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Why only some industries unionize: insights from reciprocity theory

  • FLYNN, SEAN

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
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  1. 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.
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  12. Akerlof, George A, 1982. "Labor Contracts as Partial Gift Exchange," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 97(4), pages 543-69, November.
  13. Georg Kirchsteiger & Ernst Fehr & Simon Gächter, 1996. "Reciprocal fairness and noncompensating wage differentials," ULB Institutional Repository 2013/5921, ULB -- Universite Libre de Bruxelles.
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