Proposal preview

Stronger together? Collective action during phases of industrialization

With industrialization and the growth of wage work, a number of risks emerged in the form of workplace accidents, illness and unemployment. The transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy meant that a growing group of wage earners lacked the support of old safety nets and needed protection from temporary loss of income. The male breadwinner model, which was established in connection with industrialization, meant that many families were put in a difficult economic situation if something would happen to the family provider even though industrial work meant higher average wages than alternatives in agriculture. Awareness of new risks in industry prompted both workers and employers to act; the former, by demanding new safety nets, forming voluntary associations and trade unions, and the latter by making various forms of welfare commitments, including investments relating to occupational health and safety. The emerging risks, which meant loss of income for those who were hurt or exposed to job loss, highlighted the need for insurance and of collective action to deal with these risks. Sicknesses funds (aka mutual aid societies or cash clubs) and trade unions are examples of collective action when dealing with risk, and these organizations became increasingly important in the context of industrialization and with the emergence of the modern labor market. Initiatives for improved occupational safety, but also for obligatory sickness funds, were ways for employers to protect competitiveness, economic value and workplace-specific skills at a time when the employers-worker relationship became more important. Though the historical roots of the challenges spurring collective action are similar across countries, the developments over time were very different. In some countries, the state took responsibility for issues relating to occupational safety, sickness and unemployment, resulting in comprehensive welfare states, though this was not the case everywhere, in particular not in Anglo-Saxon contexts where more solutions were left to market mechanisms rather than state intervention. Similarly, the extent of union power varied across time and space, with several interesting lessons to be learnt from the early phases of collective action, not least from comparing experiences from the industrial core (the UK, the US, continental Europe) with that of the periphery (e.g. the Nordics and Australia).
This session aims to bring together well-renowned scholars to present ongoing research on collective action relating to challenges and emerging risk connected to industrialization, before and during the modern welfare state. The use of novel techniques and new data is emphasized, especially when it comes to completing the more well-known macro picture with micro-level evidence. Topics for this session include the determinants of collective action and the origins and developments of trade unions and sickness funds; testing theory by evaluating ways of dealing with selection bias and information asymmetry among unions and sickness funds; estimating individual, firm, and regional consequences of collective action, more specifically individual returns in terms of health and income to membership in unions and/or sickness funds, as well as firm longevity and regional economic growth; and investigating whether investments in workers’ health and safety had any productivity-enhancing effects. Topics for this session also include the role of institutions, the outcomes of bargaining (including collusion and arbitration) and the effects of various policy initiatives affecting workers’ well-being, including health and safety.
Contributions covering various contexts, case studies as well as comparative, and studies exploring gender, occupational differences, and long-term effects are welcome.


  • Maria A Stanfors, Lund University,, Sweden

Session members

  • Lars-Fredrik Andersson, Umeå University,
  • Ethan Schmick, University of Pittsburgh,
  • Bernhard Harris, Glasgow Caledonian,
  • Tobias Karlsson, Lund University,
  • Andrew Seltzer, Royal Holloway,

Proposed discussant(s)

  • tba , ,