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Why only some industries unionize: insights from reciprocity theory


This paper argues that the degree to which a given industry’s labor contracts are complete or incomplete is the major factor determining whether its workforce will be unionized. For instance, assembly line industries feature complete labor contracts because of the nature of the production technology: Either a worker keeps up with the line, or he does not. In such a situation, there is no chance for a reciprocal gift exchange under which firms offer high wages in exchange for high effort levels. The result is low wages that make workers prone to unionization. By contrast, jobs that feature incomplete contracts (lawyers, computer programmers, economists) already have reciprocity and gift exchange in place. Such benefits guarantee to workers that their better interests will be looked after by a management that wishes to maintain a positive and productive labor-management interaction.

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Article provided by Cambridge University Press in its journal Journal of Institutional Economics.

Volume (Year): 1 (2005)
Issue (Month): 01 (June)
Pages: 99-120

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Handle: RePEc:cup:jinsec:v:1:y:2005:i:01:p:99-120_00
Contact details of provider: Postal: Cambridge University Press, UPH, Shaftesbury Road, Cambridge CB2 8BS UK
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  1. Ernst Fehr & Simon Gaechter, 1999. "Cooperation and Punishment in Public Goods Experiments," CESifo Working Paper Series 183, CESifo Group Munich.
  2. James C. Cox & Cary A. Deck, 2005. "On the Nature of Reciprocal Motives," Economic Inquiry, Western Economic Association International, vol. 43(3), pages 623-635, July.
  3. George A. Akerlof, 1982. "Labor Contracts as Partial Gift Exchange," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 97(4), pages 543-569.
  4. Rabin, Matthew, 1993. "Incorporating Fairness into Game Theory and Economics," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 83(5), pages 1281-1302, December.
  5. repec:tpr:qjecon:v:114:y:1999:i:3:p:817-868 is not listed on IDEAS
  6. Ernst Fehr & Simon Gaechter, . "Do Incentive Contracts Crowd out Voluntary Cooperation?," IEW - Working Papers 034, Institute for Empirical Research in Economics - University of Zurich.
  7. Fehr, Ernst & Schmidt, Klaus M., 1999. "A theory of fairness, competition, and cooperation," Munich Reprints in Economics 20650, University of Munich, Department of Economics.
  8. Ernst Fehr & Armin Falk, 2003. "Wage Rigidity in a Competitive Incomplete Contract Market," Labor and Demography 0305001, EconWPA.
  9. George A. Akerlof & Janet L. Yellen, 1990. "The Fair Wage-Effort Hypothesis and Unemployment," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 105(2), pages 255-283.
  10. Ernst FEHR & Simon GÄCHTER & Georg KIRCHSTEIGER, 1994. "Reciprocal Fairness and Noncompensating Wage Differentials," Vienna Economics Papers vie9401, University of Vienna, Department of Economics.
  11. Guth, Werner & Schmittberger, Rolf & Schwarze, Bernd, 1982. "An experimental analysis of ultimatum bargaining," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 3(4), pages 367-388, December.
  12. Krueger, Alan B & Summers, Lawrence H, 1988. "Efficiency Wages and the Inter-industry Wage Structure," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 56(2), pages 259-93, March.
  13. Armin Falk & Ernst Fehr & Urs Fischbacher, . "Testing Theories of Fairness - Intentions Matter," IEW - Working Papers 063, Institute for Empirical Research in Economics - University of Zurich.
  14. Ernst Fehr & Klaus M. Schmidt, 1999. "A Theory of Fairness, Competition, and Cooperation," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 114(3), pages 817-868.
  15. Clark, Gregory, 1984. "Authority and Efficiency: The Labor Market and the Managerial Revolution of the Late Nineteenth Century," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 44(04), pages 1069-1083, December.
  16. Bowles, Samuel, 1985. "The Production Process in a Competitive Economy: Walrasian, Neo-Hobbesian, and Marxian Models," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 75(1), pages 16-36, March.
  17. Shapiro, Carl & Stiglitz, Joseph E, 1984. "Equilibrium Unemployment as a Worker Discipline Device," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 74(3), pages 433-44, June.
  18. Berg Joyce & Dickhaut John & McCabe Kevin, 1995. "Trust, Reciprocity, and Social History," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 10(1), pages 122-142, July.
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