Introduction: Why bother with cross-national comparisons?

Introduction to the series: Why bother with cross-national comparisons?

Why, how – and whether – one can apply cross-national comparison to the study of trade unions are the questions we explore in our new website feature, Labor in Comparative Perspective (LICP).  These were also the questions asked by renowned labor relations scholar Richard Hyman in his article “Trade Union Research and Cross-National Comparison” (2001), available at

Hyman points out two insightful reasons for engaging in cross-national comparisons of trade unions (and employment relations systems, for that matter).  First, a comparative approach is necessary in order to develop “robust explanations and encompassing theories.”  The need for robust explanations is highlighted by some of the failings of the Industrial Relations field in the U.S. during the 1950s and 1960s.

U.S. literature on industrial relations during the 1950s and 1960s expounded on the “mature state” of U.S. unions and predicted that unions around the world would come to look like U.S. unions.  Hyman points out that had those U.S. scholars more critically and systematically compared the situation of U.S. unions to other countries, they might have seen that the U.S. situation was particular to the U.S. rather than true of all other countries.  In addition, those scholars might have viewed the situation of U.S. unions more accurately as a temporary accommodation rather than permanent end state (Hyman 2001).

The second reason for engaging in cross-national comparison of unions is entirely practical.   Hyman argues that it is through comparison that there is the potential to derive best practices for tackling the challenges facing unions (Hyman 2001).   This is what Hyman calls the complementarity of theory and practice.

Examining the theory and practice of comparative employment relations is the goal of Labor in Comparative Perspective.  In the coming weeks, we will examine topics such as collective bargaining, comparative trade unions, comparative employment relations research and teaching etc.

Professor Hyman is emeritus professor of Industrial Relations at the London School of Economics.  Prior to his appointment at LSE in 2000 he was previously Chair in Industrial Relations at the University of Warwick.  He is the founding editor of the European Journal of Industrial Relations. Professor Hyman has been a prominent voice on comparative industrial relations for over forty years.  His work reminds us that all employment relationships and trade unions exist in wider social and political contexts.

Ultimately, Hyman concludes, “even if the goal of satisfactory cross-national comparison may be unattainable, its pursuit is both necessary and valuable.”  That’s exactly why we will be exploring these questions in the coming weeks and months.






Fortunately, some of his work is available online through LSE at:,_Richard.html


Hyman, Richard (2001) Trade Union Research and cross-national comparison [online] London: LSE Research Online.  Available at: