Labor Unions

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Labor Unions

I. Theories of the Labor MovementMark Perlman


II. Labor Movements and Collective Bargaining in EuropeAdolf Sturmthal


III. The Structure of Unions in the United StatesPhilip Taft


IV. Influence on WagesH. Gregg Lewis



There are three principal groups currently developing theories of unionism. The communist group, primarily located in the Soviet Union, is concerned with how unions can increase productivity in communist societies. To them unions are workers’ morale rale agencies, and it seems irrelevant whether the state or the plant management (in loco employer) dominates the organization.

Most Western neoclassical economists who are concerned with unions focus on the effects that worker-controlled nonopolies will have on factor prices, levels of employment, labor mobility, technological change, and profits. Hence they view unions as logical constructs, units intent on maximizing gains for all or only some of their members —much as a business firm (also a construct) is supposed to operate. They are not usually interested in exploring the forces that bring unions into being and keep them operating effectively.

The third group includes most of the well-known Western labor union theorists. They attempt to ex-plain workers’ historical behavior regarding wages, hours, working conditions, and job rights by answering all or most of four questions: (1) Why did unions come into existence? (2) How do unions choose their goals and tactics? (3) What explains varying individual worker attitudes toward unions? (4) What is the impact of national cultural and legal experience on worker organizations? In other words, these writers study the historical records of institutions.

Each of these three groups is discussed separately below—the third group first because chronologically it first developed the bulk of labor union theory.

The Western historical tradition

Originally the central questions about unions were why and how socially inferior bargaining groups managed to redistribute wealth and gain recognition. Answers were first furnished by theologians and philosophers, historians and economists. Later, as the newer disciplines of psychology and sociology developed, they, too, influenced the analysis of unionism. All had in common an interest in the dynamic nature of workers’ group identification and organization. I have discussed the relationship of the disciplines to the theories more fully elsewhere (M. Perlman 1958).

The revolutionaries

In the western European tradition, interest in union theory stemmed originally from the study of Marx’s law of historical materialism. From it was fashioned a theory of revolutionary unionism which, in its many forms, is based on a supposedly scientific understanding of the historical process. Technological advances change the relationships between the bourgeois or property-holding classes and the working or propertyless classes. Inevitably the bourgeoisie, motivated by profits, exploits the workers, and workers frequently retaliate by forming unions. Thus, the proximate cause of class conflict is bourgeois exploitation of the workers, which in turn is caused by technological change.

What a specific union does in a given situation depends upon its leaders’ appreciation of the historical process. Unions that further the revolutionary ends of the working class are considered to be acting wisely. Unions that accede to the demands of bourgeois employers or that temporize with their revolutionary purpose, perhaps because of mis-leadership, are thought to be useless and undeserving of historical sanction. Only the socialist theorist, who can comprehend the full historical consequences of a given act, can be trusted to judge what is good and bad. These theorists consider any union leader who tries to make peace with a bourgeois employer to be a “faker” or class traitor.

According to this philosophy, unionism is a useful device in the workers’ class war against the bourgeoisie. But when a socialist society is achieved, the role of unionism is indistinct. Some Marxist writers believe that the workers’ organizations should not materially change their personalities. Others, discussed below, believe that a whole new set of objectives is essential.

Two discordant elements of the revolutionary theory stand out: its teleological nature and its dependence upon “proper” understanding of the historical process. The former gives certainty and confidence in the future. The latter creates dissension among the theorists since any human action or program, regardless of the alleged motives involved, encourages speculations about the “real” consequences. Advocates of the revolutionary theory have therefore each tended to give his own interpretation of the historical meaning of any action. These writers can be divided into three general categories: the right wing, the left wing, and the anarcho-syndicalists (M. Perlman 1958, chapter 3).

The right-wing theorists embrace political gradualism, like Bernsteinian revisionism. They agree that unions should represent the class interest of all workers (including particularly the less skilled) and should keep a steady economic pressure on employers for improved benefits and for the peaceful nationalization of industry. They advocate industrial unionism on the economic front (unions organized by industries or by geographic areas) and a labor party embracing gradualism on the political front. Where unions have become craft-particularistic, right-wing theorists urge constant education or “boring from within” to reorient them to their true historical purpose. The best-known American theorists in this tradition were such American Federation of Labor (AFL) socialist-pragmatists as Max Hayes, Nahum I. Stone, Victor Berger, and Norman J. Ware. All agreed that in the American context, craft-particularistic unions were ideologically misled, but nevertheless historically legitimate, representatives of the working class.

The left-wing theorists saw unions sometimes as the “protecting shield” and sometimes as the “avenging sword” of the working class. To them the particularistic craft unions, which they believed all AFL constituent organizations to be, were traitors to the working class and to thedeus ex machina of history. Despairing of changing the AFL unions, this group formed “dual unions.” Among the American leaders in this tradition were Daniel De Leon and William Z. Foster; both advocated political action and urged the development of aggressive, socialist-dominated unions as the main revolutionary instrument in bourgeois society.

