Nick Efford / Wikimedia

Union Power?

Since they first emerged in the 1830s, labor unions have played a key role in the Western world in securing better labor conditions, wages and benefits for their members. However, in recent decades, the power of unions has been in decline. We wonder: Which of the following countries has the lowest degree of unionization in its workforce?

A. United Kingdom
B. Japan
C. France
D. United States

A. United Kingdom … is not correct.

Even though it has a reputation as a rough-and-tumble market economy, the United Kingdom has the highest rate of union membership – 25.1% – among these four countries, according to OECD data for union members among all wage and salary earners, public or private.

At 25.1% (as of 2014, the latest year for which worldwide data are available), the UK’s rate of unionization was also higher than Germany’s at 18.1%. Even though it is less populous than Germany, the total number of union members in the UK (at 6.4 million) is ahead of Germany’s (6.3 million).

British union concentration is only slightly below Canada’s union concentration (26.4%).

The UK’s unionization rate stood as high as 51% back in 1980, but has since declined steeply – initially due to the market-oriented reforms pursued by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s.

By the year 2000, the UK’s union concentration was just 30.2%, more than 20 percentage points smaller than in 1980. It has fallen a further 5 points since.

B. Japan … is not correct.

With a unionization rate of about 17.6% as of 2014, Japan has a total of 9.8 million union members as of 2014.

Japan’s unionization level is around the same level as in countries like Germany (18.1%), the Netherlands (17.8%) and Spain (16.9%). The average unionization level among industrialized OECD countries stands at 16.7%. It has fallen 3.7 percentage points since 2000.

The unionization rates are still much higher in the Nordic countries, even though they are declining even there. Sweden’s rate fell from 79.1% to 67.3%, Finland’s from 75% to 69% and Denmark’s from 73.9% to 66.8%.

Iceland has the highest share of union members in its labor force, with some 86.4% of Icelandic workers organized in unions as of 2014.

C. France … is correct.

Well-publicized strikes by its public-sector unions often give the impression that French unions are all-powerful. However, France – at only 7.7% – has one of the lowest rates of union membership among the industrialized countries.

France’s 1.8 million union members number much fewer than the 6.3-6.4 million range seen in Germany or the UK – the other leading EU economies.

And yet, this low degree of unionization can be misleading about the power of unions. As in much of the EU, many non-unionized French workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements – under which unions often negotiate terms of employment for entire companies or even industries.

France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, has vowed to pursue a labor market reform, which is expected to bring him into conflict with French unions.

France’s neighbor Belgium has a much higher unionization rate of 55.1%, which has remained virtually unchanged since 2000. Belgium is the only non-Nordic country with more than half its workforce unionized.

Italy has the highest union concentration among the larger EU economies, at 37.3%. Italy’s unionization rate actually grew 2.5 points from 2000 – a rarity in the OECD.

Among OECD members, the biggest decline in the percentage of union membership occurred in Turkey, where it fell from 28.2% to just 6.3% from 2000 to 2013.

D. United States … is not correct.

Surprisingly, the United States has a higher ratio of union membership in its labor force (10.7) than France.

A key part of this equation is that U.S. government employees, at 34.4%, have a relatively high degree of unionization. In contrast, only 6.4% of the U.S. private sector workforce — or about one in every 15 people employed there — is unionized.

Some 14.5 million Americans are members of a union, the largest total number in the OECD. In absolute terms, there are now about as many public-sector union workers as private-sector union workers.

The peak level of the overall U.S. unionization rate occurred in 1954, when it stood at 35%. And since 1979, there has not been a single year in which the unionization rate has ticked up again.

The decline of the percentage of trade union membership is occurring in all rich countries and especially pronounced in the private sector. While less friendly government policies might have contributed to the unions’ decline, the real cause for the decline is that the underlying organization of labor has changed.

The shift from manufacturing to services and from enforced presence on factory floors or in offices to remote work, as well as the additional shift toward outsourcing, has had a profound effect.

This has led to a multiplication of smaller work units, often not located physically in the same place. Organizing a dispersed workforce is much more difficult than organizing workers who work in a single huge plant and share a single interest.

Editor’s Note: For a list of with data points for all the countries included in the data analysis (provided in this case by the OECD) that underlies this quiz, click here.

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