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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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This chapter was published in:
  • 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, August.
  • This item is provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Chapters with number 6896.
    Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberch:6896
    Contact details of provider: Postal: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Avenue Cambridge, MA 02138, U.S.A.
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