What is it about?

We uniquely theorize three channels through which a political system can shape unionization in the workplace independent of ideology: incentives for inclusionary governance, legislative body composition, and policy enactment. Empirically, we use multiple European data sets to test the relationship between political and employee representation using multivariate analyses across more than 25 countries. We find that increased political representativeness, measured by lower disproportionality and the presence of multiparty coalitions, is a statistically significant predictor of a greater likelihood of individual trade union membership, coverage, and influence, while competitive fragmentation, measured by greater numbers of political parties, is associated with weakened collective voice.

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Why is it important?

While there is more to be done, we believe that we have uncovered an overlooked area with important implications for comparative industrial relations and collective voice. The importance of cross-national institutional differences in the nature of trade unions and workplace voice, supportive legislative policies, and varieties of capitalism needs to be complemented by a deeper understanding of the role of varieties of political systems, including but not limited to differences in electoral systems and multiparty coalitions. This also opens up the space to consider the theoretical and empirical importance of political systems for other employment relations trends and outcomes.


Our research does not include the United States but we can speculate on the implications. Numerically, the two-party system suggests a lack of competitive fragmentation, but recent experience suggests a great deal of polarization in spite of only two major parties. So labor unions become a partisan combatant in vitriolic contests rather than a consensus builder. The lack of coalition governments further denies labor unions this avenue for enhancing its legitimacy. In terms of representativeness as captured by disproportionality, the picture is cloudy. The U.S. House of Representatives typically scores favorably (that is, high proportionality / low disproportionality). In 2018, for example, the Democratic candidates garnered 53.4 percent of overall votes and ended up with 54 percent of the seats. But over the previous three elections, Republican Senate candidates received 44 percent of the vote but Republicans control 53 percent of the seats, resulting in a high disproportionality score of 8. And for the presidency, the electoral college can lead to even greater discrepancies. Unfortunately, this complicated U.S. electoral system doesn’t fit well with the European systems we analyzed in our research. But the above-average levels of disproportionality in the Senate and electoral college are consistent with the U.S. political system not being one of compromise and inclusion that our research suggests indirectly benefit the legitimacy of labor unions.

Professor John W Budd
University of Minnesota System

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: The Importance of Political Systems for Trade Union Membership, Coverage and Influence: Theory and Comparative Evidence, British Journal of Industrial Relations, October 2020, Wiley,
DOI: 10.1111/bjir.12575.
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