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Hope against Hope: Persistent Canadian Unions in the Interwar Years


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  • Michael Huberman


  • Denise Young


Current forecasts paint a dismal future for unions; observers in the 1920s and 1930s also projected bleak prospects for organized labor. Analysts in the interwar years were off the mark. This paper seeks to investigate whether the revival of the labor movement before WWII was the result of institutional change, in particular the coming of the CIO, or the outcome of an internal dynamic that gave rise to rapid declines and spurts in growth. We test these two views in a war-of-attrition context, using a newly constructed data set on Canadian strikes between 1920 and 1939. Estimation is undertaken in a competing-risks framework. We find that workers did not cave in when employers sought to break their unions, and under certain conditions workers could outlast employers. The increasing proportion of worker wins in the early to mid 1930s led to the rise in union membership observed before the arrival of the CIO in Canada in 1937. We conclude that current predictions regarding the end of unions in the twenty-first century may prove to be premature. Tout comme les analystes contemporains, certains observateurs des années 1920 et 1930 prédisaient un avenir sombre à la syndicalisation. Leurs prévisions étaient fausses. Cet article vise à vérifier si la renaissance des syndicats avant la Deuxième Guerre mondiale est associée à un changement organisationnel, soit l'arrivée du CIO, ou le résultat d'une dynamique interne qui produit des périodes de croissance et de décroissance rapide. En utilisant une nouvelle banque de données sur les grèves au Canada entre 1920 et 1939, dans un modèle de guerre d'usure, cet article teste ces deux propositions. Nous trouvons que les travailleurs n'ont pas reculé face aux menaces des employeurs et dans certains cas ils ont remporté des conflits. Grâce à ces grèves gagnantes, le nombre de travailleurs syndiqués s'est accru même avant le CIO. On conclut que les prévisions courantes vouant les syndicats à la disparition au vingt-et-unième siècle sont prématurées.

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by CIRANO in its series CIRANO Working Papers with number 2000s-28.

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Date of creation: 01 Sep 2000
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:cir:cirwor:2000s-28

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Keywords: Labor unions; strikes; Canadian economic history; Syndicats; grèves; histoire économique canadienne;


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  1. Peter Cramton & Morley Gunderson & Joseph Tracy, 1999. "The Effect Of Collective Bargaining Legislation On Strikes And Wages," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 81(3), pages 475-487, August.
  2. David Card & Craig A. Olson, 1992. "Bargaining Power, Strike Durations, and Wage Outcomes: An Analysis of Strikes in the 1880s," Working Papers 674, Princeton University, Department of Economics, Industrial Relations Section..
  3. Kennan, John, 1985. "The duration of contract strikes in U.S. manufacturing," Journal of Econometrics, Elsevier, vol. 28(1), pages 5-28, April.
  4. Rosenbloom, Joshua L., 1998. "Strikebreaking and the Labor Market in the United States, 1881–1894," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 58(01), pages 183-205, March.
  5. Richard B. Freeman, 1997. "Spurts in Union Growth: Defining Moments and Social Processes," NBER Working Papers 6012, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  6. Michael D. Bordo & Claudia Goldin & Eugene N. White, 1998. "The Defining Moment: The Great Depression and the American Economy in the Twentieth Century," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number bord98-1.
  7. Harrison, Alan & Stewart, Mark, 1989. "Cyclical Fluctuations in Strike Durations," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 79(4), pages 827-41, September.
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