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The role of labor unions in fostering economic development

Listed author(s):
  • Pencavel, John

In this essay on how labor unions work, the author proposes a framework for the law on collective bargaining in developing countries. The structure of developing economies cannot sustain as high a level of unionism as in industrial economies. Typically less (often much less) than a quarter of the workers in a developing country are covered by collective bargaining agreements-and those covered (the labor elite) are likely to be employed by the state and by large private sector employers. In this setting, the author says, states sometimes adopt either a patronage regime (nourishing unionism and collective bargaining) or an obstructionist regime (undermining and subverting it). Patronage regimes are found in Bangladesh, India, and certain African and West Indian countries (many of them former British colonies), countries in which close ties exist between political parties (sometimes including the governing party), and labor unions. Some of the features of obstructionist regimes are found in certain countries in Southeast Asia and North Africa. In both patronage and obstructionist regimes, unions are highly politicized. Because that state routinely figures in defining the union's effective environment, the union's relationship with state and political leaders becomes more important than its dealings with the employers of the workers they represent. Not only may agreements bear no relation to a firm's economic circumstances, but they increase dissonance between workers and union leaders. What is needed instead is a system of collective bargaining that directs unions'efforts to the ultimate lasting source of their members welfare: the firm they work for. Ultimately, improving workers'standard of living required growth in productivity, argues the author. Raising a worker's earning by redistributing income from profits, dividends, and interest cannot sustain a persistent rise in earnings. And mandating or encouraging high wage policies (as in Latin America and the Caribbean) discourages the economic growth that is the ultimate durable source of improvements in workers living standards. Unions can help raise productivity in the workplace by participating with management in the search for better ways of organizing production. It is important for workers not to feel alienated from the system and to believe they have a stake in it. They value the fact that they or their agents help to shape the working environment. In determining the"rules of the game"in which labor unions operate, societies have wrestled with the problem of finding the proper balance between upholding the principle of free association, on the one hand, and on granting entitlement that result in resource inefficiencies at best and ultimately in challenges to the authority of the democratic state at worst. Governments'main responsibility in labor relations is to set up the regulations that underpin labor market interactions, including the legal framework should neither encourage nor discourage unionism, says the author, but should keep the activities of unions in the domain where they can be productive: the enterprise.

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Paper provided by The World Bank in its series Policy Research Working Paper Series with number 1469.

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Date of creation: 31 May 1995
Handle: RePEc:wbk:wbrwps:1469
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  1. Rosenzweig, Mark R., 1988. "Labor markets in low-income countries," Handbook of Development Economics,in: Hollis Chenery & T.N. Srinivasan (ed.), Handbook of Development Economics, edition 1, volume 1, chapter 15, pages 713-762 Elsevier.
  2. Mazumdar, Dipak, 1993. "Labor Markets and Adjustment in Open Asian Economies: The Republic of Korea and Malaysia," World Bank Economic Review, World Bank Group, vol. 7(3), pages 349-380, September.
  3. Duncan, Greg J & Stafford, Frank P, 1980. "Do Union Members Receive Compensating Wage Differentials?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 70(3), pages 355-371, June.
  4. Fields, Gary S. & Wan, Henry Jr., 1989. "Wage-setting institutions and economic growth," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 17(9), pages 1471-1483, September.
  5. Fields, Gary S, 1984. "Employment, Income Distribution and Economic Growth in Seven Small Open Economies," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 94(373), pages 74-83, March.
  6. Shalev, Michael, 1992. "Labour and the Political Economy in Israel," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780198285137.
  7. T. Paul Schultz, 1982. "Effective Protection and the Distribution of Personal Income by Sector in Colombia," NBER Chapters,in: Trade and Employment in Developing Countries, Volume 2: Factor Supply and Substitution, pages 83-148 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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