Labor Market Power of Employees
What is the Labor Market Power of Employees?
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What is the Labor Market Power of Employees?
A labor union is an organization of workers that negotiates with employers over wages and working conditions. A labor union seeks to change the balance of power between employers and workers by requiring employers to deal with workers collectively, rather than as individuals. As such, a labor union operates like a monopoly in a labor market. We sometimes call negotiations between unions and firms collective bargaining.
The subject of labor unions can be controversial. Supporters of labor unions view them as the workers’ primary line of defense against efforts by profit-seeking firms to hold down wages and benefits.
Critics of labor unions view them as having a tendency to grab as much as they can in the short term, even if it means injuring workers in the long run by driving firms into bankruptcy or by blocking the new technologies and production methods that lead to economic growth. We will start with some facts about union membership in the United States.
In terms of pay, benefits, and hiring, U.S. unions offer a good news/bad news story. The good news for unions and their members is that their members earn about 20% more than nonunion workers, even after adjusting for factors such as years of work experience and education level.
The following section analyzes the higher pay union workers receive compared the pay rates for nonunion workers. The section after that analyzes declining union membership levels. An overview of these two issues will allow us to discuss many aspects of how unions work.
Higher Wages for Union Workers
How does a union affect wages and employment? Because a union is the sole supplier of labor, it can act like a monopoly and ask for whatever wage rate it can obtain for its workers. If employers need workers, they have to meet the union’s wage demand.
What are the limits on how much higher pay union workers can receive? To analyze these questions, let’s consider a situation where all firms in an industry must negotiate with a single union, and no firm is allowed to hire nonunion labor. If no labor union existed in this market, then equilibrium (E) in the labor market would occur at the intersection of the demand for labor (D) and the supply of labor (S).
The union can, however, threaten that, unless firms agree to the wages they demand, the workers will strike. As a result, the labor union manages to achieve, through negotiations with the firms, a union wage of Wu for its members, above what the equilibrium wage would otherwise have been.
Without a union, the equilibrium at E would have involved the wage We and the quantity of labor Qe. However, the union is able to use its bargaining power to raise the wage to Wu. The result is an excess supply of labor for union jobs. That is, a quantity of labor supplied, Qs is greater than firms’ quantity demanded for labor, Qd.
This labor market situation resembles what a monopoly firm does in selling a product, but in this case a union is a monopoly selling labor to firms. At the higher union wage Wu, the firms in this industry will hire less labor than they would have hired in equilibrium. Moreover, an excess supply of workers want union jobs, but firms will not be hiring for such jobs.
From the union point of view, workers who receive higher wages are better off. However, notice that the quantity of workers (Qd) hired at the union wage Wu is smaller than the quantity Qe that the firm would have hired at the original equilibrium wage. A sensible union must recognize that when it pushes up the wage, it also reduces the firms’ incentive to hire. This situation does not necessarily mean that union workers are fired. Instead, it may be that when union workers move on to other jobs or retire, they are not always replaced, or perhaps when a firm expands production, it expands employment somewhat less with a higher union wage than it would have done with the lower equilibrium wage. Other situations could be that a firm decides to purchase inputs from nonunion producers, rather than producing them with its own highly paid unionized workers, or perhaps the firm moves or opens a new facility in a state or country where unions are less powerful.
From the firm’s point of view, the key question is whether union workers’ higher wages are matched by higher productivity. If so, then the firm can afford to pay the higher union wages and, the demand curve for “unionized” labor could actually shift to the right. This could reduce the job losses as the equilibrium employment level shifts to the right and the difference between the equilibrium and the union wages will have been reduced. If worker unionization does not increase productivity, then the higher union wage will cause lower profits or losses for the firm.
Union workers might have higher productivity than nonunion workers for a number of reasons. First, higher wages may elicit higher productivity. Second, union workers tend to stay longer at a given job, a trend that reduces the employer’s costs for training and hiring and results in workers with more years of experience. Many unions also offer job training and apprenticeship programs.
In addition, firms that are confronted with union demands for higher wages may choose production methods that involve more physical capital and less labor, resulting in increased labor productivity.
In some cases, unions have discouraged the use of labor-saving physical capital equipment—out of the reasonable fear that new machinery will reduce the number of union jobs.
In fact, in some cases union workers may be more willing to accept new technology than nonunion workers, because the union workers believe that the union will negotiate to protect their jobs and wages, whereas nonunion workers may be more concerned that the new technology will replace their jobs. In addition, union workers, who typically have higher job market experience and training, are likely to suffer less and benefit more than non-union workers from the introduction of new technology. Overall, it is hard to make a definitive case that union workers as a group are always either more or less welcoming to new technology than are nonunion workers