The third or anarcho-syndicalist subcategory is often confused with the left-wing revolutionaries because both groups urged violence in bourgeois societies. Although both opposed craft-particularistic unions, they differed in their interpretation of the teleological nature of Marxism and of historical causation. The anarcho-syndicalists, lacking faith in the inevitability of the historical process, urged sabotage, duplicity in dealing with employers and public officials, assassination, and physical violence to bring about the disorder which they believed essential for the development of true freedom. The best-known American theorists in this group were William Trautmann, Vincent St. John, and William D. Hay wood.

The impact of such revolutionary theorizing has not been great in the United States. Many of the egalitarian and social welfare programs advocated by the revolutionaries, particularly the right wing, have become part of American public policy. However, these changes were not brought about by the realignment of class structure which the revolutionaries considered essential to the fruition of their plans.

The historical empiricists

Although the Marxians raised questions providing the most intriguing discussion, Sidney and Beatrice Webb used analytical methods that were the most widely admired. They went beyond the old Marxian question of why history should be dominated by worker organizations and asked how British workers had historically formed their organizations. The Webbs’s theory involved a new social science method, combining the patient fact collection of the German historical school with cautious, bit-at-a-time analysis. Their labor union theory was based on British labor history but goes beyond the recording of its facts to present generalizations. Since the Webbs were among the earliest British Fabians, it is not surprising to discover that their intellectual method incorporated political norms.

The Webbs noted that British unionism had, over time, developed several doctrines, each in response both to the workers’ desire to form their own continuous associations for improving wages, hours, and working conditions and to the key institutional features of a particular time (1897). Initially, when unions were small, weak, and at the mercy of employers and unsympathetic judges, workers embraced the self-interested doctrine of vested interests. They used the “method of mutual insurance,” implying mutual help within the workers’ group according to the self-insurance principle. The group was kept small in order to enhance job opportunity, and just large enough to spread the risk.

Later, as unions became stronger, successful attempts were made at bargaining with employers. In these instances the doctrine of vested interest was replaced by a market-price oriented “doctrine of [equilibration of] supply and demand.” The method of mutual insurance gave way to a newer “method of collective bargaining.” This was a bi-lateral arrangement which postulated worker solidarity but which could produce the flexibility sought by workers intent on improving their collective lot. The great shortcoming of this type of unionism was its parochialism—it gave benefits to the strong, that is, to those needing help the least.

Ultimately, the Webbs believed, unions would turn to a third, broader theory, namely a “doctrine of the living wage,” applying to all workers, not just to the strong among them (S. Webb 1918). This doctrine would be presented through the “method of legal enactment,” which was national in scope and parliamentary in means.

The Webbs favored the third doctrine as well as the third method. Indeed, so strong was their endorsement of these that there is a danger of assuming that they deprecated the others. On the contrary, they implicitly noted the usefulness of both the other methods and at least the doctrine of supply and demand. Even in a socialist state there would be a need for workers in advanced and profitable industries to bargain bilaterally with employers so that new and higher standards could be set where economically possible.

The burden of the Webbs’s normativism fell on their moral condemnation of what they considered to be an all-too-frequent union device, restriction of numbers—restricted entry into the trade and the union (S. Webb 1919). They condemned it as parochial, selfish, and inefficient. Rather, they endorsed another device, “the common rule,” a minimum working standard.

It is hard to overemphasize the impact of the Webbs’s work. It was soundly based on fact, where the earlier Marxian thinking was conjectural history at best. It advocated reasonable evolution where some Marxists suggested violent revolution. And most important, it did not present a teleological face, which practical men distrust.

The Webbs have had severe critics. Some have pointed out the influence of their inarticulated norms, namely a moral commitment to social efficiency (S. Perlman 1928); others have noted their anticapitalistic (anti-free-market) orientation (Cummings 1899); and some have even seen a coloring of history in their selection of episodes. Nevertheless, their monumental studies provided the groundwork for most of the later labor union theory. [SeeWebb, Sidney and Beatrice.]

Although there were several earlier American theorists of the labor movement, the impact of the Webbs’s work on John R. Commons and his subsequent reformulation of it mark the beginning of the most important American school. Using the Webbs’s research techniques, Commons and his students at the University of Wisconsin fashioned a general Spiethoffian theory of the development of the labor movement. It is built in large part on extending the concept of private property to include job rights and on analysis of the effects of geographical expansion of the product market on factor-market (particularly wage) relationships.

Commons believed that unionism was a protective device for social and economic inferiors, who had to be protected from the impersonal rigorousness of the market. He took care to point out that this impersonality was caused by the growth of the market (leading to transactions between strangers) and by technological change. Commons did not believe in natural harmony; unlike the Webbs he had little hope for the development of social consensus on economic matters. Rather, he put his faith in the functioning of countervailing large groups, which he thought would be able to fashion acceptable modi vivendi with good faith and a modicum of luck. [See the biography ofCommons.]

