Differences in trade union membership and influence across Europe

The importance of comparative electoral systems

John Budd, University of Minnesota
J. Ryan Lamare, School of Labor and Employment Relations, University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign

From an employment relations perspective, the ideal situation for industrial relations would likely be one where trade union membership and workplace influence are high, stable (if not increasing), and uniform across countries. However, industrial relations faces significant challenges because none of these are true. Researchers have therefore explored various explanations for declining union density as well as for persistent differences in cross-national union membership levels across countries. While research has analyzed individual attitudes and demographic characteristics, job and organizational characteristics, globalization and other economic trends, trade union activities, and differences in varieties of capitalism and industrial relations systems, it appears that the importance of a country’s political system for influencing trade union membership and workplace influence has been overlooked.

There are multiple ways in which a country’s political system might shape  union membership and influence, including enacting public policies, involving unions in peak-level corporatist initiatives, enabling direct relationships between trade unions and legislators, appointing labor-friendly ministers and other officials, establishing the employment relations parameters for public sector employees, shaping attitudes around political inclusion that affect workplace agency, and giving social legitimacy to collective voice. Empirically, we draw on the political science literature on comparative electoral systems and use a country’s level of disproportionality and its number of political parties to measure electoral system differences. Disproportionality measures deviations from the baseline of perfect proportionality in which each party’s vote share equals its share of legislative seats.

We use the 2009 and 2013 waves of the European Company Survey to conduct multivariate analyses of the relationship between trade unions and other representative bodies in the workplace and national-level electoral systems by adding these measures of comparative electoral systems to workplace-level data from 29 European countries. We also  use Round 5 of the European Social Survey (ESS) by adding these measures of comparative electoral systems to individual-level data from 26 European countries. We find consistent results that a lower level of disproportionality (that is, a greater level of legislative representativeness) is a statistically significant predictor of a greater likelihood of unions and other representative bodies being present and having influence in the workplace. Furthermore, we are able to pool all 8 rounds of the ESS and analyze individual union membership across more than 30 European countries, and we find that a lower level of disproportionality is a statistically significant predictor of a higher probability of individual union membership. All of these analyses control for organizational, demographic, and job characteristics to the extent allowed based on the information collected in each survey.

We believe that this significantly adds to the literature on union membership and employee representation, and has important implications for industrial relations not only in Europe but in other regions as well.