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When Institutions Matter: Union Growth and Decline in Western Europe, 1950-95


  • Bernhard Ebbinghaus
  • Jelle Visser


During the early post-war period, Western trade union movements grew in membership and achieved an institutionalized role in industrial relations and politics. However, during the last decades, many trade unions have seen their membership decline as they came increasingly under pressures due to the social, economic and political changes. This article reviews the main structural, cyclical and institu-tional factors explaining union growth and decline. Concentrating on Western Europe, the empirical analysis compares cross-national union density data for 13 countries over the first period (1950-75) and for 16 countries over the second, "crisis" period (1975-95). The quantitative correlation and re-gression analysis indicates that structural and cyclical factors fail explain the level and changes in unionization across Western Europe, while institutional variables fare better. In a second, qualitative comparative analysis, the authors stress the need to explain cross-national differences in the level or trend of unionization by a set of institutional arrangements: the access of unions to representation in the workplace, the availability of a selective incentive in the form of a union-administered unemploy-ment scheme, recognition of employers through nation-wide and sectoral corporatist institutions, and closed shop arrangements for forced membership. Such institutional configurations support member-ship recruitment and membership retention, and define the conditions for the strategic choice of trade unions in responding to structural social-economic, political and cultural changes

Suggested Citation

  • Bernhard Ebbinghaus & Jelle Visser, 1998. "When Institutions Matter: Union Growth and Decline in Western Europe, 1950-95," MZES Working Papers 30, MZES.
  • Handle: RePEc:erp:mzesxx:p0045

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Eyraud, Francois & Marsden, David & Silvestre, Jean-Jacques, 1990. "Occupational and internal labour markets in Britain and France," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 21305, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.
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    Cited by:

    1. John T. Addison & Alex Bryson & Paulino Teixeira & André Pahnke, 2011. "Slip Sliding Away: Further Union Decline In Germany And Britain," Scottish Journal of Political Economy, Scottish Economic Society, vol. 58(4), pages 490-518, September.
    2. repec:aia:aiaswp:wp87 is not listed on IDEAS
    3. Blanchflower, David G. & Bryson, Alex, 2008. "Union decline in Britain," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 19603, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.
    4. repec:ilo:ilowps:485863 is not listed on IDEAS
    5. Silvia Teuber & Uschi Backes-Gellner, 2012. "How do companies adjust their organization to national institutions: evidence from matched-pair engineering companies," Economics of Education Working Paper Series 0082, University of Zurich, Department of Business Administration (IBW), revised Apr 2013.
    6. Chung, Heejung, 2008. "Do institutions matter? Explaining the use of working time flexibility arrangements of companies across 21 European countries using a multilevel model focusing on country level determinants," Discussion Papers, Research Unit: Labor Market Policy and Employment SP I 2008-107, Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB).
    7. Schnabel, Claus & Wagner, Joachim, 2005. "Determinants of Union Membership in 18 EU Countries : Evidence from Micro Data, 2002/03," Discussion Papers 31, Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg, Chair of Labour and Regional Economics.
    8. Schnabel, Claus, 2012. "Union membership and density: Some (not so) stylized facts and challenges," Discussion Papers 81, Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg, Chair of Labour and Regional Economics.
    9. John T. Addison, 2016. "Collective bargaining systems and macroeconomic and microeconomic flexibility: the quest for appropriate institutional forms in advanced economies," IZA Journal of Labor Policy, Springer;Forschungsinstitut zur Zukunft der Arbeit GmbH (IZA), vol. 5(1), pages 1-53, December.
    10. Sophia Lee, 2013. "Fuzzy-set method in comparative social policy: a critical introduction and review of the applications of the fuzzy-set method," Quality & Quantity: International Journal of Methodology, Springer, vol. 47(4), pages 1905-1922, June.
    11. Zohal Hessami & Thushyanthan Baskaran, 2015. "Has Globalisation Affected Collective Bargaining? An Empirical Test, 1980–2009," The World Economy, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 38(12), pages 1880-1911, December.
    12. John Schmitt & Alexandra Mitukiewicz, 2012. "Politics matter: changes in unionisation rates in rich countries, 1960–2010," Industrial Relations Journal, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 43(3), pages 260-280, May.
    13. R. Verwiebe & T. Troger & L. Wiesböck & R. Teitzer & N.-S. Fritsch, 2013. "GINI Country Report: Growing Inequalities and their Impacts in Austria," GINI Country Reports austria, AIAS, Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Labour Studies.
    14. Leslie McCall & Lane Kenworthy, 2007. "Inequality, Public Opinion, and Redistribution," LIS Working papers 459, LIS Cross-National Data Center in Luxembourg.
    15. repec:aia:aiaswp:wp42 is not listed on IDEAS
    16. Lawrence, Sophia. & Ishikawa, Junko., 2005. "Trade union membership and collective bargaining coverage : statistical concepts, methods and findings," ILO Working Papers 994858633402676, International Labour Organization.
    17. Philipp Gerhartinger & Philipp Haunschmid & Dennis Tamesberger, 2017. "How to explain Wage Growth Slowdown in Austria? A sectoral-panel analysis of collectively bargained minimum wages," ICAE Working Papers 58, Johannes Kepler University, Institute for Comprehensive Analysis of the Economy.
    18. Schnabel, Claus, 2002. "Determinants of trade union membership," Discussion Papers 15, Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg, Chair of Labour and Regional Economics.


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