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

Princeton University IRS Working Paper No. 437

46 Pages Posted: 25 May 2000  

Henry S. Farber

Princeton University; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Bruce Western

Harvard University - Department of Sociology; Princeton University - Department of Sociology; Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Date Written: April 2000

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.

JEL Classification: J50

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: https://ssrn.com/abstract=229810 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.229810

Henry Farber (Contact Author)

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

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Princeton University ( email )

Industrial Relations Section
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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
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(609) 258-2180 (Fax)

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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