Contemporary theorists

The best-known (and the most controversial) theory of labor unions was presented by Selig Perlman, who was Commons’ student and collaborator and the first holder of the John R. Commons chair in economic research at the University of Wisconsin (where both Commons and he did most of their academic work). Perlman, a Russian-Jewishemigre, had in his youth been a Social DemocraticBundist (a Jewish right-wing Marxian socialist). Commons’ influence on his thinking led him to shed his earlier Marxian conclusions. In the Commons–Perlman approach, unions are considered to have an importance in the western European democratic social structure quite apart from their ability to raise wages and improve working conditions. Unionism is the technique by which workers band together to secure social and industrial rights. Having secured these rights, workers use unions to protect themselves from the effects of market competition, which through history has been intensified by the growth of markets (bringing once separate communities into direct economic competition) and changes in production techniques (resulting in competition among the workers in any one area). Thus unionism has both an offensive and a defensive characteristic, but invariably it was intended to promote the social interests of its membership rather than the needs of an abstract “working class.” The Commons-Perlman approach to unionism devolved from a study of historical records showing how specific groups of workingmen sought to protect their jobs. These records were found in court trials for conspiracy and in the development of job customs or working rules in particular trades and industries.

According to Commons and Perlman, the older a union gets the more it tends to draw on its own historical experience. It tends to rely upon the “common will” as interpreted by union leaders. Consequently, unions are reluctant to follow the advice, however well intentioned, of outside sympathizers and experts. Unions generally attempt hegemony over only a limited job territory, having discovered by experience what limits are most effective. In Anglo-American countries, unions pursue policies intended to create property rights in job possession similar to those already guaranteed to ownership of real estate and chattels.

Although there are some differences between Commons’ and Perlman’s ideas, it is erroneous to think that the two men were ever in conflict. However, it must be realized that Commons, unlike Perlman, was not particularly interested in developing a general theory of unionism.

Perlman’s theory drew heavily on the historical generalizations of Max Weber and Werner Som-bart. From Sombart he took an appreciation of the role of psychology in explaining both the Zeitgeist and the individual’s reactions to changes in economic opportunities.

Perlman took care to define the confines of worker group loyalty because he did not believe that in the American context there was any “class” loyalty as such. Rather, the ambit of such loyalty was set by the manual workers’ innate fear of factor-market competition for the job. Perlman’s phrase “dynamic job-consciousness” sought to ex-plain the changes made by technology and market expansion in a once tightly defined craft concept of job ownership. The “manual worker” (an ideal type in the Weberian tradition) was the key to Perlman’s theory of unionism. These workers, he felt, were willing to trade a purported freedom of contract for a small share of the collective voice controlling job ownership because they had little faith in their ability to survive in the junglelike factor market in which they sold their services. Perlman emphasized that the diffusion of wealth, and unfavorable worker experience with industrial self-government, made American workers and labor movements reluctant to embrace abstract social experiments like socialism (S. Perlman 1928). Later in his life, after the Nazi holocaust, Perlman added that even mature labor movements appeared unable to resist highly nationalistic leaders; indeed, they did not always try. At no time was he sanguine about colonial labor movements’ abilities to resist the appeals of nationalistic or socialistic reformers. [See the biography ofPerlman.]

The traditional Marxians, the Webbs, Commons, and Perlman had much in common in their labor movement theories. Each tried to explain the development of the labor movements of western Europe, North America, and Australasia. Where Marx had first asked “why organization?”, the Webbs added “how does organization work?” Commons and, particularly, Perlman reformulated the basic questions to “under what conditions will a labor movement develop, and what specific rational and historical factors shape its development?”

There have been several vigorous criticisms of the Wisconsin theory. Some have disliked its selection of the parochial, American ideal-type union, with its limited social objectives, arguing that Perlman “liked” or “approved” of that type of union’s particularism (see Hardman 1950; Laski 1948, pp. 221–222; 1950, pp. 37–40; Sturmthal 1953; Gulick 1948, vol. 1, pp. 294–297, 300 ff.; Gulick & Bers 1953). Others have felt that the theory was applicable only to nonexpanding industries (Meyer & Conrad 1957) or to already industrialized and capitalistic societies (Kerr & Siegel 1955).

Criticism from the last point of view has resulted in several interesting discussions, most of which are not presented as formal theories. Two of these were written by John T. Dunlop. The first (1948) summarized both the questions earlier theorists had discussed and what he thought were the shortcomings of their work. He argued that individual theorists had neglected some of the dynamic economic roles in the development of the labor movement played by changing technology, product-market and factor-market forces, public opinion, and the government. Subsequently Dunlop (1958) further clarified his dissatisfaction with labor movement theory. The key to this analysis is an interest in the process by which production and distribution decisions are made by firms within society and by society itself (cf. Moore 1960). He relegated the labor movement to a role somewhat different from the one that had become traditional. Unlike earlier writers who viewed the labor movement partly as a political and social force, Dunlop directed his attention exclusively to the processes of decision making in the allocation of labor. Consequently, unionism in his framework varies in importance among countries and requires a subtheory of labor movements. Where unions play an important industrial role (for example, in bipartite collective bargaining), their significance is great; where they play only a political role, their significance is less.

