Bernhard Ebbinghaus, Jelle Visser
When Institutions Matter: Union Growth and Decline in Western Europe, 1950-95

Arbeitsbereich I; 30
ISSN: 0948-0072

During the early post-war period, Western trade union movements grew in membership and achieved an institutionalized role in industrial relations and politics. However, during the last decades, many trade unions have seen their membership decline as they came increasingly under pressures due to the social, economic and political changes. This article reviews the main structural, cyclical and institu-tional factors explaining union growth and decline. Concentrating on Western Europe, the empirical analysis compares cross-national union density data for 13 countries over the first period (1950-75) and for 16 countries over the second, "crisis" period (1975-95). The quantitative correlation and re-gression analysis indicates that structural and cyclical factors fail explain the level and changes in unionization across Western Europe, while institutional variables fare better. In a second, qualitative comparative analysis, the authors stress the need to explain cross-national differences in the level or trend of unionization by a set of institutional arrangements: the access of unions to representation in the workplace, the availability of a selective incentive in the form of a union-administered unemploy-ment scheme, recognition of employers through nation-wide and sectoral corporatist institutions, and closed shop arrangements for forced membership. Such institutional configurations support member-ship recruitment and membership retention, and define the conditions for the strategic choice of trade unions in responding to structural social-economic, political and cultural changes.