Business Unionism

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BUSINESS UNIONISM. A term commonly used by scholars to characterize the historical role and strategic outlook of organized labor in the United States. Business unionism first became prominent in the 1880s, when trade union leaders organized the American Federation of Labor and explicitly emphasized improvements in wages, hours, and working conditions. Business union-ism—literally, the union as a business that sells labor—stressed "pure and simple" goals in contrast to "social" unionism, which emphasized the welfare of the working class as a whole, the election of sympathetic officials, and the control of government. Business unionism had other implications. Focusing on improving wages, hours, and working conditions, these unions left other business decisions to employers; they did not attempt to influence managerial behavior except when employment levels, wages, or related matters were at stake. Business unionism also created biases in favor of workers who were the most competitive in the marketplace and an internal union structure that mimicked the structure of industry in order to facilitate collective bargaining and grievance settlements.

Business unionism received official recognition in the 1920s and 1930s with the adoption of federal and state policies (notably the Wagner Act of 1935) that encouraged union representation and collective bargaining within relatively narrow bounds. Over the last half century there has been a gradual decline of private sector unionism and a growth of public sector unionism.


Commons, John R. et. al. History of Labour in the United States. New York: A.M. Kelley, 1966. The classic historical account.

Kochan, Thomas A., Harry C. Katz, and Robert B. McKersie. The Transformation of American Industrial Relations. Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press, 1994. An informed analysis that combines historical perspectives and discussions of contemporary issues.


See alsoAmerican Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations ; Labor .