest that atypical or part-time employment is associated with a lower likelihood of union membership. 13

Employees and employees with a higher level of education are also deemed to be non-unionized, and their share of employment has increased significantly in recent decades, not only in Germany. While in Germany the degree of organization of white-collar workers is actually well below that of blue-collar workers, this is by no means the case in all other European countries.14 The influence of the level of education on the size of the union could be more revealing than the somewhat outdated distinction between blue-collar workers and white-collar workers. It can be assumed that better (trained) workers have greater individual bargaining power and therefore less need for union representation. However, even here, from international empirical studies, it is not entirely clear how higher education and training influences the likelihood of union membership and whether this relationship is different in the private sector than in the public sector.15

Age structure and demographic change

The composition of the workforce in most countries is also increasingly influenced by demographic change, which is expressed, among other things, in a rising average age and in the withdrawal of high-birth and heavily unionized cohorts from the labor market. The precise, probably non-linear relationship between age and degree of unionization is still controversially discussed in the international literature. However, there is consensus that younger workers are generally the least likely to be members of trade unions - be it because they have no experience of unions themselves or because they perceive them to represent the interests of older workers.

In Germany, too, the degree of organization among younger employees is significantly lower than that of their older colleagues, and the age structure of union members is more characterized by older employees than that of the general population. It can also be shown that demographic change since 1980 has contributed to the significant decline in the degree of unionization in West Germany.16 If, over time, older cohorts with a high degree of unionization are replaced by younger cohorts with a low degree of organization, the average degree of organization falls. If, moreover, the cohorts that are growing up are numerically smaller than those leaving the labor market, the number of members of the trade unions will decline even with the same degree of organization of older and younger people.It is true that the unions cannot influence demographic change. But they urgently need to step up their recruiting efforts among younger workers, even if such a strategy is relatively costly. If it is possible to win over young workers as members (e.g. through more direct contact), this pays off for the unions if these workers stay in the union and in the labor market for a long time.

On-site presence

It is not only important for the recruitment of young employees that the unions are present in the company and are available as contact persons for the employees. International comparative studies show, on the one hand, that legally possible access for trade unions to the company has a positive influence on the likelihood of membership and the degree of organization. On the other hand, it becomes clear that the actual presence of trade unions in the company goes hand in hand with a significantly higher probability that the employees are members of a union.17 Not least in bad times, it is easier for employees to be kept in unions if they feel that they are Experience support on site.18 From this point of view, the withdrawal from the area with the thinning of the union offices, which some German unions were forced to for financial reasons, is more than problematic. Trade unions that want to stabilize or even increase their membership numbers have to show (more) local presence, even if this is costly and in some countries may also meet with resistance from employers.

Change in values ​​and changed attitudes of employees

Although the structural changes in the economy mentioned above contribute to the decline in the degree of union membership, their explanatory value (also in Germany) seems to be less than often assumed. In other words: even if there were no structural change in the sector, no demographic change and no changes in the composition of the workforce, union membership is likely to decline. This begs the question of what other changes are at play here. One should think here, not least, of a change in values ​​and changed attitudes of employees towards the trade unions.

It is assumed, for example, that the increasing individualization of employees and post-materialistic values ​​contribute to the decline of the union as well as the decreasing importance of collective or group-specific orientations. International cross-sectional analyzes do find links between personal values ​​and union membership, and they also show that a positive attitude towards trade unions goes hand in hand with a higher probability of membership.19 However, there has been a lack of panel analyzes to date that show that there is Time has actually seen substantial changes in employee attitudes and values, and this has also influenced union membership. There is still a considerable need for research by economists and sociologists.

Challenges for the unions

The empirical connections that have been identified in the national and international literature can be used to at least roughly estimate how the trade unions are influenced by economic and social trends that are emerging in many countries. Some of these trends, such as increasing globalization and the increasing proportion of women and white-collar workers, do not seem to have significantly impaired union membership internationally so far, and they should not represent an insurmountable challenge for German unions. In addition, given the inconclusive empirical evidence, it seems premature to predict a large-scale decline in union membership due to the trend towards decentralization of collective bargaining observed in some countries. In the absence of clear empirical findings, the question of whether a change in social values ​​and attitudes of employees towards the trade unions has seriously affected them or will affect them in the future must also remain open.

