NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Spurts in Union Growth: Defining Moments and Social Processes

Richard B. Freeman

NBER Working Paper No. 6012
Issued in April 1997
NBER Program(s):   LS

This paper examines the spurt in U.S. unionism during the Great Depression. It argues that the Depression spurt is better understood as resulting from a Depression sparked endogenous social process than from New Deal legislation and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) leadership. Four pieces of evidence are offered for this interpretation: 1. The ubiquity of spurts in unionization across countries, particularly in the Depression. 2. The widespread use of recognition strikes during the 1930s spurt. 3. The growth of CIO affiliates with little CIO financial or organizing aid. 4. The growth of American Federation of Labor (AFL) affiliated unions. I model unionization as the outcome from a conflict between union/worker organizing activity and employer opposition, both of which depend on the proportion organized. Union organizing and activity rises with density, then falls with density. Employer opposition is high at low densities but falls once unions gain control of the relevant market. The result is a nonlinear difference equation that produces spurts of union growth. The Depression initiated a spurt by increasing worker desires for unions and by raising density above the critical level' for rapid growth in many industries.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w6012

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