Which comes first: the political chicken or the organising egg?
An interesting new report from US think-tank CEPR, by John Schmitt and Alexandra Mitukiewicz, suggests that the main determinant of changes in union density and/or collective bargaining coverage in developed economies over the last generation or two is the political culture of the country concerned, with unions benefiting most in ‘social democratic’ countries (eg Scandinavian ones), stable in ‘christian democratic’ or social market economies (eg central Europe) and falling back, often from a low starting point, in liberal market economies like the US and the UK.
There are figures and graphs from twenty-odd advanced economies over the last fifty years, and an analysis of other possible reasons for trade union growth/decline such as technological progress and trade (although see below) which makes it a pretty convincing argument.
However, the report doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that it is stronger trade unionism that leads to or maintains social democratic politics, and that political culture is the result of trade unionism rather than the reverse (anecdotally, that seems to have been true in Sweden, for instance, but it certainly wouldn’t explain how Margaret Thatcher came to power when British unions were arguably at their strongest – certainly biggest).
And it also is no real guide to what we can do about trade union organisation, except to suggest that politics and trade unionism are more closely intertwined than some people suggest.
The report also includes an interesting finding that in developed economies, open-ness to trade or globalisation actually seems to boost trade unionism rather than otherwise, although here, it does recognise that causality might be the other way round, ie countries with strong trade unions have the sort of social safety nets that make globalisation possible/palatable.
P.S. Although I don’t think it’s clear where the evidence leads on the chicken and egg of politics and organising, we do know the answer to the original question. Anyone who doesn’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg, really hasn’t grasped how evolution works.