Theories & Models of Union Formation

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  • 0:05 Why Unions Are Formed
  • 0:53 Theories of Union Development
  • 2:04 Alienation Theory
  • 2:48 Scarcity Consciousness Theory
  • 3:41 The Wheeler Model
  • 4:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Beth Loy

Dr. Loy has a Ph.D. in Resource Economics; master's degrees in economics, human resources, and safety; and has taught masters and doctorate level courses in statistics, research methods, economics, and management.

In this lesson, we look at why unions are formed, the beliefs that members have about the union, and what motivates workers to unionize. Three theories are detailed: alienation theory, scarcity consciousness theory, and the Wheeler model.

Why Unions Are Formed

Jose and Cindy are laborers that do yard work for various clients in a neighborhood. They were new to the neighborhood and therefore needed Erik, a third party, to coordinate their projects. Some clients paid better than others, but Erik took 50% of the profit from the work for himself. When Jose and Cindy put their heads together they decided to form their version of a union and went on strike until Erik agreed to increase their percentage.

Jose and Cindy didn't know they were forming a union, but they did know they had a better chance to get what they wanted by joining forces. Unions are formed as a way for workers to join together to push for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. In order to understand why workers want to join unions, we will explore three major theories about why unions develop.

Theories of Union Development

The three prominent theories we will be looking at are the alienation theory, scarcity consciousness theory, and the Wheeler model.

The three theories demonstrate that people may be motivated to take an aggressive action, like forming or joining a union, because of insecurity and pay gaps. Each theory tells us that union instrumentality, the belief that union membership's benefits outweighs the costs, can increase union membership in tough economic times. Many workers looking to collectively mobilize share a job dissatisfaction component, as being unhappy with one's working situation is going to motivate a worker to take action. Social pressure, or the influence union members have over non-union members, can also add to a worker's union commitment.

Each theory tells us that when a worker feels unappreciated and insecure, that worker will drift towards others who have the same feelings. Were Jose and Cindy dissatisfied with their jobs? Did they feel their jobs might be in danger? Did they realize that what they were being paid was far from what they thought they should be paid? The following models of union development chronicle what may drive an employee toward union membership.

Alienation Theory

Alienation theory is based on an increased interest in union membership because of labor dissatisfaction. Workers who feel alienated from their work and their co-workers, while feeling a loss of pride in what they do, tend to navigate to groups that share their dissatisfaction.

Taye was frustrated with his job because he hadn't received a raise in three years. He didn't feel like his work was being appreciated by his employer. Taye then sought companionship from those who had similar feelings of alienation. Out of frustration, he decided to look into union membership and found that it was a good option to vent his grievances without his employer knowing. Once he joined the union, he realized that he was able to talk with others about their dissatisfaction without the threat of reprisal.

Scarcity Consciousness Theory

Scarcity consciousness theory states that when workers believe jobs are scarce, joining a union will help protect their jobs. Union instrumentality places a key role in this theory. Workers in industries that have large swings in employment versus unemployment, such as the auto, coal, and steel industries, are more prone to see the benefits of joining a union as outweighing the cost. It's not clear whether Jose and Cindy felt their jobs were in jeopardy, but certain industries do tend to experience layoffs and cutbacks on a regular basis.

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