Campus & Community

Competition from China Contributed to Decline in Union Organizing

Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that the popularity of the labor movement is the highest it has been in decades—but union membership has fallen by half since the 1980s. If Americans recognize the benefits of unionization, why don’t more of them join unions?

In a new working paper, Dean Kerwin K. Charles and his co-authors propose a partial explanation. They note that the rate of union organizing in the United States has fallen sharply over the last four decades, with the decline accelerating around the year 2000. Meanwhile, Chinese imports rose in the 1990s and then accelerated in 2000 after China joined the World Trade Organization—what economists call the “China shock.” Did economic pressure from China contribute to the decline in union organization?

Charles and his co-authors, Matthew S. Johnson of Duke University and Nagisa Tadjfar of MIT, conclude that it did. Between 1990 and 2007, they estimate, the China shock decreased union elections by 4.5% among workers in the manufacturing industries directly exposed to competition from Chinese imports. But the effect went beyond those industries. Among workers indirectly affected by imports in their local labor markets, there was an even larger impact, with 8.8% fewer elections.

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