The Role of Unions

The role of unions varies from country to country and depends on many factors, such as the level

of per capita labor income, mobility between management and labor, homogeneity of labor

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(racial, religious, social class), and level of employment. These and other factors determine

whether the union will have the strength it needs to represent labor effectively. In countries with

relatively high unemployment, low pay levels, and no union funds for welfare, the union is

driven into alliance with other organizations: political party, church, or government. This is in

marked contrast to the United States, where the union selected by the majority of employees

bargains only with the employer, not with other institutions.

Even in the major industrial countries one finds national differences are great with respect

to (1) the level at which bargaining takes place (national, industry, or workplace), (2) the degree

of centralization of union-management relations, (3) the scope of bargaining, (4) the degree to

which government intervenes, and (5) the degree of unionization.

Labor relations in Europe differ from those in the United States in certain significant



1. In Europe, organizations typically negotiate the agreement with the union at the national

level through the employer association representing their particular industry, even when there

may be local within-company negotiations as well. This agreement establishes certain minimum

conditions of employment which frequently are augmented through negotiations with the union

at the company level.

2. Unions in many European countries have more political power than those in the United

States, with the result that when employers deal with the union they are, in effect, dealing

indirectly with the government. Unions are often allied with a particular political party, although

in some countries these alliances are more complex, with unions having predominant but not sole

representation with one party.

3. There is a greater tendency in Europe for salaried employees, including those at the

management level, to be unionized, quite often in a union of their own.


Like the United States, European countries are facing the reality of a developing global

economy. It has been increasingly evident in Europe that workers are less inclined to make

constant demands for higher wages. The trend has been to demand compensation in other ways–

through a proliferation of benefits, for example, or through greater participation in company

decision making. Various approaches to participation will be discussed later.



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