Expert Commentary

Labor unions and life satisfaction: Evidence from new data

2010 study from Notre Dame and Texas A&M University in Social Indicators Research on labor unions and levels of happiness in 14 countries.


In December 2012, lawmakers passed “right to work” legislation in Michigan — the locus of auto manufacturing in the United States and the state with the highest number of union members. The law will impact any company that has an arrangement with workers, whether union members or not, to pay union dues as a condition of employment by eliminating that obligatory fee.  Supporters of “right to work” legislation, currently active in 24 states throughout the country, claim that it makes United States manufacturing more profitable and productive; detractors cite a further decline in union bargaining power, and, by association, wages, benefits and working conditions for all workers.

To what extent does the union movement impact society at broader levels?

A 2010 study from Notre Dame University and Texas A&M University published in Social Indicators Research, “Labor Unions and Life Satisfaction: Evidence from New Data,” examined the impact of labor unions on life satisfaction in 14 countries. The researchers analyzed self-reports of happiness from more than 14,000 respondents of the 2005 World Values Survey and country-level reports of union density as reported by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development from the same year. Included in the analysis were Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States.

Key study findings include:

  • Life satisfaction was directly related to a country’s level of union density and union membership, regardless of a country’s economic health or its spending on social welfare.
  • Union members’ reports were [marginally] higher on the life satisfaction scale than non-members. These same results held when other factors such as income, marital status and level of education were accounted for.
  • Union membership boosted life satisfaction more for workers earning below-average incomes, but less for those earning higher incomes. “It is the most vulnerable members of society who are most positively affected by membership and the influence of organized labor in the industrial world.”
  • Respondents living in countries with higher levels of union density report being more satisfied with their lives; this finding held true for both union members and non-members.
  • A country’s union density was positively related to self-reports of life satisfaction; relocating to a country with a lower union density resulted in a decline in life satisfaction levels.

The researchers conclude that “whatever other consequences may be attributed to labor unions regarding economic and social areas, they do appear to contribute to the degree to which people find their lives satisfying.” The study also touches on whether or not the continuing decline of labor’s significance in the United States will adversely impact lower-income workers.

Balancing the economic and social factors that typically encourage a sense of well-being is not an easy feat. A recent World Bank study noted that happiness requires more than a rising income, which is often not sufficient to counteract the impacts of individual expectations and life events. For instance, China’s transition to a capitalist economy in the early 1990s has not translated into higher levels of personal well-being but has facilitated rising income inequality. A survey of more than 50 countries showed that progressive taxation raises well-being through reliable and affordable government services — and jobs — ranging from healthcare to public transportation.

Tags: economy, labor unions

About The Author