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January 2006, Vol. 129, No. 1
Union membership statistics in 24 countries
In 1991, Monthly Labor Review published an overview of union membership statistics in 12 countries, presenting broad trends in unionization from 1955 to 1990 and raising various critical issues concerning the comparability of the data.1 In this article, the analysis is extended to a wider set of 24 developed countries and to recent years. Unlike the 1991 article, only "adjusted" membership data are presented, satisfying minimum comparability criteria and used as a basis for calculating union density rates, defined as union membership as a proportion of wage and salary earners in employment. Like the previous article, this one starts with a discussion of comparability issues—related to the use of sources, definitions, data coverage, reporting errors, special groups outside employment, and the selection of the employment base for calculating density rates. Next, the main findings for 1970, 1980, and 1990–2003 regarding union membership and density are presented and evaluated. The final part discusses some explanatory factors for the differences and trends in unionization, and confronts union membership statistics with data on bargaining coverage, measuring the proportion of employed wage and salary earners directly covered or affected by union-negotiated collective agreements.
Use and comparability
Union membership, relative to the potential of those eligible to join a labor union, is the most commonly used "summary measure" for evaluating the strength of trade unions. If defined and measured in a comparable way, it describes how the position of unions changes over time and differs across countries, industries or social groups. If large variations or swings in union density rates are observed, then there have been major changes in the legal-political, social, or economic environment of labor unions. In this sense, the union density statistic provides a useful comparative indicator in industrial relations research, as was claimed by George Bain and Bob Price in their seminal work on union growth.2
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1 Clara Chang and Constance Sorrentino, "Union Membership Statistics in 12 Countries," Monthly Labor Review, December 1991, pp. 46–53.
2 George Sayers Bain and Robert Price, Profiles of Union Growth: A Statistical Portrait of Eight Countries. (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1980).
Related BLS programs
Foreign Labor Statistics
Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey
Estimates of union
density by State.—Jul.
Union membership, by States —Sept. 2000.
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