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International comparisons of trade unions

Unions have been compared across countries by growth and decline patterns, by violence levels, and by kinds of political activity.

Union density

The following is a comparison of union density among OECD countries. Note that this is normally lower than the rate of collective bargaining coverage (for example, France reported a union density of 9% in 2014, while collective bargaining covered 98.5% of workers in the same year).[1]

Trade union density in OECD countries[2]
Country Union density (%) Year
 Australia 13.7 2018
 Austria 26.3 2018
 Belgium 50.3 2018
 Canada 25.9 2018
 Chile 17.7 2016
 Czech Republic 11.5 2018
 Denmark 66.5 2018
 Estonia 4.3 2018
 Finland 60.3 2018
 France 8.8 2018
 Germany 16.5 2018
 Greece 20.2 2016
 Hungary 7.9 2018
 Iceland 91.8 2018
 Ireland 24.1 2018
 Israel 25.0 2017
 Italy 34.4 2018
 Japan 17.0 2018
 South Korea 11.6 2018
 Latvia 11.6 2018
 Lithuania 7.1 2018
 Luxembourg 31.8 2018
 Mexico 12.0 2018
 Netherlands 16.4 2018
 New Zealand 18.8 2018
 Norway 49.2 2018
 Poland 12.7 2016
 Portugal 15.3 2016
 Slovak Republic 10.7 2016
 Slovenia 20.4 2016
 Spain 13.6 2018
 Sweden 68.0 2018
  Switzerland 14.9 2017
 Turkey 9.2 2018
 United Kingdom 23.4 2018
 United States 10.1 2018

Union growth and decline

In the mid-1950s, 36% of the United States labor force was unionized. At America's union peak in the 1950s, union membership was lower in the United States than in most comparable countries. By 1989, that figure had dropped to about 16%, the lowest percentage of any developed democracy, except France. Union membership for other developed democracies, in 1986/87 were:[3]

In 1987, United States unionization was 37 points below the average of seventeen countries surveyed, down from 17 points below average in 1970.[3] Between 1970 and 1987, union membership declined in only three other countries: Austria, by 3%, Japan, by 7%, and the Netherlands, by 4%. In the United States, union membership had declined by 14%.[4]

In 2008, 12.4% of U.S. wage and salary workers were union members. 36.8% of public sector workers were union members, but only 7.6% of workers in private sector industries were.[5] The most unionized sectors of the economy have had the greatest decline in union membership. From 1953 to the late 1980s membership in construction fell from 84% to 22%, manufacturing from 42% to 25%, mining from 65% to 15%, and transportation from 80% to 37%.[6][7]

From 1971 to the late 1980s, there was a 10% drop in union membership in the U.S. public sector and a 42% drop in union membership in the U.S. private sector.[8] For comparison, there was no drop in union membership in the private sector in Sweden. In other countries drops included: [9]

  • 2% in Canada,
  • 3% in Norway,
  • 6% in West Germany,
  • 7% in Switzerland,
  • 9% in Austria,
  • 14% in the United Kingdom,
  • 15% in Italy.





A CGT banner during a 2005 demonstration in Paris

The General Confederation of Labour (CGT) is a national trade union center, the first of the five major French confederations of trade unions. Until the 1990s it was closely linked to the French Communist Party (PCF).[10]

It is the largest in terms of votes (32.1% at the 2002 professional election, 34.0% in the 2008 election), and second largest in terms of membership numbers.

Its membership decreased to 650,000 members in 1995–96 (it had more than doubled when Socialist François Mitterrand was elected President in 1981), before increasing today to between 700,000 and 720,000 members, slightly fewer than the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT).[11]

According to the historian M. Dreyfus, the direction of the CGT is slowly evolving, since the 1990s, during which it cut all organic links with the Communist Party, in favour of a more moderate stance. The CGT is concentrating its attention, in particular since the 1995 general strikes, to trade-unionism in the private sector.[12]


The French Democratic Confederation of Labour, CFDT is one of the five major confederations. It is the largest French trade union confederation by number of members (875,000) but comes only second after the Confédération générale du travail (CGT) in voting results for representative bodies.

The CFDT was created in 1964 when a majority of the members of the Christian trade union Confédération Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens (CFTC) decided to become secular. The minority kept the name CFTC.



