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Why Only Some Industries Unionize: Insights from Reciprocity Theory

This paper argues that the degree to which a given industry’s labor contracts are complete or incomplete is the major factor determining whether its workforce will be unionized. For instance, assembly line industries feature complete labor contracts because of the nature of the production technology: Either a worker keeps up with the line, or he does not. In such a situation, there is no chance for a reciprocal gift exchange under which firms offer high wages in exchange for high effort levels. The result is low wages that make workers prone to unionization. By contrast, jobs that feature incomplete contracts (lawyers, computer programmers, economists) already have reciprocity and gift exchange in place. Such benefits guarantee to workers that their better interests will be looked after by a management that wishes to maintain a positive and productive labor-management interaction.

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Paper provided by Vassar College Department of Economics in its series Vassar College Department of Economics Working Paper Series with number 64.

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Date of creation: Nov 2004
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:vas:papers:64
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  1. M. Rabin, 2001. "Incorporating Fairness into Game Theory and Economics," Levine's Working Paper Archive 511, David K. Levine.
  2. Ernst Fehr & Klaus M. Schmidt, 1999. "A Theory Of Fairness, Competition, And Cooperation," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 114(3), pages 817-868, August.
  3. Akerlof, George A & Yellen, Janet L, 1990. "The Fair Wage-Effort Hypothesis and Unemployment," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 105(2), pages 255-83, May.
  4. Simon Gachter & Ernst Fehr, 2000. "Cooperation and Punishment in Public Goods Experiments," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 90(4), pages 980-994, September.
  5. Ernst Fehr & Simon Gaechter, . "Do Incentive Contracts Crowd out Voluntary Cooperation?," IEW - Working Papers 034, Institute for Empirical Research in Economics - University of Zurich.
  6. Ernst Fehr & Armin Falk, 1999. "Wage Rigidity in a Competitive Incomplete Contract Market," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 107(1), pages 106-134, February.
  7. Bowles, Samuel, 1985. "The Production Process in a Competitive Economy: Walrasian, Neo-Hobbesian, and Marxian Models," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 75(1), pages 16-36, March.
  8. Falk, Armin & Fehr, Ernst & Fischbacher, Urs, 2008. "Testing theories of fairness--Intentions matter," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 62(1), pages 287-303, January.
  9. Ernst FEHR & Simon GÄCHTER & Georg KIRCHSTEIGER, 1994. "Reciprocal Fairness and Noncompensating Wage Differentials," Vienna Economics Papers vie9401, University of Vienna, Department of Economics.
  10. Shapiro, Carl & Stiglitz, Joseph E, 1984. "Equilibrium Unemployment as a Worker Discipline Device," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 74(3), pages 433-44, June.
  11. Guth, Werner & Schmittberger, Rolf & Schwarze, Bernd, 1982. "An experimental analysis of ultimatum bargaining," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 3(4), pages 367-388, December.
  12. Clark, Gregory, 1984. "Authority and Efficiency: The Labor Market and the Managerial Revolution of the Late Nineteenth Century," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 44(04), pages 1069-1083, December.
  13. Berg Joyce & Dickhaut John & McCabe Kevin, 1995. "Trust, Reciprocity, and Social History," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 10(1), pages 122-142, July.
  14. Akerlof, George A, 1982. "Labor Contracts as Partial Gift Exchange," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 97(4), pages 543-69, November.
  15. Krueger, Alan B & Summers, Lawrence H, 1988. "Efficiency Wages and the Inter-industry Wage Structure," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 56(2), pages 259-93, March.
  16. James C. Cox & Cary A. Deck, 2005. "On the Nature of Reciprocal Motives," Economic Inquiry, Western Economic Association International, vol. 43(3), pages 623-635, July.
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