Communist tradition

At the turn of the century, in response to public opinion, the tsarist government attempted to set up “legal unions,” which anticipated both Italian fascist unions and American company unions. As substitutes for genuine unionism these organizations were not successful, and in 1905 the Soviet of the Workers Deputies of St. Petersburg was founded. In October of 1905, at the time of the granting of a constitution, the first Russian Trade Union Conference was held, made up of 26 Moscow unions and 10 from other localities. With the failure of the Russian revolution of 1905, the reactionary government reasserted its authority, and in 1907 the police claimed to have disbanded 107 unions and exiled or imprisoned their leaders.

In March 1917 the Petrograd soviet reappeared in the central role and, together with revolutionary soldiers, declared a strike. The following month 82 such local Soviets were represented at the first Soviet Conference meeting in Petrograd. Two months later a Russian Trade Union Conference was held whose 220 delegates represented a total membership of nearly 1.5 million workers. Within the organization there was a strong Menshevik, or Social Democratic, opposition. Bolshevik leadership was far from assured of support from the renascent older trade unions. From this distrust of the older group emerged both the Leninist policy toward unions and, later, the Leninist theory of unions. Lenin made an important speech in January 1919. His views were later circulated in 1921 and appeared as “The Task of the Trade Unions.” Lenin was concerned with the deterioration of factory equipment during World War I, which aggravated the country’s previous backwardness. He sought to improve production facilities and wanted the unions to abandon all policies which directly or indirectly hindered production. In both his 1919 speech and his reformulated views, he endorsed Taylorism, or scientific management.

Taylorism as Lenin knew it gave the workers virtually no voice in the handling of industrial problems. Nonetheless, Lenin sought to provide a place for union activity in the general framework of a scientifically managed industrial system. Trade unions were to discipline the workers, on the one hand, and be a quasi-public watchdog over managerial efficiency, on the other. The union was to minimize production loss and eliminate discrimination against particular workers, rather than improve wages generally or even improve working conditions for the workers in a given plant or area.

After Lenin’s death the government union system, which Lenin originally urged, was taken up by Leon Trotsky. Trotsky wanted the state to control and eventually absorb all unions. He was opposed by Michael Tomsky and the functional leaders of the trade unions. Up to the time of his dismissal as head of the trade union’s executive committee in 1929, Tomsky held strongly that the unions should occupy an independent place in the development of industrial policy. A third or middle view, popular within the party itself, held that the union should be apparently independent but actually controlled by party cells within it.

With the gradual sidetracking of Trotsky following Lenin’s death, the first view ceased to be an important issue. The second view, Tomsky’s, obtained until the New Economic Policy (NEP) yielded to the first five-year plan. Thereafter the third, or party, plan became official.

Under the NEP there was a tripartite control arrangement with three supposedly equal parties: the plant manager, representatives of the local unions, and representatives of the party. The manager was usually chosen by the party, and the leaders of the local unions were chosen by popular acclamation—which in practice also meant by the party. This troika arrangement continued for some time. Yet it is clear that by 1930 the unions had ceased to count; plant managers were in fact in unchallenged charge of all plant activity, and the trade unions had lost their voice in policy determi-nation. By World War II the unions themselves seemed to have become primarily interested in increasing productivity through the Stakhanovite and the Udarniki movements. They were also concerned with providing rest resorts for deserving workers and the processing of a few types of grievances against unpopular plant managers. The best-known theorists of Soviet unionism have been Lenin and A. Lozovskii, who became the party’s semiofficial spokesman. [See the biographies ofLeninand Trotsky.]

The neoclassical approach

Although most neoclassical economists have concentrated on the economic effects of wages and of particular union policies, such as strikes and secondary boycotts, several have also written on union power to affect the rate of technological change within the firm and the right of licensure (entry to the trade) [seeLicensing, Occupational; see also Hicks 1932; Friedman 1962]. Until fairly recently the typical neoclassical analysis of unions concentrated upon the conditions under which a union would raise the wages of its membership at the expense of employers or other workers (Simons 1944; Machlup 1952). Now, however, attention has turned to the various alternative goals which unions can maximize. These include wage rates, wage payments, and employment levels as possible goals of the membership as a whole or of a dominant (even if minor) fraction of the membership. Moreover, these models admit a different selection of goals by a given union at different stages of the business cycle and during different phases of a long-term technological development. Different assumptions are also made about the price elasticity of demand for the product, and there has been recognition of the importance of treating each firm within an industry differently for tactical reasons. Finally, the impact of tax provisions, among other factors, leads to different types of wage payments —as in the case of pensions and nontaxable services such as health benefits[seeWages, article onFringe Benefits;see also Dunlop 1944; Cartter 1959; Pen 1950; and Rees 1962].

