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Trade unions and collective bargaining

A trade union, or labor union, is a group of workers who have formed to protect their professional rights and interests, e.g. negotiating higher wages, heath care, and pensions, and better working conditions, including workplace safety.

While union density—the share of workers who belong to unions—appears to be in retreat and not very high in most developed countries, many more workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements, especially in continental EU countries.

Theory differs on the economic impact of collective bargaining, although it clearly suggests that it raises pay per worker. But does it increase labor costs? It might increase worker productivity through collaboration with management and providing incentives. Or it might impose inefficient work rules, such us restrictions on laying off workers when technology changes, which reduce productivity and even affect workers who are not represented by trade unions.

  • The consequences of trade union power erosion Updated

    Declining union power would not be an overwhelming cause for concern if not for rising wage inequality and the loss of worker voice

    John T. Addison, February 2020
    The micro- and macroeconomic effects of the declining power of trade unions have been hotly debated by economists and policymakers, although the empirical evidence does little to suggest that the impact of union decline on economic aggregates and firm performance is an overwhelming cause for concern. That said, the association of declining union power with rising earnings inequality and the loss of an important source of dialogue between workers and their firms have proven more worrisome if no less contentious. Causality issues dog the former association and while the diminution in representative voice seems indisputable any depiction of the non-union workplace as an authoritarian “bleak house” is more caricature than reality.
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  • Do trade unions in Central and Eastern Europe make a difference?

    Low coverage and greater fragmentation can limit the benefits of trade unions

    Iga Magda, May 2017
    Countries with strong industrial relations institutions and well-established social dialogue often perform well in terms of economic growth and social cohesion. The weak and fragmented bargaining and low levels of union coverage in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) raise concerns about these countries’ potential to maintain competitiveness, tackle demographic and macroeconomic challenges, and catch up with Western European economic and social standards. There is evidence that unions in CEE continue to protect their members and generate wage premiums, despite their institutional weaknesses.
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  • Unions and investment in intangible capital

    When workers and firms cannot commit to long-term contracts and capital investments are sunk, union power can reduce investment

    Giovanni Sulis, November 2015
    Although coverage of collective bargaining agreements has been declining for decades in most countries, it is still extensive, especially in non-Anglo-Saxon countries. Strong unions may influence firms’ incentives to invest in capital, particularly in sectors where capital investments are sunk (irreversible), as in research-intensive sectors. Whether unions affect firms’ investment in capital depends on the structure and coordination of bargaining, the preference of unions between wages and employment, the quality of labor-management relations, and the existence of social pacts, among other factors.
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  • Collective bargaining in developing countries

    Negotiating work rules at the firm level instead of the industry level could lead to productivity gains

    Carlos Lamarche, September 2015
    Because theoretical arguments differ on the economic impact of collective bargaining agreements in developing countries, empirical studies are needed to provide greater clarity. Recent empirical studies for some Latin American countries have examined whether industry- or firm-level collective bargaining is more advantageous for productivity growth. Although differences in labor market institutions and in coverage of collective bargaining agreements limit the generalizability of the findings, studies suggest that work rules may raise productivity when negotiated at the firm level but may sometimes lower productivity when negotiated at the industry level.
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  • Who owns the robots rules the world

    Workers can benefit from technology that substitutes robots or other machines for their work by owning part of the capital that replaces them

    Richard B. Freeman, May 2015
    Robots, that is any sort of machinery from computers to artificial intelligence programs that provides a good substitute for work currently performed by humans, can increasingly replace workers, even highly skilled professionals, and thus reduce opportunities for good jobs and pay. But, with appropriate policies, the higher productivity due to robots can improve worker well-being by raising incomes and creating greater leisure for workers. Consider the way Google reduces the need for reference librarians and research assistants, or the way massive open online courses reduce the need for professors and lecturers. How these new technologies affect worker well-being and inequality depends on who owns them.
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  • Employment and wage effects of extending collective bargaining agreements

    Extending provisions of collective contracts to all workers in an industry or region may lead to employment losses

    Ernesto Villanueva, March 2015
    In many countries, the minimum wages and working conditions set in collective bargaining contracts negotiated by a limited set of employers and unions are subsequently extended to all the employees in an industry. Those extensions ensure common working conditions within the industry, limit wage inequality, and reduce gender wage gaps. However, several studies suggest that those benefits come at the cost of reduced employment levels, especially during recessions. The income losses of workers who are displaced because of a collective contract extension can offset the wage gains among workers who keep their jobs.
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