In terms of life satisfaction, countries with the most union density consistently rank at the top. The Better Life Index, for instance, which rates the life satisfaction and happiness levels of people in the 36 countries of the OECD, has found that three of the top five countries are in the European Union. These three countries in order of appearance are: Norway at number 2, Sweden at number 4 and Denmark at number 5. Besides being in the top 5, another thing these countries have in common is that they have the highest union rates in the EU.
As of 2012, trade union density in Norway and Sweden was 54.7% and 67.5% respectively. As of 2010, Denmark had a trade union density of 68.5%. That these countries rose to the top of the happiness index in the EU is significant. The rate of union density in the EU as a whole hovers somewhere around 26%, which is similar to the Canadian rate of 26.8% (in 2011). The countries with the least life satisfaction in Europe are closer to this figure than to those of Norway, Sweden or Denmark. In the US the union density rate is only about 13%. With a density rate like that, it’s not surprising that the US didn’t even break the top 10 in terms of life satisfaction.
While the Better Life Index rates happiness based on an evaluation of 11 different factors, including income, education, work-life balance and the satisfaction a person feels in their life, some of these factors are arguably more important than others. Conal Smith, section head with the statistics directorate at the OECD, notes that life satisfaction is arguably the most important gauge of happiness, as it is the factor that comes as a result of all the others.
That happiness and life satisfaction are greater in countries with higher rates of unionization has also been reported in a study co-authored by Benjamin Radcliff, a political scientist from the University of Notre Dame. The study, which was published in the journal, Social Indicators Research, found that happiness in one’s life often means happiness at work. And happiness at work increases in relation to the robustness of union presence. The reasons for this are obvious: unions bring better job security, fair wages and benefits – all of which tend to lead to a better life.
But it’s not just union members who are happier. Radcliff found that the happiness brought about by union presence is a benefit for non-union workers as well as union workers. Specifically, Radcliff found that:
People who have union jobs like their jobs better. And that puts pressure on other employers to extend the same benefits and wages to compete with union shops.
This is the great generosity of organized labour. Unions benefit a country on a broad scale, securing crucial components of happiness for all citizens. Viewed in the opposite direction, the less robust union density is the less happiness people will have.
Just as weakened union presence erodes labour rights and creates a race to the bottom, so too does increased union presence strengthen labour rights and creates a rising tide that lifts all boats. These studies once again show that supporting the rights of workers is of the highest importance. And for anyone who would question why it’s important to support unions the answer is simply this: your happiness might depend on it. If concern for workers isn’t enough to persuade people to support unions, maybe their own self-interest will be.