The recent emphasis on statistical measurement has increased our knowledge of the effects of unionization on wage rates [seeLabor Unions, article oninfluence on wages]. Some economists have held that the gains made by one group of workers have been offset by a rise in prices or by a decline in the earnings or employment of others (Friedman 1962). Other writers, not necessarily rejecting that finding, have emphasized the “possible” result; one “guesses” that the “average effects of all American unions on the wages of their members in recent years will lie somewhere between 10 and 15%” (Rees 1962, p. 79).

One of the best summaries of the neoclassical position concludes simply that the direct effect of unions on the economy is detrimental but that the total social effect of unions (going beyond considerations of prices, wages, and the allocation of resources) turns the conclusion on its head (Rees 1962, pp. 194–195). This judgment, however, merely reflects the dichotomy within the field of Western labor union theory. One group of theorists approaches the topic from the institutional and historical position, while the other approaches it from the standpoint of economic theory.

Mark Perlman


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Trade unionism is a child of industrialization; therefore it is not surprising that the country that pioneered in industrial development, Great Britain, was also among the first to develop modern trade unions. No attempt will be made here to retrace the history of unionism in Great Britain or elsewhere. However, some general considerations regarding the development of unionism are appropriate.

When trade unions first arose in the Western world they were regarded everywhere as criminal organizations; even if their existence was tolerated most of their activities were unlawful. The difficult stage of early industrialization was, therefore, passed by most Western nations without the intervention of effective unions. The British Combination Acts of 1800, the Loi Le Chapelier of 1791 in France, and the fairly general prohibition of unions until late in the nineteenth century in the countries that later formed Germany are examples of this proscription.

Union-political party relations

The growth of unions, since this first stage, has followed widely different courses in different parts of the world. On the Continent, unionism typically developed as part of a wider labor movement, with a political party of the workers usually taking the lead. Frequently the party organized the unions and provided them with leadership. In view of the low educational level of the workers, the extremely long hours of work, and the low incomes on the Continent at the time when unions came into being, it is doubtful whether labor organizations could have been formed at the time without the active participation of political leaders who were, for the most part, intellectuals. Moreover, the effective defense of the workers’ interests at the time encompassed far more than the specialized activities of unions. Throughout the Continent, workers were denied equality of status as citizens, in education, and in the life of the community in general. To meet the demand of the workers for political, social, and cultural equality, as well as to make the unions effective instruments for the attainment of the economic objectives of their members, a wider labor movement was required, of which the unions formed a part. The political organization was most commonly the elite of the movement, and the unions accepted party guidance. It seemed obvious that only a profound transformation of the social and political system would permit an improvement of the worker’s standard of living and the attainment of his full status as a citizen and a human being. This transformation had to be brought about primarily by the party. Moreover, the long-run situation on the labor market made collective bargaining an effective device for skilled workers only. Underemployment in agriculture was constantly being created, or at least was a threat, because of technological advances; and the actual or potential weight of this supply of unskilled labor greatly impaired the bargaining power of unskilled groups. This fact, too, tended to make political action appear relatively more promising than collective bargaining.

Political control of the unions led in many countries to politically divided labor movements, since different political parties established competitive unions. Until World War II the predominant current was socialist; Christian (mostly Roman Catholic), nationalist, democratic, and at times communist organizations represented the main minority groups. In Scandinavia, however, the socialist blue-collar unions remained almost without competition. French syndicalism, primarily representing skilled workers, rejected political control of the unions; indeed, the syndicalists regarded any political activity as futile. But after the decline of syndicalism, the Communist party assumed the leadership of the strongest trade union federation, the Confédération Générate du Travail (CGT).

Starting under political guidance, the unions gradually acquired more status within the labor movement as industrialization progressed. Education was provided for leaders arising in increasing numbers from the working class. Union membership rose and with it union funds and prestige. While retaining their basic political philosophy, the unions claimed and obtained equality of status with the party. The Mannheim agreement of 1906 in Germany is one example of this shift in relative weight. In Great Britain, the evolution proceeded from a different starting point. Unions of skilled workers, rejecting social reform ideas and concentrating on bread and butter issues, arose after the failure of the Chartist reform movement. These “business unions” dominated the movement until attempts at organizing unskilled workers were successful in the last two decades of the century. This introduced socialist—although non-Marxian—ideas into the labor movement. A major court decision, the Taff Vale case, which endangered the effective operations of the unions, greatly increased the unions’ support of the organization of the Labour party. This party was thus essentially a creation of the unions, and for a long time it remained primarily their political instrument—the political branch of the movement. These differences in the origin of unions and party have lost most of their former significance. Different systems of union-party relations remain. In Great Britain and some parts of Scandinavia, unions are collectively affiliated with the Labour party or the Social Democratic party of their country. Union members pay a “political levy” along with their union dues, unless, as they may do in Britain, they “contract out,” i.e., state in writing their refusal to do so. In other countries union leaders are at the same time party leaders; in a formal or informal way, the union federation is represented on the party executive and vice versa. At the other extreme is the tradition of the French “Charter of Amiens”—nowadays often honored in the breach—which, following the syndicalist ideas, requires complete separation of unions and parties.

