I’ve got two nice papers for you today, both exploring a really vexing question: why is it that union-heavy regions of the US have fared so disastrously over the past few decades? In principle, it shouldn’t matter: absent any frictions, a rational union and a profit-maximizing employer ought both desire to take whatever actions generate the most total surplus for the firm, with union power simply affecting how those rents are shared between management, labor and owners. Nonetheless, we notice empirically a couple of particularly odd facts. First, especially in the US, union-dominated firms tend to limit adoption of new, productivity-enhancing technology; the late adoption of the radial tire among U.S. firms is a nice example. Second, unions often negotiate not only about wages but about “work rules”, insisting upon conditions like inflexible employee roles. A great example here is a California longshoremen contract which insisted upon a crew whose sole job was to stand and watch while another crew did the job. Note that preference for leisure can’t explain this, since surely taking that leisure at home rather than standing around the worksite would be preferable for the employees!
What, then, might drive unions to push so hard for seemingly “irrational” contract terms, and how might union bargaining power under various informational frictions or limited commitment affect the dynamic productivity of firms? “Competition, Work Rules and Productivity” by the BEA’s Benjamin Bridgman discusses the first issue, and a new NBER working paper, “Competitive Pressure and the Decline of the Rust Belt: A Macroeconomic Analysis” by Alder, Lagakos and Ohanian covers the second; let’s examine these in turn.
First, work rules. Let a union care first about keeping all members employed, and about keeping wage as high as possible given full employment. Assume that the union cannot negotiate the price at which products are sold. Abstractly, work rules are most like a fixed cost that is a complete waste: no matter how much we produce, we have to incur some bureaucratic cost of guys standing around and the like. Firms will set marginal revenue equal to marginal cost when deciding how much to produce, and at what price that production should be sold. Why would the union like these wasteful costs?
Let firm output given n workers just be n-F, where n is the number of employees, and F is how many of them are essentially doing nothing because of work rules. The firm chooses price p and the number of employees n given demand D(p) and wage w to maximize p*D(p)-w*n, subject to total production being feasible D(p)=n-F. Note that, as long as total firm profits under optimal pricing exceed F, the firm stays in business and its pricing decision, letting marginal revenue equal marginal cost, is unaffected by F. That is, the optimal production quantity does not depend on F. However, the total amount of employment does depend on F, since to produce quantity D(p) you need to employ n-F workers. Hence there is a tradeoff if the union only negotiates wages: to employ more people, you need a lower wage, but using wasteful work rules, employment can be kept high even when wages are raised. Note also that F is limited by the total rents earned by the firm, since if work rules are particularly onerous, firms that are barely breaking even without work rules will simply shut down. Hence in more competitive industries (formally, when demand is less elastic), work rules are less likely to imposed by unions. Bridgman also notes that if firms can choose technology (output is An-F, where A is the level of technology), then unions will resist new technology unless they can impose more onerous work rules, since more productive technology lowers the number of employees needed to produce a given amount of output.
This is a nice result. Note that the work rule requirements have nothing to do with employees not wanting to work hard, since work rules in the above model are a pure waste and generate no additional leisure time for workers. Of course, this result really hinges on limiting what unions can bargain over: if they can select the level of output, or can impose the level of employment directly, or can permit lump-sum transfers from management to labor, then unionized firms will produce at the same productivity at non-unionized firms. Information frictions, among other worries, might be a reason why we don’t see these types of contracts at some unionized firms. With this caveat in mind, let’s turn to the experience of the Rust Belt.
The U.S. Rust Belt, roughly made up of states surrounding the Great Lakes, saw a precipitous decline from the 1950s to today. Alder et al present the following stylized facts: the share of manufacturing employment in the U.S. located in the Rust Belt fell from the 1950s to the mid-1980s, there was a large wage gap between Rust Belt and other U.S. manufacturing workers during this period, Rust Belt firms were less likely to adopt new innovations, and labor productivity growth in Rust Belt states was lower than the U.S. average. After the mid-1980s, Rust Belt manufacturing firms begin to look a lot more like manufacturing firms in the rest of the U.S.: the wage gap is essentially gone, the employment share stabilizes, strikes become much less common, and productivity growth is similar. What happened?
In a nice little model, the authors point out that output competition (do I have lots of market power?) and labor market bargaining power (are my workers powerful enough to extract a lot of my rents?) interact in an interesting way when firms invest in productivity-increasing technology and when unions cannot commit to avoid a hold-up problem by striking for a better deal after the technology investment cost is sunk. Without commitment, stronger unions will optimally bargain away some of the additional rents created by adopting an innovation, hence unions function as a type of tax on innovation. With sustained market power, firms have an ambiguous incentive to adopt new technology – on the one hand, they already have a lot of market power and hence better technology will not accrue too many more sales, but on the other hand, having market power in the future makes investments today more valuable. Calibrating the model with reasonable parameters for market power, union strength, and various elasticities, the authors find that roughly 2/3 of the decline in the Rust Belt’s manufacturing share can be explained by strong unions and little output market competition decreasing the incentive to invest in upgrading technology. After the 1980s, declining union power and more foreign competition limited both disincentives and the Rust Belt saw little further decline.
Note again that unions and firms rationally took actions that lowered the total surplus generated in their industry, and that if the union could have committed not to hold up the firm after an innovation was adopted, optimal technology adoption would have been restored. Alder et al cite some interesting quotes from union heads suggesting that the confrontational nature of U.S. management-union relations led to a belief that management figures out profits, and unions figure out to secure part of that profit for their members. Both papers discussed here show that this type of division, by limiting the nature of bargains which can be struck, can have calamitous effects for both workers and firms.
Bridgman’s latest working paper version is here (RePEc IDEAS page); the latest version of Adler, Lagakos and Ohanian is here (RePEc IDEAS). David Lagakos in particular has a very nice set of recent papers about why services and agriculture tend to have such low productivity, particularly in the developing world; despite his macro background, I think he might be a closet microeconomist!