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The Bad Weather Behind Unionization

Quoc Nguyen

Why do California, Illinois, New Jersey, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York account for roughly half of the nation’s union members, but only a third of its paid employees? Recent research by UIC’s Quoc Nguyen chalks it up to the worst weather of the 20th century: the Dust Bowl.

In their recent paper, “The Impact of Forced Migration on Modern Cities: Evidence from 1930s Crop Failures” Nguyen and coauthors Lauren H. Cohen and Christopher J. Malloy find that rainfall levels during the Great Depression predict bumps in unionization among urban factory workers. Why did the bumps occur? As a result of severe drought, farmers sought work in manufacturing centers, creating an influx of labor that greatly increased job competition. To combat falling wages and protect their jobs, workers in these urban job markets unionized, and, as Cohen recently told Forbes, “that unionization just has an incredibly long tail.”

For the full paper, visit Christopher Malloy’s page at Harvard Business School.