Labour unions emerged in Japan in the second half of the Meiji period, after 1890, as the country underwent a period of rapid industrialization.[13] Until 1945, however, the labour movement remained weak, impeded by lack of legal rights,[14] anti-union legislation,[13] management-organized factory councils, and political divisions between “cooperative” and radical unionists.[15] In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the US Occupation authorities initially encouraged the formation of independent unions.[14] Legislation was passed that enshrined the right to organize, and membership rapidly rose to 5 million by February 1947. The organization rate peaked at 55.8% of all workers in 1949[16] and subsequently declined to 18.5% as of 2010.[17]

The labour movement went through a process of reorganization from 1987 to 1991[18] from which emerged the present configuration of three major labour union federations, along with other smaller national union organizations.

North America

US and Canada

The unionization rate in the U.S. and Canada followed fairly similar paths from 1920 to the mid-1960s; both peaked at about 30%. However the U.S. rate declined steadily after 1974 to 12% in 2011. Meanwhile, the Canadian rate dropped from 37% the mid-1980s to 30% in 2010. Part of the reason is the different mixture of industry, and part is due to more favourable Canadian laws.[19] In the United States, the national trade union center is the AFL-CIO, representing about 12.4 million workers,[20] while the Canadian Labour Congress represents over 3 million Canadian workers.[21] In Canada, the CLC is both historically and constitutionally affiliated with the New Democratic Party,[22] while the AFL-CIO has no formal political affiliation.

In 1937 there were 4,740 strikes in the United States.[23] This was the greatest strike wave in American labor history. The number of major strikes and lockouts in the U.S. fell by 97% from 381 in 1970 to 187 in 1980 to only 11 in 2010. Companies countered the threat of a strike by threatening to close or move a plant.[24][25]

Costa Rica

Costa Rican agricultural unions demonstration, January 2011

Labor unions first developed in Costa Rica in the late 1880s.[26] The first unions were organized with the help of the Catholic Church.[27] By 1913, the first International Workers Day was celebrated and unions, supported in particular by the Popular Vanguard Party,[27] pushed for Alfredo González Flores' tax reforms. Unions grew in number and coverage. A major historical event for Costa Rican labor was the 1934 United Fruit Company, a national strike involving more than 30 unions which ended with many labor leaders imprisoned.[27] Head of state Teodoro Picado Michalski violently repressed union leaders, leading to the tensions that created the 1948 Costa Rican Civil War.[27] Labor unions continued to grow, supported by the Catholic church, and the first collective bargaining agreement was reached in 1967. Óscar Arias fought fiercely to dissolve and reduce the power of private sector unions in the 1980s.[28] Arias' austerity measures led to a period of increased labor activity as poverty and unemployment increased.[29] Despite the resurgence, unions, particularly in the private sector, still faced opposition and repression.[30] During the 2007 Central American Free Trade Agreement referendum, labor unions unsuccessfully organized to encourage its rejection. [31] They received a boost in political influence when Luis Guillermo Solís and his Citizens' Action Party earned the Presidency and several seats in the Legislative Assembly.[32]

Labor unions are active in both the public and private sectors. Major concerns include salaries increased to reflect inflation, regulation of public commodities, and a stronger Caja Costarricense del Seguro Social (Costa Rican Social Security Department). Many labor unions are also asking for increased environmental regulation,[32] and increased oversight of cooperative banks.[33] One important issue for Costa Rica unions is passage a new labor law.[34] Former president Laura Chinchilla vetoed it, but Solís appears to want the issue passed, as do many members of the Legislative Assembly.[33]


Economists have explored the linkage between unionization and levels of overall GDP growth and unemployment, especially in light of the high unemployment in Europe since the 1980s and the stagnation in growth rates. On both the theoretical and the empirical sides, experts have not reached any consensus.[35]

Violence in labor disputes

Between 1877 and 1968, 700 people have been killed in American labor disputes.[36] In the 1890s, roughly two American workers were killed and 140 injured for every 100,000 strikers. In France, three French workers were injured for every 100,000 strikers. In the 1890s, only 70 French strikers were arrested per 100,000. For the United States, national arrest rates are simply impossible to compile. In Illinois, the arrest rate for the latter half of the 1890s decade was at least 700 per 100,000 strikers, or ten times that of France; in New York for that decade it was at least 400.

Between 1902 and 1904 in America , at least 198 people were killed, 1,966 workers were injured. One worker was killed and 1,009 were injured for every 100,000 strikers.[37][38] Between 1877 and 1968, American state and federal troops intervened in labor disputes more than 160 times, almost invariably on behalf of employers.[9] Business was disrupted, usually by strikes, on 22,793 occasions between 1875 and 1900.