Demographic change and the difficult recruitment of young workers are major and empirically more well-founded challenges for the trade unions in many countries. Another massive problem for the trade unions is that the proportion of employees in the public sector, which is usually a stronghold of the trade unions, is in is declining in many countries and may well continue to decline with the trend towards the outsourcing and privatization of public services and the shrinking welfare state. The widespread increase in atypical employment is also a major challenge for the trade union movement because part-time workers and other atypical workers are more difficult to unionize than other workers with closer ties to the labor market. Since the degree of organization correlates positively with the size of the company, the decline in the average company size observed in a number of countries is also likely to undermine the number of union members. This is especially true if this is accompanied by a dwindling presence of the trade unions in the company.

Some of these unfavorable developments, such as demographic change and declining company sizes, cannot be influenced by unions. However, some other trends can at least be dampened, for example by allowing unions to exert their political influence and successfully counter the downsizing of the public sector. In addition, there are still some gaps in union membership that can be narrowed through targeted and more effective recruiting. For example, the recruiting efforts of the trade unions should concentrate more on young and atypically employed workers (in Germany also on women), their local presence should be maintained or even expanded, and trade unions could also generally open up more to new social movements that unite Countries now have a say in the political debate.

From a German point of view, the much more positive experiences of some other countries make it clear that the erosion of union membership is not an iron law. For example, the Northern European trade unions have shown that organizational success can also be achieved among white-collar workers, women and atypical employees. Although one can and should learn from the experiences of these foreign trade unions, a panacea for successful member recruitment has apparently not yet been found.20

However, it will probably be essential for the German trade unions to expand the union presence in the area, which was reduced in the past for financial reasons. Potential members, also from marginalized groups and traditionally difficult to organize milieus, should be approached specifically and at an early stage at the start of their employment. However, just as important as the acquisition of new members is preventing existing members from leaving, whereby the union presence on site and the existence of works councils play an important role.21 In general, the increasingly complex interests of individual employees and entire professional groups should be taken seriously and be represented as successfully as possible. In recent years the German trade unions have made increasing efforts in this direction. These range from the “Trendwende” initiative launched by the German Trade Union Federation in 2006, through the strengthened women's and gender equality policy of the service union ver.di, to intensified youth advertising and employee surveys by IG Metall, which now sees itself as a “participation trade union”.

These efforts have probably contributed to the fact that the number of union members has almost stabilized in the last few years (and in the case of IG Metall even increased slightly since 2010). With a steadily increasing number of employees, however, a stabilization of membership numbers is not enough to stop the steady decline in the level of union membership that has been observed. It is true that the trade unions in Germany are supported by their strong integration into legal, social and political structures, and prophecies of their imminent disappearance are certainly exaggerated. Nevertheless, there is the possibility that they - at least numerically - slowly but surely sink into insignificance and are less and less viewed as representative representatives of the workforce.

