For much of the 20th century, labor movements profoundly shaped the political economy of advanced capitalist societies. According to one scholarly tradition, two epochal developments of the last century—the advent of political democracy and the expansion of the welfare state—were their victories. Workers, organized into trade unions and affiliated political parties, won political and economic rights which benefited broad majorities and came at some cost to existing elites. Many scholars attribute today's ever more unequal income distributions and the narrowing bounds of political contention to the unraveling of these same labor movements. Without organizations to centralize and articulate the discontent of non-elites, welfare state expansion has stagnated, and political parties have drifted towards the center.
My dissertation examines some of the core claims of this narrative anew. I make two types of contributions to the existing literature. First, I propose numerous empirical improvements. Existing quantitative work on these topics analyzes the world after midcentury, which means that we have drawn conclusions about the rise of labour from studies that focus mostly on the period of its fall. Expanding the period under consideration offers important inferential gains. Drawing on a few different sources, I extend a wide array of political and economic data to the pre-1950 world. This includes data specific to my topic (union membership, strike activity and labor force composition), but extends beyond these subjects to variables that are commonly used as controls in the literature I address (trade flows, partisanship and electoral results, unemployment rates, migration flows, and age composition). As part of this research project, I expect to release all these datasets, accompanying codebooks, and the code used to generate the data from their original soruces.
Alongside this, my research makes two substantive contributions. First, it develops our understanding of the capacity of ordinary people to coordinate collective action. Existing research underemphasizes what I call the structural prerequisites of collective action. This is true at the macro level, where country-level studies of trade union membership and strike activity focus on institutional, political, and even cultural facts. It also applies at the industry-level, within countries. I introduce the concept of `disruptive capacity', which I employ in order to document and explain international and subnational regularities that have been widely observed without being propertly registered or understood. The last chapter of my dissertation argues these capacities shape the distribution of political power in society, and then furnishes evidence that they did. Taken together, the dissertation affirms that people make history, just never under conditions of their own choosing.
Chapter 1. Labor in the Long-Run
Chapter 1 examines the rise and fall of national labor movements in the advanced capitalist world, as measured by two conventional indicators of labor's strength: union membership (or density), and strike activity. I ask how much of this rise and fall can be attributed to the structural prerequisites of workers' collective action. Put another way, I examine how well shifts in employment in so-called `high-capacity' industries (mining, manufacturing, construction and transport) explain the rise and decline. Past work on this theme has focused on manufacturing alone, has mostly ignored patterns prior to midcentury, and often analyzes crossnational variation (rather than over-time variation) within this period. I make use of the considerable empirical improvements mentioned earlier to move the debate forward.
Chapter 2. Centrality, replacement costs, and coordination costs
Chapter 2 elaborates a corollary model of collective action which highlights three dimensions of a given position in the employment structure. I argue that workers are more likely to organize if they work in jobs that are economically pivotal, if they are harder to replace due to skill or geography, and if their workplaces are larger. All these factors have been noted in prior research, but no one has brought them together into a single account of industry- and year-level variation in the propensity of workers to collectively organize. I propose different ways to measure these three attributes, and show that they help explain relevant inter-industry and over-time variation in the United States.
Chapter 3. Democracy and the Class Struggle
Chapter 3 explores the political consequences of labor's rise and fall. A variety of scholars have argued that development incubates democracy, but there has long been disagreement over the mechanisms by which development matters. I argue that the dominant conflict-based models of democratization misunderstand why development helps key actors to win what they seek. Building on prior work, I argue that non-elites win democracy where they acquire the disruptive capacities which allow them to credibly challenge elites. I find strong evidence that these capacities drive democratic gains. In counterfactual exercises I show that almost 60% of the democracy gap between the developing and developed world can be explained by the fact that late development handicapped non-elites while prolonging the power of landlords.