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Wage strikes in 1880s America: A test of the war of attrition model


  • Geraghty, Thomas M.
  • Wiseman, Thomas


By relating strike outcomes and durations to the value of the disputed wage change and to the cost to each side of continuing the strike, this paper tests the hypothesis that the war of attrition with asymmetric information model of strikes accurately describes the characteristics of strikes over wages in the United States in the early to middle part of the 1880s. That hypothesis is not rejected by linear, probit, or nonparametric kernel estimation. Specifically, variables that decrease a side's cost of striking or increase its opponent's cost are shown to increase its maximum holdout time, and vice versa, and strike duration increases with the value of the prize in dispute and with uncertainty about the outcome. Alternative game theoretic models of strikes--signaling and screening models, and models with ongoing negotiations--do not fit the data as well. We also explore why the strikes took the form of wars of attrition, and why later strikes did not. Our results have implications for modern union behavior in the face of globalization.

Suggested Citation

  • Geraghty, Thomas M. & Wiseman, Thomas, 2008. "Wage strikes in 1880s America: A test of the war of attrition model," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 45(4), pages 303-326, September.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:exehis:v:45:y:2008:i:4:p:303-326

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Bac, Mehmet, 1996. "Incomplete Information and Incentives to Free Ride on International Environmental Resources," Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Elsevier, vol. 30(3), pages 301-315, May.
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    3. Mehmet Bac, 1996. "Incomplete information and incentives to free ride," Social Choice and Welfare, Springer;The Society for Social Choice and Welfare, vol. 13(4), pages 419-432.
    4. Richard B. Freeman, 1998. "Spurts in Union Growth: Defining Moments and Social Processes," NBER Chapters,in: The Defining Moment: The Great Depression and the American Economy in the Twentieth Century, pages 265-296 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    5. 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.
    6. Fudenberg, Drew & Tirole, Jean, 1986. "A Theory of Exit in Duopoly," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 54(4), pages 943-960, July.
    7. Amann, Erwin & Leininger, Wolfgang, 1996. "Asymmetric All-Pay Auctions with Incomplete Information: The Two-Player Case," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 14(1), pages 1-18, May.
    8. 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, January.
    9. Kennan, John & Wilson, Robert, 1989. "Strategic Bargaining Models and Interpretation of Strike Data," Journal of Applied Econometrics, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 4(S), pages 87-130, Supplemen.
    10. Card, David & Olson, Craig A, 1995. "Bargaining Power, Strike Durations, and Wage Outcomes: An Analysis of Strikes in the 1880s," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 13(1), pages 32-61, January.
    11. Robert A. Margo, 1992. "The Labor Force in the Nineteenth Century," NBER Historical Working Papers 0040, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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    Cited by:

    1. Stefan Oliver Houpt & Juan Carlos Rojo Cagigal, 2014. "Relative deprivation and labour conflict during Spain’s industrialization: the Bilbao estuary, 1914–1936," Cliometrica, Journal of Historical Economics and Econometric History, Association Française de Cliométrie (AFC), vol. 8(3), pages 335-369, September.
    2. Archontis L. Pantsios & Solomon W. Polachek, 2017. "How Asymmetrically Increasing Joint Strike Costs Need Not Lead to Fewer Strikes," Atlantic Economic Journal, Springer;International Atlantic Economic Society, vol. 45(2), pages 149-161, June.
    3. Geraghty, Thomas M. & Wiseman, Thomas, 2011. "Conflict and compromise: Changes in U.S. strike outcomes, 1880 to 1945," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 48(4), pages 519-537.


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