The Decline of U.S. Labor Unions and the Role of Trade.

Author:Champlin, Dell
Position:Book Review

The Decline of U.S. Labor Unions and the Role of Trade, by Robert E. Baldwin. Washington, D.C.: Institute for International Economics. 2003. Paper, ISBN 0881323411, $20.00. 89 pages.

Can Labor Standards Improve under Globalization? by Kimberly Ann Elliott and Richard B. Freeman. Washington, D.C.: Institute for International Economics. 2003. Paper, ISBN 0881323322, $25.00. 179 pages.

These two books are the latest in a series published by the Institute for International Economics (IIE) on trade, jobs, and globalization. The IIE, a middle-of-the-road think tank in Washington, D.C., produces books and papers using conventional economic analysis to arrive at conventional conclusions. IIE books can be expected to promote the benefits of trade or, at least, conclude that trade has not been harmful. These two books fit within the IIE mold, but they go beyond the basic party line to provide a scholarly and balanced view of two controversial issues. The Baldwin book provides an exhaustive statistical study of the shifts in union membership and sheds light on some widespread beliefs regarding the causes of union decline. The Elliott and Freeman book is wider in scope and provides an in-depth analysis of the controversy over international labor standards.

Baldwin examines the decline in unionization over two decades, from 1977 to 1997. The focus of the study is the extent to which increased openness to international trade has contributed to a decline in union membership. However, in the process of analyzing this issue, Baldwin sheds light on a number of other possible factors. As he notes in chapter 1, there is now a considerable literature on the decline of unionization in the United States since the 1970s. There is not, however, a consensus among labor researchers. For example, he cites Henry Farber and Alan Krueger (1992) attributing declining unionization to a lower demand for unions by workers. On the other hand, he writes, Richard Freeman (1988) cited anti-union government policies and increased management opposition as important causes. Other possible explanations include changes in industrial structure--the decline of heavily unionized industries; changes in regional structure--the move to low union density or open shop states; changes in the workforce--increased labor force participation rates of workers with traditionally lower union affiliations such as women, southerners, and white collar workers; changes in government policies; and technological change. As the data in chapter 2 show, there is ample room for a variety of forces...

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