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The role of unions in response to COVID-19


Image: Workers at a construction site

New research released by CEPAR on the role of trade unions in response to pandemics has shown an increase in unionisation level leads to better control of the spread of COVID-19.

Using US state-level data of labour unions and observed data of the spread of the virus in the United States, Dr Peyman Firouzi-Naeim (UNSW Sydney) and Golnoush Rahimzadeh (Andrew Young School of Policy Studies) built a probability model to help understand the role unions can play in shaping the response of the workforce in coping with COVID-19.

Comparing current union employees with non-union employees, the researchers analysed the direction and significance of the effect of unions on the spread of the virus.

The results reveal that unions can help slow down the spread of COVID-19.

“Unions play a role in shaping and regulating employer-employee relations,” said Dr Peyman Firouzi-Naeim, CEPAR Research Fellow at UNSW Sydney.

“Our analysis shows that a local increase in unionisation level leads to better control of the spread of COVID-19. This is despite the fact that union members have not decreased the hours they wish to work in response to the spread of the virus.

“We find that unionisation has positive benefits that are reflected in a slower spread of the virus. Unionised workers are more likely to have paid leave, and their paid leave benefits are significantly higher in dollar value. They are also more likely to have health insurance,” he said.

Dr Firouzi-Naeim says according to their study, a 10% increase in unionisation in the United States would lead to over 54,000 fewer cases of COVID-19 one hundred days after the onset of the virus.

The study also finds that when changes in union members’ hours of work are controlled, this effect is even more substantial.

“Our study reveals that while unions provide a safer workplace in terms of COVID-19, union employees, compared to non-union employees, increase the total hours they wish to work,” said Dr Firouzi-Naeim.

“In other words, union employees use their collective bargaining power to achieve a safer workplace and simultaneously keep working hours unchanged.

“As a result, understanding the role organisations such as unions play in efforts to prevent the spread of contagious viruses, helps to implement policies that will respond better to contagious diseases in the future,” he said.

According to the researchers the analysis suggests policies towards controlling the spread of contagious diseases might be more successful in the presence of unions.

Firouzi-Naeim, P.; Rahimzadeh, G. (2020): The Role of Labor Unions in Response to Pandemics: The case of COVID-19. CEPAR Working Paper 2020/18.