Supporters of workers’ rights attend a rally in support of Wisconsin union members on the steps of the Arkansas Capitol in Little Rock. (Associated Press)

Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about unions in the United States. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Cathie Jo Martin is a professor of political science at Boston University and co-chair of the American Political Science Association presidential task force on political negotiation. Her recent books include The Political Construction of Business Interests: Coordination, Growth and Equality” with Duane Swank and Political Negotiation: A Handbook” with Jane Mansbridge.

In the United States, the image of a powerful union connotes rapacious groups of workers, jockeying to get perks and salaries beyond what they rightfully deserve. In this zero-sum world, union gains — if unsubstantiated by productivity growth — become public losses. So why should we think that strong unions are ever a good idea?

In reality, stronger and more involved unions could help the United States develop better public policy. Elsewhere in the world, unions enjoy much higher levels of support from the public — in many countries, they cover most workers and play a crucial role in forging public policies. Paradoxically, they do this in conjunction with equally strong employers’ associations.

In Nordic countries, centralized associations covering business and labor have the legal right and responsibility to negotiate employment policy. Some policies are created through collective wage bargains, which then pertain to everyone. Others are developed by tripartite committees that include representatives of the major associations, which create binding policies governing issues such as family leave, active labor-market programs and part-time work.

Because public policy in these countries is created mainly by stakeholders rather than by legislators, regulations are transparent, sensible, broadly applicable and enduring. Unions and employers’ associations are given formal responsibility to negotiate workable regulations and have to live with the consequences. The “social partners” are expected to exhibit self-discipline as a prerogative of influence, and their sense of ownership makes for higher levels of compliance. In turn, this compliance can bring firms to make longer-term commitments to investments in workers’ skills, because their peers are also committed.

In my study of 107 randomly selected large companies in Denmark and Britain, 64 percent of the Danish firms (compared with 40 percent of the British ones) participated in welfare-to-work programs to end long-term unemployment and to train workers with low skills. They participated because they believed that the government programs would provide them with a new labor source and would cut social assistance in the long term. One business manager explained, “It is really irritating in a fishing culture to see people on unemployment sit around and smoke cigarettes and play the guitar.” He was motivated to develop an apprenticeship to effect change.

Unions and employers’ associations jealously guarded their collective influence in policymaking because they did not want policy outcomes to be politicized. For example, when a former center-right Danish government sought to legislatively loosen safeguards for part-time workers, both the business and labor associations vehemently objected. They resented the intrusion of the government into labor-market policies, a domain of the social partners. Or as a representative of a major employers’ association told me, “Business and labor are like Siamese twins” in their interests in retaining control over public policy formation.

Strong unions, strong employers’ associations and a politics of cooperation may be good for both economy and equality. The Gini coefficient, a commonly used measure of inequality, places Scandinavian countries as some of the most egalitarian in the world — and that ranking does not seem to hurt their economic growth. The World Bank similarly ranks Denmark as the third-best country for doing business. Under Danish “flexicurity,” companies can hire and fire their workers at will, but the pain of sudden unemployment is eased with extensive training programs and other social protections. After the global financial crisis, firms were allowed to lay off workers, but workers then went into training programs and the “social partners” worked together to develop job-sharing arrangements. The crisis also provided Denmark an opportunity to shift resources into new sectors, to adopt new (often green) technologies, and to make the labor force more productive.

In contrast, individual firms in the United States often lobby Congress directly with their narrow, self-interested demands, and unions often work in the same way. Both on the labor and business side, economic actors do not trust government, but they also do not trust their collective selves. Thus, most policy decisions are made by politicians, who might need to build a “bridge to nowhere” to win an election but are unlikely to be otherwise dedicated to individual workers’ interests.

Americans might learn something about cooperation from countries with strong unions and employers’ associations. We teach norms of cooperation to our kids and practice them in our communities, but we have forgotten how to cooperate in the political sphere. Our national politics is dominated by the kind of irresponsible bickering and verbal abuse that would make a schoolyard bully blush. Meanwhile, legislators are prone to creating policies for political contingency that are often unrealistic and difficult to implement. Strong societal groups that work for viable policy alternatives may provide an antidote to our hyper-politicized sphere of collective decision-making.

Other perspectives:

Kimberly Phillips-Fein: How employers broke unions by creating a culture of fear

Michael Wasser: Unions could make a comeback — if we help them

Joseph A. McCartin: This election could decide the fate of American labor — and that’s the problem