  • 1 ICTWSS is a publicly accessible database at the University of Amsterdam that contains, among other things, information on union membership and organization levels for a large number of countries. The data was compiled from various administrative sources and surveys and standardized as far as possible, but should be interpreted cautiously, especially in cross-section. See J. Visser: ICTWSS Database, Version 5.0, Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Labor Studies AIAS, http://www.uva-aias.net/208 (23.11.2015).
  • 2 Cf. H. Biebeler, H. Lesch: Organizational deficits of the German trade unions, in: Wirtschaftsdienst, 95th year (2015), no. 10, pp. 710-715.
  • 3 For a more detailed presentation and analysis of the number of members see B. Ebbinghaus, C. Göbel: Decline in membership and organizational strategies of German trade unions, in: W. Schroeder (Ed.): Handbook of Trade Unions in Germany, 2nd edition, Wiesbaden 2014, pp. 207-239.
  • 4 C. Schnabel offers a comprehensive overview of the literature: Union membership and density: Some (not so) stylized facts and challenges, in: European Journal of Industrial Relations, 19th year (2013), no. 3, pp. 255-272.
  • 5 Ibid; as well as, for example, A. Checchi, J. Visser: Pattern persistence in European trade union density: A longitudinal analysis 1950-1996, in: European Sociological Review, 21. Jg. (2005), H. 1, S. 1-21.
  • 6 Cf. C. Schnabel, op. Cit.
  • 7 Exceptions are those European countries in which the unemployment insurance is administered by the trade unions and these therefore have particularly good access to the unemployed. Here (namely in Belgium, Denmark, Finland and Sweden) the level of union membership is particularly high, its decline is significantly less than in other countries (see Table 1), and membership increases with unemployment. See A. Checchi, J. Visser, op. Cit .; and C. Schnabel, op.
  • 8 Cf. A. Carruth, C. Schnabel: Empirical Modeling of Trade Union Growth in Germany, 1956-1986: Traditional versus Cointegration and Error Correction Methods, in: Weltwirtschaftliches Archiv, 126th year (1990), no. 2, p 326-346; as well as B. Fitzenberger, K. Kohn, Q. Wang: The erosion of union membership in Germany: determinants, densities, decompositions, in: Journal of Population Economics, 24th Jg. (2011), H. 1, S. 141- 165.
  • 9 See A. Checchi, J. Visser, loc. Cit .; and H. Kirmanoğlu, C. Başlevent: Using basic personal values ​​to test theories of union membership, in: Socio-Economic Review, Vol. 10 (2012), No. 4, pp. 683-703.
  • 10 See e.g. the international cross-sectional studies by H. Kirmanoğlu, C. Başlevent, loc. Cit .; and C. Schnabel, J. Wagner: Union density and determinants of union membership in 18 EU countries: evidence from micro data, 2002/03, in: Industrial Relations Journal, vol. 38 (2007), H. 1, p. 5-32. Results for Germany are offered by L. Goerke, M. Pannenberg: Trade Union Membership and Works Councils in West Germany, in: Industrial Relations, 14th year (2007), no. 2, pp. 154-175; and B. Fitzenberger et al., supra.
  • 11 Cf. the international comparison by C. Schnabel, J. Wagner, loc. Cit .; as well as the German studies by B. Fitzenberger et al., loc. cit .; and L. Goerke, M. Pannenberg, loc. cit.
  • 12 See H. Biebeler, H. Lesch, loc. Cit.
  • 13 Cf. e.g. B. Ebbinghaus, C. Göbel, S. Koos: Social capital, 'Ghent' and workplace contexts matter: Comparing union membership in Europe, in: European Journal of Industrial Relations, 17th year (2011), H. 2, pp. 107-124; and B. Fitzenberger et al., supra.
  • 14 See H. Biebeler, H. Lesch, loc. Cit .; L. Goerke, M. Pannenberg, loc. Cit .; C. Schnabel, J. Wagner, loc. Cit.
  • 15 Cf. the discussion of the inconsistent empirical evidence in C. Schnabel, op.
  • 16 Cf. the cohort analysis by C. Schnabel, J. Wagner: The Aging of the Unions in West Germany, 1980-2006, in: Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik, 228th Jg. (2008), H. 5 + 6, S. 497-511; as well as the current evaluations by H. Biebeler, H. Lesch, op. cit., according to which in 2014 only 12% of 18 to 30-year-olds, but 22% of over 50-year-olds, were members of a trade union.
  • 17 See e.g. D. Checci, J. Visser, loc. Cit .; C. Schnabel, J. Wagner: Union density ..., loc. Cit .; B. Ebbinghaus et al., Loc. Cit.
  • 18 Cf. the international survey by J. Waddington: Trade union membership retention in Europe: The challenge of difficult times, in: European Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol. 21 (2015), no. 3, pp. 205-221.
  • 19 See H. Kirmanoğlu, C. Başlevent, loc. Cit .; C. Schnabel, J. Wagner: Union density ..., loc. Cit.
  • B. Ebbinghaus, C. Göbel, loc. Cit .; 20 overviews of organizational strategies and the "revitalization" of the trade unions in other countries; and G. Gall (Ed.): Union Revitalization in Advanced Economies: Assessing the Contribution of Union Organizing, Basingstoke 2009.
  • 21 Cf. J. Leschke, K. Vandaele: Explaining leaving union membership by the degree of labor market attachment: Exploring the case of Germany, in: Economic and Industrial Democracy, online September 16, 2015 (doi: 10.1177 / 0143831X15603456).

Title: Trade Unions in Full Retreat? Myths, facts, and challenges

Abstract: A comparison across 20 advanced countries shows that trade union density has fallen in most countries over the last 50 years, with substantial differences between countries. However, unions are not about to vanish everywhere, and some prominent explanations for union decline such as globalization do not hold on closer scrutiny. Current trends that pose serious problems for union membership are demographic change, the declining employment share of the public sector, the rise in atypical employment, and the decline in average firm size. Upholding union presence at the workplace is crucial for keeping and winning members, and union recruiting should focus more on young and atypically employed workers.

JEL Classification: J50