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Accounting For The Decline in Union Membership


  • William T. Dickens
  • Jonathan S. Leonard


Since the early 50s, the percent of the workforce organized by unions has declined considerably. In the most recent decade that rate of decline has accelerated sharply. In an attempt to discover what factors can account for the overall decline and the further deterioration during the 70s, we decompose the sources of growth and decline to determine the relative importance of changes in organizing activity, success in certification elections, decertifications, and net growth due to economic causes. We find that all factors except decertifications account for a substantial part of the change. In addition, interactions between the factors are very important. A significant finding is that while organizing activity and success rates have been declining over time, the net growth (or loss) of membership due to economic causes has remained stable controlling for the aggregate level of economic activity. We argue that this finding is inconsistent with the prevailing view that the decline in the percent of the workforce organized is primarily due to the decline of the heavily unionized core industries.

Suggested Citation

  • William T. Dickens & Jonathan S. Leonard, 1984. "Accounting For The Decline in Union Membership," NBER Working Papers 1275, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:1275
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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Orley Ashenfelter & James J. Heckman, 1974. "Measuring the Effect of an Anti-Discrimination Program," NBER Working Papers 0050, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Straszheim, Mahlon R., 1980. "Discrimination and the spatial characteristics of the urban labor market for black workers," Journal of Urban Economics, Elsevier, vol. 7(1), pages 119-140, January.
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    Cited by:

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. Alexey Levkov, 2010. "Branching of banks and union decline," Risk and Policy Analysis Unit Working Paper QAU10-7, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
    4. Henry S. Farber, 1999. "Union Success in Representation Elections: Why Does Unit Size Matter?," NBER Working Papers 7229, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    5. repec:pri:cepsud:113krusell is not listed on IDEAS
    6. Gundlach, Erich & Schmidt, Klaus-Dieter, 1985. "Das amerikanische Beschäftigungswunder: Was sich daraus lernen läßt," Kiel Discussion Papers 109, Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW).

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