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Spurts in Union Growth: Defining Moments and Social Processes

In: The Defining Moment: The Great Depression and the American Economy in the Twentieth Century


  • Richard B. Freeman


This paper examines the spurt in U.S. unionism during the Great Depression. It argues that the Depression spurt is better understood as resulting from a Depression sparked endogenous social process than from New Deal legislation and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) leadership. Four pieces of evidence are offered for this interpretation: 1. The ubiquity of spurts in unionization across countries, particularly in the Depression. 2. The widespread use of recognition strikes during the 1930s spurt. 3. The growth of CIO affiliates with little CIO financial or organizing aid. 4. The growth of American Federation of Labor (AFL) affiliated unions. I model unionization as the outcome from a conflict between union/worker organizing activity and employer opposition, both of which depend on the proportion organized. Union organizing and activity rises with density, then falls with density. Employer opposition is high at low densities but falls once unions gain control of the relevant market. The result is a nonlinear difference equation that produces spurts of union growth. The Depression initiated a spurt by increasing worker desires for unions and by raising density above the critical level' for rapid growth in many industries.
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  • 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.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberch:6896

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Freeman, Richard B, 1986. "Unionism Comes to the Public Sector," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 24(1), pages 41-86, March.
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    Cited by:

    1. Dube Arindrajit & Reddy Sanjay G., 2014. "Threat Effects and Trade: Wage Discipline through Product Market Competition," Journal of Globalization and Development, De Gruyter, vol. 4(2), pages 213-252, March.
    2. Hanes, Christopher, 2010. "The rise and fall of the sliding scale, or why wages are no longer indexed to product prices," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 47(1), pages 49-67, January.
    3. Huberman, Michael & Young, Denise, 2002. "Hope against Hope: Strike Activity in Canada, 1920-1939," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 39(3), pages 315-354, July.
    4. Michael Kremer & Benjamin A. Olken, 2009. "A Biological Model of Unions," American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, American Economic Association, vol. 1(2), pages 150-175, April.
    5. David Card & Richard B. Freeman, 2004. "What Have Two Decades of British Economic Reform Delivered?," NBER Chapters,in: Seeking a Premier Economy: The Economic Effects of British Economic Reforms, 1980-2000, pages 9-62 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    6. Barry T. Hirsch, 2008. "Sluggish Institutions in a Dynamic World: Can Unions and Industrial Competition Coexist?," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 22(1), pages 153-176, Winter.
    7. Thomas J. Holmes, 2006. "Geographic spillover of unionism," Staff Report 368, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
    8. Vjollca Sadiraj & Jan Tuinstra & Frans Winden, 2005. "Interest group size dynamics and policymaking," Public Choice, Springer, vol. 125(3), pages 271-303, December.
    9. Kimberly Ann. Elliott & Richard B. Freeman, 2004. "White Hats or Don Quixotes? Human Rights Vigilantes in the Global Economy," NBER Chapters,in: Emerging Labor Market Institutions for the Twenty-First Century, pages 47-98 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    10. Chiaki Moriguchi, 2000. "The Evolution of Employment Relations in U.S. and Japanese Manufacturing Firms, 1900-1960: A Comparative Historical and Institutional Analysis," NBER Working Papers 7939, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    11. 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.
    12. Taylor, Jason E. & Neumann, Todd C., 2013. "The effect of institutional regime change within the new deal on industrial output and labor markets," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 50(4), pages 582-598.
    13. 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.
    14. Drew Fudenberg & David K Levine, 2013. "Tail Probabilities for Triangular Arrays," Levine's Working Paper Archive 786969000000000685, David K. Levine.
    15. Michael Huberman & Denise Young, 2000. "Hope against Hope: Persistent Canadian Unions in the Interwar Years," CIRANO Working Papers 2000s-28, CIRANO.
    16. Frank Levy & Peter Temin, 2007. "Inequality and Institutions in 20th Century America," NBER Working Papers 13106, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    17. Ruiz-Verdu, Pablo, 2007. "The economics of union organization: Efficiency, information and profitability," Labour Economics, Elsevier, vol. 14(5), pages 848-868, October.
    18. Edward L. Glaeser & Giacomo A. M. Ponzetto & Jesse M. Shapiro, 2005. "Strategic Extremism: Why Republicans and Democrats Divide on Religious Values," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 120(4), pages 1283-1330.
    19. Barry T. Hirsch & Edward J. Schumacher, 2001. "Private Sector Union Density and the Wage Premium: Past, Present, and Future ," Journal of Labor Research, Transaction Publishers, vol. 22(3), pages 487-518, July.
    20. Palley, Thomas I. & LaJeunesse, Robert M., 2007. "Social attitudes, labor law, and union organizing: Toward a new economics of union density," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 62(2), pages 237-254, February.
    21. Polachek, Solomon, 2003. "What Can We Learn About the Decline in U.S. Union Membership from International Data?," IZA Discussion Papers 896, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    22. David Card & Thomas Lemieux & W. Craig Riddell, 2003. "Unionization and Wage Inequality: A Comparative Study of the U.S, the U.K., and Canada," NBER Working Papers 9473, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    23. Margo, Robert A. & Finegan, T. Aldrich, 2002. "The Great Compression of the 1940s: The Public versus the Private Sector," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 39(2), pages 183-203, April.

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