International labor organizations

The problem of union-party relations has also affected the life of the international organizations of labor. The early international socialist congresses were at the same time international trade union gatherings. Separate international union organizations arose first under the name of international trade secretariats. These were associations of unions of the same craft or industry. The typographical unions were the first to establish their international association in 1889, followed by the miners and others, so that by the turn of the century almost thirty of them were operating. The national trade union centers—federations of unions of different crafts or industries in the same country—held their first independent international gathering in Copenhagen in 1901. They established a small international secretariat, whose administration was entrusted to the German trade unions, then the leading labor movement of the world. The activities, however, were modest and purely technical as the unions continued to accept in policy matters the leadership of the socialist parties and of their international. This aroused the protest first of the syndicalists in the French CGT and later of the American Federation of Labor, which joined the secretariat after an exploratory visit by Samuel Gompers in 1909. Under their combined pressure, the international secretariat was renamed the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) in 1913, and its activities were gradually expanded. This development was interrupted by World War I. When the IFTU was reconstituted in Amsterdam in 1919, the AFL withdrew, primarily because of the “revolutionary principle” to which the organization, in Gompers’ view, was now committed. Instead, the AFL turned increasingly toward collaboration with Latin American unions. Shortly before World War II, however, the AFL rejoined the IFTU, whose activity, soon afterwards, was paralyzed by the advance of Hitlerism. The reorganization of the international labor movement into the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) after the war brought the Russians and the CIO into the movement, while the AFL opposed the WFTU. Sharp conflicts between communists and anticommunists led to the breakup of the WFTU. The immediate issue was the attitude to be taken toward the Mar-shall Plan. The noncommunist unions, including both the AFL and the CIO, formed the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) in 1949, with headquarters in Brussels. The WFTU has continued to operate, primarily as an international body of the communist-dominated organizations.

Unions of socialist persuasion were, and continue to be, the predominant current in the inter-national labor movement, but they are by no means without competition. Until the 1880s, business unionism set the tone in Great Britain while anarchosyndicalists won out over Marxists in France and Spain and formed an influential group in Italy. In Germany, France, Belgium, and other countries with strong Roman Catholic populations, Christian trade unions arose, often under the inspiration of the papal encyclicalRerum novarum. As a result, divided and competitive trade unions arose in several countries of the Continent. Communist unions came and went after 1919, following the complicated zigzag of the party line, which at times ordered the communists to conquer socialist unions by “boring from within” and at other times to defeat them by setting up communist unions in competition with them. In some countries, such as Germany and Gaullist France, nationalist movements set up their own unions, in general with only modest success except at times among the white-collar workers.

Plant organizations and workers’ councils

British unions, from an early stage, operated in the plant or close to the plant. Being craft unions, they were greatly concerned with “working rules,” which often were determined by mutual agreement at the local or plant level. Still more important in bringing the union into the plant was the necessity for regulating piecework rates, which rarely can be done in a satisfactory way outside the plant. The handling of grievances arising out of the piece rate system and, later, out of the collective agreement as a whole, required a union organization in the plant. Many, although by no means all, British unions perform such functions in the plant, even though their formal organization and their constitutions do not always reflect this orientation.

Entry into the plant was, of course, the result of a long battle against hostile laws and employers. The repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824–1825 had less impact upon union activities than the enactment of labor laws in 1871 (amended in 1876) and 1875. By 1910, as a government report of that year indicated, collective bargaining still concerned only a minority of “industrial workers,” but a substantial part of the bargaining that did occur proceeded on the plant level. When World War I greatly enlarged the area of collective bargaining and caused a shift in emphasis to national agreements, union activity in the plant was already established.

Quite different was the evolution in those countries of the Continent in which competitive unions arose. Compared with England, industrial development in most of these countries was either delayed or slower; and unionism and collective bargaining were less advanced until the revolutionary movement following World War I gave the labor movements in many countries the power to impose union recognition and collective bargaining. Thus for a long period, unions existed without being able to enter the plant itself. The employers’ resistance to union activity within the plant was strengthened by political-religious divisions of the unions. Union operations in the establishment, it was said, would carry ideological disputes into the plant and interfere with its operation.