Other examples of the violence both by and against U.S. union members in the late 19th and early 20th centuries include the Centralia Massacre, the Great Railroad Strike of 1922, and the Copper Country Strike of 1913-1914

See also


  1. ^ "Collective bargaining coverage". OECD. 22 Feb 2021. Retrieved 22 Feb 2021.
  2. ^ "Trade Union". OECD. 22 Feb 2021. Retrieved 22 Feb 2021.
  3. ^ a b Blanchflower, David; Freeman, Richard B. (1992). "Unionism in the United States and Other Advanced OECD Countries". Industrial Relations. 31 (1): 56–79. doi:10.1111/j.1468-232X.1992.tb00298.x.
  4. ^ Sexton, Patricia Cayo (1992). The War on Labor and the Left: Understanding America's Unique Conservatism. Westview Press. ISBN 978-0-8133-1063-3.
  5. ^ Bureau of Labor Statistics (January 28, 2009). "Union members in 2008". Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor.
    Greenhouse, Steven (January 28, 2009). "Union membership up sharply in 2008, report says". The New York Times. p. A18.
    Whoriskey, Peter (January 29, 2009). "American union ranks grow after 'bottoming out'; first significant increase in 25 years". The Washington Post. p. A8.
  6. ^ Troy, Leo S.M. Lipset Editor (1986). "The Rise and Fall of American Trade Unions: The Labor Movement from FDR to RR". Unions in Transition: Entering the Second Century, Institute of Contemporary Studies: 87. ((cite journal)): |author= has generic name (help)
  7. ^ Troy, Leo (May 1987). "New Data on Workers Belonging to Unions, 1986". Monthly Labor Review: 36.
  8. ^ Troy, Leo (Spring 1990). "Is the U.S. Unique in the Decline of Private Sector Unionism". Journal of Labor Research. 11 (2): 111–143. doi:10.1007/bf02685383. S2CID 153342413.
  9. ^ a b Sexton, Taft, Philip and Philip Ross, "American Labor Violence: Its Causes, Character, and Outcome", in Hugh D. Graham and Ted R. Gurr, editors, The History of Violence in America: Historical and Comparative Perspectives; Frederick A. Praeger publisher, 1969, ASIN: B00005W22X
  10. ^ Ross, George (1982). Workers and Communists in France: From Popular Front to Eurocommunism. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-04075-5.
  11. ^ Numbers given by Michel Dreyfus, author of Histoire de la C.G.T., Ed. Complexes, 1999, interviewed in Pascal Riché, En prônant la négociation, la CGT "peut faire bouger le syndicalisme", Rue 89, 21 November 2007 (in French)
  12. ^ Michel Dreyfus, Histoire de la C.G.T., Ed. Complexes, 1999,
  13. ^ a b Nimura, K. The Formation of Japanese Labor Movement: 1868-1914 Archived 2011-10-01 at the Wayback Machine (Translated by Terry Boardman). Retrieved 11 June 2011
  14. ^ a b Cross Currents. Labor unions in Japan. CULCON. Retrieved 11 June 2011
  15. ^ C. Weathers, "Business and Labor," in William M. Tsutsui, ed., A Companion to Japanese History (2009) pp. 493-510.
  16. ^ Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training website Labor Situation in Japan and Analysis: 2009/2010 Archived 2011-09-27 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved 10 June 2011
  17. ^ Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training website Trends in number of labor unions, members, and participation rate[permanent dead link] Retrieved on June 12, 2012
  18. ^ Dolan, R. E. & Worden, R. L. (Eds.). Japan: A Country Study. Labor Unions, Employment and Labor Relations. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1994. Retrieved 12 June 2011
  19. ^ Kris Warner, "The Real Reason for the Decline of American Unions," Bloomberg Jan 23, 2013
  20. ^ US Department of Labor, Office of Labor-Management Standards. File number 000-106. Report submitted September 28, 2022.
  21. ^ "ESDC Labour Program binder – 2021: Key labour centrals". 2021.
  22. ^ "Constitution of the New Democratic Party of Canada" (PDF). April 2021.
  23. ^ "Abbreviated Timeline of the Modern Labor Movement Archived 2012-10-29 at the Wayback Machine", University of Wisconsin-La Crosse
  24. ^ U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012 (2011) p 428 table 663
  25. ^ Aaron Brenner; et al. (2011). The Encyclopedia of Strikes in American History. M.E. Sharpe. pp. 234–35. ISBN 9780765626455.
  26. ^ "Historia del Sindicalismo". SITRAPEQUIA website (in Spanish). San José: Sindicato de Trabajadores(as) Petroléros Químicos y Afines. 2014. Archived from the original on 5 May 2014. Retrieved 4 May 2014.
  27. ^ a b c d Rojas Bolaños, Manuel (November 1978). "El desarrollo del movimiento obrero en Costa Rica: un intento de periodización" [The development of the workers' movement in Costa Rica: an attempt to create periods] (PDF). Revista de Ciencias Sociales (in Spanish). 15–16: 13–31. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-05-05.
  28. ^ Blanco Vado, Mario A.; Trejos París, María Eugenia (May 1997). "EL SINDICALISMO EN EL SECTOR PRIVADO COSTARRICENSE" (Compilation of articles). Revista Jurídica Electrónica (in Spanish). Retrieved 4 June 2014.
  29. ^ Hidalgo, Juan Carlos (31 January 2014). "Costa Rica's Wrong Turn". The New York Times. New York. Retrieved 5 May 2014.
  30. ^ Valverde, Jaime (November 1998). ¿LIBERTAD SINDICAL EN COSTA RICA? (Report) (in Spanish). San José: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.
  31. ^ Haglund, LeDawn (July 2006). "Hard Pressed to Invest: The Political Economy of Public Sector Reform" (PDF). Revista Centraamericana de Ciencias Sociales. 1, III. Retrieved 5 May 2014.
  32. ^ a b Kane, Corey (1 May 2014). "Labor voices optimism over new administration, takes parting shots at Costa Rica's Chinchilla". The Tico Times. San Jose. Retrieved 4 May 2014.
  33. ^ a b Oveido, Estaban (6 May 2014). "Luis Guillermo Solís avala plazo de un año para resolver veto a reforma laboral". La Nacion (in Spanish). San Jose. Retrieved 6 May 2014.
  34. ^ Sequeira, Aarón (2 May 2014). "Presidente del Congreso se reúne con sindicatos y promete cambios al Código de Trabajo". La Nacion (in Spanish). San Jose. Retrieved 5 May 2014.
  35. ^ Stephane Adjemian, "How Do Labor Market Institutions Affect the Link between Growth and Unemployment: The Case of the European Countries," The European Journal of Comparative Economics (2010) 7#2 online
  36. ^ Gitelman, H.M. (Spring 1973). "Perspectives on American Industrial Violence". The Business History Review. 47 (1): 1–23. doi:10.2307/3113601. JSTOR 3113601. S2CID 154599811.
  37. ^ Forbath, William E. (April 1989). "Law and the Shaping of the American Labor Movement". Harvard Law Review. 102 (6): 1109–1256. doi:10.2307/1341293. JSTOR 1341293.
  38. ^ An introduction to the study of organized labor in America. Macmillan. 1916. ASIN: B0008B9BBK.

