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Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Decline of Unions in the Private Sector, 1973-1998


Henry S. Farber


Princeton University; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Bruce Western


Harvard University - Department of Sociology; Princeton University - Department of Sociology

April 2000

Princeton University IRS Working Paper No. 437

Abstract:     
After documenting the long decline in private sector unionism over the last 50 years, we examine data on NLRB representation elections to determine if changes in the administration of the NLRA during the 1980s reduced the level of organizing activity and success. While organizing activity sharply declined in 1981 (just before President Reagan's showdown with the air traffic controllers' union, PATCO), we find little evidence that the changes in the administration of the NLRA later in the decade adversely affected the level of union organizing activity. We then present an accounting framework that decomposes the sharp decline in the private-sector union membership rate into components due to 1) differential growth rates in employment between the union and nonunion sectors, and 2) changes in the union new organization rate (through NLRB-supervised representation elections). We find that most of the decline in the union membership rate is due to differential employment growth rates and that changes in union organizing activity had relatively little effect. Given that the differential employment growth rates are due largely to broader market and regulatory forces, we conclude that the prospects are dim for a reversal of the downward spiral of labor unions based on increased organizing activity.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 46

JEL Classification: J50

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Date posted: May 25, 2000  

Suggested Citation

Farber, Henry S. and Western, Bruce, Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Decline of Unions in the Private Sector, 1973-1998 (April 2000). Princeton University IRS Working Paper No. 437. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=229810 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.229810

Contact Information

Henry S. Farber (Contact Author)
Princeton University ( email )
Industrial Relations Section
Firestone Library
Princeton, NJ 08544
United States
609-258-4044 (Phone)
609-258-2907 (Fax)
National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)
1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
Bruce Western
Harvard University - Department of Sociology ( email )
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-495-3879 (Phone)
617-496-5794 (Fax)
Princeton University - Department of Sociology ( email )
Princeton, NJ
United States
(609) 258-2445 (Phone)
(609) 258-2180 (Fax)
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