Is restating the question a finding?

April 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

TDS is not a labor sociologist but has read some books. Which makes reading Stepan-Norris and Southworth’s piece in the ASR, “Rival Unionism and Membership Growth in the United States, 1900 to 2005: A Special Case of Inter-organizational Competition” galling, because I could see large holes in the argument. The real problem isn’t this paper per se but rather the system that considered this (to quote the ASR‘s scope and mission) an example of “works of interest to the discipline in general, new theoretical developments, results of qualitative or quantitative research that advance our understanding of fundamental social processes, and important methodological innovations.” Ain’t no such thing.

The finding: Stepan-Norris and Southworth use time-series data “to explore the effects of rivalry between labor unions as a special case of inter-organizational competition.” They find that “Both the number of members in rival unions and the total number of rival unions positively impact the rate of change in overall union density and and in AFL density. The size of independent unions has a negative impact on AFL/AFL-CIO density but no effect on overall union density.” To quote from their discussion, “the benefits of direct competition between unions outweigh the disadvantages of diffuse competition for the American labor movement.” Competition, it seems, is good.

Why does this disgruntle? Prior to about 1935, everyone agreed that competition was bad for labor. That didn’t mean that the various factions set aside their differences and united, because of course they thought that their rivals were going to take the whole movement to Hell on a fast train. Instead they included the disastrous effects of disunity in their list of reasons why everyone else should unite with them.

Then the CIO happened. Huge split, huge growth. People started to wonder whether competition might be good for union growth. I mean, look at the CIO! Of course, people also pointed out that the CIO case was horribly confounded: the Depression, the New Deal, the specific legal changes affecting unions, World War II…then of course there was the sheer size of the AFL/CIO rift; the CIO was orders of magnitude larger than, say, the TUUL had been. Could you generalize from the CIO? Most discussion about labor competition for the last sixty years has taken this external-validity problem for granted.

Just glancing through Stepan-Norris and Southworth’s tables, it is obvious that most of their results are driven by…drumroll…the CIO split! Um, no kidding? The growth during the rise of the CIO is why people started asking this question in the first place. How is a “finding” that demonstrates precisely the empirical phenomenon that prompted the original question a contribution to the state of knowledge?!

There’s are other problems with the paper, but I think that one fatal flaw is enough.

…OK, one more: when I see measures like “Competitor Union Number,” i.e., how many rival unions there are, I get a little concerned. Because you see, when on the one hand we have the AFL, which is based on many unions with narrow, skilled, craft jurisdictions, and on the other hand we have, say, the Industrial Workers of the World, whose motto the last time I checked was “ONE BIG UNION,” I start to worry that we might have the teensiest of problems with our construct validity.

I don’t mean to imply that Stepan-Norris and Southworth are trying to make their finding appear more significant than it is. I think that they are honest researchers; that is the tragedy of a paper like this. Did no one in the peer-review process stop to ask whether, given a research question prompted by the rise of the CIO, it would make sense to show the same results while excluding the CIO? Or what about bringing in competition and density data from other countries, to grapple with the over-determination problem?

Or, on the methodological angle, how about pointing out that, while Stepan-Norris and Southworth have tried to use more “continuous” measures of political influence, unemployment and the like than did earlier studies, which used period dummies like “Great Depression” or “World War I,” the very benefit of such period dummies is that they soak up other period-specific effects which could affect union density? The irony here is that the authors’ independent-variable strategy probably admits far more omitted-variable bias than earlier studies.

The findings in this paper can’t be new to labor sociologists. All the rest of us are offered, though, is some suggestion that unions might be a “special case” of inter-organizational competition. But if they’re a “special case,” then why would a non-labor sociologist care about these findings?

In short, why do we care?

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