These differences between the British and the Continental evolution of the movement are to some extent reflected in the organizational structure of the unions. There are, of course, great variations among the unions of different crafts and different industries, as well as among those of different countries. But a frequent pattern on the Continent is represented by the union whose lowest administrative level is geographic, combining union members in several plants or firms. Even where, as in France, a lower level organization has been added informally to the localsyndicat, this group, the so-called section, will usually still cover several plants. The communist CGT has been working to make thesyndicat coincide with the membership in one plant, but so far it has met with only limited success. In Germany, some unions, particularly the metalworkers union (I.G. Metall), are engaged in setting up union stewards in the plants to work with the geographically based local (Ortsverwaltung). British unions, on the other hand, sometimes have the same organizational pattern as American unions and are officially represented at the workplace, although many unions also have geographic branches at their base.

In the absence of well-developed plant-union groups in most countries on the Continent, plant organizations of a different kind have arisen to fill the void. There is a need for bargaining within the plant, in order to interpret the collective agreement, to make it fit the particular conditions of the plant, to supplement it where necessary, and, especially, to handle individual grievances. The organizations that meet these needs go under different names in different countries. Their German designation, translated as “workers’ council,” will serve here as a general term for all of them. They show considerable variations as to their exact functions, election systems, relationships to unions, etc. Some are designed to enable the workers to participate in managerial functions. Characteristically, most of them perform tasks in the plant that in the United States are basic union activities. The council members are elected by all workers, whether union members or not. The councils are consequently not an organic part of the union itself and derive their existence and authority from legislation rather than collective agreements. The industrial relations function that is of most immediate relevance to the individual workers is thus in the hands of a body that does not form part of the union. At times, in some countries, union–council relations have been competitive rather than complementary. In Britain, shop steward movements, particularly after World War I, threatened for a while to turn into rival labor movements.

Union structure

There are few other organizational features that European labor organizations have in common. They vary greatly in their degree of centralization. In most Scandinavian countries, the union federation has a high degree of control over its affiliated In Great Britain, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has little power under the statutes but considerable moral stature; collective bargaining, however, is fully in the hands of the affiliated unions. The German Union Federation (DGB), organized by Hans Böckler in 1949, has lost a good deal of its influence in favor of its affiliates. In France, the national union has only limited functions. The centers of gravity of the movement are, on the one hand, the (local)syndicats and, on the other hand, the union federations—CGT, the Christian CFTC, the socialist Force Ouvriere (CGT-FO), and the white-collar Confederation Générate des Cadres (CGC). Significantly, it is the syndicats, not the national unions, that are represented at the federation congresses.

In contrast to the United States, the issue of craft versus industrial unions rarely has led to serious internal cleavages. In most countries, both types exist within the same federation. In Germany, where the unions were rebuilt afresh after the Hitler era, a relatively neat organizational layout was established: 16 industrial unions divide the job territory among themselves. One of them, the Metalworkers Union, with close to two million members, represents almost one-third of the entire DGB membership. At the other extreme, Great Britain shows a complex pattern of overlapping organizations ranging in size from a few hundred to more than a million members. Amalgamations have tended to simplify the system somewhat, but in the main it continues to be unplanned. Two great general unions, the Transport and General Workers Union and the National Union of General and Municipal Workers, representing together more than a quarter of the total TUC membership, include among their members large numbers of unskilled workers in various industries. The existence of industrial federations of unions, comparable to some of the departments in the AFL-CIO, is one device by which the untidy pattern has been rendered more workable. Within the trade union movement in Italy, the existence of associations of sharecroppers (mezzadri) and farmers on different lease arrangements adds a confusing feature to the otherwise predominantly industrial organization scheme.

Even where the industrial union is the basic pattern, as in West Germany, it has been impossible to apply the principle without qualification to the white-collar employees. In many European countries, e.g., Sweden, Austria, and France, a considerable number of white-collar workers are unionized, including government employees. In Germany, the organized white-collar workers are distributed over the industrial unions, a special white-collar federation (DAG), and a separate organization of civil servants. While the DAG has relatively friendly relations with the DGB which is predominantly a manual workers’ organization, the highly effective civil servants’ union maintains its independence in line with the social distance that in Germany traditionally separates the civil servant from the public, and especially from the manual worker. The Swedish federation of white-collar unions (TCO) has friendly relations with the general trade union federation (LO) but is politically neutral, while LO maintains intimate contacts with the Social Democratic party. In France, however, the civil servants form the strongest single bloc within the CGT-FO. A separate organization, the CGC, exists for higher white-collar employees and professional workers outside the government.

Practically everywhere government employees are free to organize and to engage in some forms of collective bargaining. Most of them—in some countries even the police—are legally free to engage in strikes. In Britain, the laws enacted after World War II providing for the nationalization of the coal mines, the railroads, and the electricity, gas, and other industries require the governing boards of these industries to engage in collective bargaining with the appropriate unions. Strike restrictions imposed during World War II have been removed.