Further reading

  • Bach, Stephen, et al., eds. Public service employment relations in Europe: transformation, modernization or inertia? (Routledge, 2005)
  • Blanke, Thomas. "Collective Bargaining Wages in Comparative Perspective: Germany, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom," Bulletin of Comparative Labor Relations (July 28, 2005)
  • Blanchflower, David; Freeman, Richard B. (1992). "Unionism in the United States and Other Advanced OECD Countries". Industrial Relations. 31 (1): 56–79. doi:10.1111/j.1468-232X.1992.tb00298.x.
  • Campbell; Joan, ed. European Labor Unions (1992); covers 31 countries online
  • Cheung, Anthony, and Ian Scott, eds. Governance and Public Sector Reform in Asia: Paradigm Shift or Business as Usual? (Routledge, 2012)
  • Galenson, Walter, ed. Comparative Labor Movements (1968)
  • ICTUR; et al., eds. (2005). Trade Unions of the World (6th ed.). London: John Harper Publishing. ISBN 978-0-9543811-5-8.
  • Lamo, Ana, Javier J. Pérez, and Ludger Schuknecht. "Public or Private Sector Wage Leadership? An International Perspective," Scandinavian Journal of Economics 114.1 (2012): 228-244. online
  • Lucifora, Claudio, and Dominique Meurs. "The public sector pay gap in France, Great Britain and Italy." Review of Income and Wealth 52.1 (2006): 43-59.
  • Martin, Andrew, et al. The Brave New World of European Labor: European Trade Unions at the Millennium (1999) online
  • Montgomery, David. "Strikes in Nineteenth-Century America," Social Science History (1980) 4#1 pp. 81–104 in JSTOR, some comparative data
  • Murillo, Maria Victoria. Labor Unions, Partisan Coalitions and Market Reforms in Latin America (2001) online
  • Silvia, Stephen J. Holding the Shop Together: German Industrial Relations in the Postwar Era. Cornell University Press (2013) [1]
  • Sturmthal, Adolf. Comparative labor movements: ideological roots and institutional development (1972)
  • Wrigley, Chris, ed. British Trade Unions, 1945-1995 (Manchester University Press, 1997)
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International comparisons of trade unions
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