Gary Becker (link) and Richard Posner (link) opened a discussion on how unions influence policymaking decision. Recently, president Obama imposed punitive 35 percent tariff rate on imported Chinese tire (link) risking the coming trade war. Indeed, China may file a case against the U.S at the WTO, and the WTO may rule against the U.S for imposing illegal and discriminatory trade practices.
Many believe that president Obama enforced trade protection to win the support of the unions in health care reform. In fact, the bailout of GM and Chrysler was one of the major efforts to help unions, particularly the United Auto Workers, in paying the health-care and pension benefits that GM and Chrysler couldn't actually afford to pay.
Recently, the Congress has been split up on Employee Free Choice Act which suggests giving mandate to unions representing employee in arbitrating union-management contracts. I believe the Congresional Budget Office will yield a meaningful research on the economic effects of the act.
The empirical evidence on union activity is, in fact, quite clear. In OECD comparison panel (link), there is a strong, negative and significant relationship between the density of union membership and labor market rigidity. Sweden, for example, hasn't enforced a general level of minimum wages. Yet in 2007, over 7o percent of the working population was unionized. High union density further contributed to inflexible labor market structure which led to low employment growth, low productivity growth and exerted a strong upward pressure on real labor cost.
Yet, there is a distinctive character of trade unions within Europe. Traditionally, unions in Europe possessed a stronger influence on political decision in areas such as taxation, income redistribution and government size. However, there are significant disparities in union activity throughout Europe. In 1990s, Denmark enforced a series of reforms that deregulated labor market structure towards greater flexibility. Today, Denmark's labor market is cited as the most competitive in the world (link). From 1990 to 2007, union density decreased from 75.3 percent to 69.1 percent. On the other side, labor market structures in Continental and Mediterranean Europe are known for inflexible features, regulation and rigidity. Meanwhile, Anglo-Saxon countries, Britain and Ireland, are known for flexible labor markets and few barriers impeding labor market performance. Dismissing and employee costs 10 weekly salaries in Ireland compared to 56 weekly salaries in Spain.
Although variation in trade union density over time explains a relatively large part of variation in productivity, union activity and influence in political decision-making could be the decisive factor in explaining cross-country variation in labor market outcome. That would requiring the design of principal indicator that could measure union influence on the quantitive basis. The influence of trade unions has, in my opinion, a strong common connection to cultural patterns and informal institutions.
For instance, countries with weak rule of law, persistent corruption, high tax burden and barriers to trade and investment, tend to have larger underground economies. Empirical estimates on the size of underground economies suggest that, in Europe (link), Mediterranean countries (Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal) have the largest share of shadow economies. There is a significant cross-country variation. The estimates of shadow economies for 28 transition countries is 40.1 percent and 16.3 percent for the OECD. So, could union activity affect the size of shadow economies
If unions, as an interest group, exert a strong influence in politics, their political philosophy will probably lean left. Thus, if unions influence decisions on taxation issues, welfare benefits, pension schemes and government size, the outcome will probably induce more complexity, more regulation and more barriers to trade, entrepreneurship and investment. The combination of those factors can strongly influence labor and business incentives and, hence, also determine and productivity growth.