The unions’ role in management

Nationalization of industry has given rise to prolonged debates about the role of the unions in management. In Great Britain, in spite of the guild socialist tradition of advocating the handing over of industrial management to the unions, the movement came ultimately to the conclusion that union representatives could not serve as such on the management boards without running the risk of conflicting loyalties. The post-World War II nationalization laws thus provide that the management be composed of experts, including industrial relations experts. Trade unionists have been regularly appointed as such experts, but upon appointment they have had to resign their union offices. The French nationalization measures followed a scheme proposed by the Austrian socialist Otto Bauer, who in turn was inspired by the writings of the British guild socialist G. D. H. Cole. According to Bauer, nationalized industries were to be administered by tripartite boards consisting of equal numbers of representatives of the government, of the employees, and of the consumers. This was to ensure labor’s participation in the management of the enterprise, while avoiding the danger that labor would take advantage of monopolistic situations to exploit the public. Most observers agree that neither the British nor the French scheme has given the employees the sense that they are effectively participating in managerial decision making. German codetermination, limited to coal and steel, gives the employees themselves and the union the right to be represented on the supervisory boards of the corporations, together with an equal number of representatives of the stockholders and a jointly elected chairman. In addition, the labor director, one of the three managers of the company, must be appointed with the approval of the union. While this scheme was being discussed, extreme fears were expressed that it would destroy the effectiveness of company management and/or of the union. Events so far have done little to justify these fears. Nor has codetermination had any visible impact on productivity or the degree of the employees’ involvement in the enterprise. Other devices whose purpose is to ensure some measure of participation by workers in management are the workers’ councils, particularly in Germany and France, and the participation of shop stewards and union officials in consultative bodies in Great Britain. While the record of the French and German councils in the administration of plant welfare agencies is praiseworthy, their participation in consultation or decisions on technical and general business matters has so far only rarely been effective.

In the Yugoslav system of workers’ self-government, the councils are to act as managers, although the plant director himself is primarily responsible to the public authorities of the area and only partly responsible to the workers’ council. Under the general political and economic conditions of the country, the council system, which has aroused a good deal of interest, has only limited possibilities of development. When the general administration of a country is of an authoritarian nature, full self-government in the plant, which might create many problems, particularly in countries undergoing rapid industrialization processes, would appear to be impossible to attain.

Collective bargaining

Great Britain has been described as the motherland of collective bargaining; it has been traced back there to the end of the eighteenth century (Webb & Webb 1897). Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century it had become widely accepted in British industry. It has remained the predominant form of determining wages and working conditions, even though the introduction of a general legal obligation to engage in collective bar-gaining after the pattern of the Wagner Act in the United States has been rejected by the unions. An obligation to engage in collective bargaining exists only under the post-World War II statutes providing for the nationalization of certain industries.

On the Continent developments have been slower, in line perhaps with the less rapid progress of industrialization and prolonged legal restrictions upon the existence or the functioning of unions. Significant collective bargaining occurred in France only after World War I (syndicalist refusals to engage in collective bargaining may have contributed to the delay), and even then it was limited to a few years. In 1936, a new trend began during the socialist-led Popular Front regime. This was soon interrupted, however, by World War II. The present system is based upon legislation enacted in 1950. In Germany, the legal restrictions on unionism were reduced in the North German Confederation in 1867, but the antisocialist legislation under Bismarck did not allow collective bargaining to start on a larger scale until the 1890s. Unionism and collective bargaining flourished in the Weimar Republic and resumed after the fall of Hitler.

Yet, apart from England, collective bargaining has never achieved the importance in Europe that it has in the United States. In general, collective bargaining is relatively most important in the United States and Great Britain, of least significance in the newly industrializing nations, with the Continent somewhere in between. In most Continental countries, mixtures of collective bargaining and other methods of wage setting exist that make it difficult, if not impossible, to determine exactly where collective bargaining begins and other methods end. In many of the underdeveloped countries, governmental wage setting is customary, although not always enforceable. Two factors seem particularly relevant in explaining these differences in the importance of collective bargaining: (1) the tradition of regulating social relationships either by contract or by law and administrative action and (2) the long-run situation on the labor market. The first depends upon the continued impact of mercantilistic thinking or, alternatively, the breakthrough of economic liberalism. The second depends upon the long-run existence (or absence) of excess supplies of labor, mainly in the form of underemployment (primarily in agriculture, but also in small-scale crafts and trade.

The British wage councils are one example of such mixtures of bargaining and other forms of wage setting. These were set up, by special legislation, for industries in which inadequate collective bargaining machinery existed and also for some specifically designated industries (Agricultural Wage Act, 1948, 1949; the Road Haulage Act, 1938; and the Catering Wage Act, 1943). Although controlled by a minister in both composition and procedure, the councils operate in a way not very different from collective bargaining. In France, some of the nationalized industries are exempt from the obligations of collective bargaining; wages and working conditions in these industries are determined by a law, astatut. But the working out of thestatut involves a process not dissimilar to collective bargaining. Moreover, French law provides for a government-appointed committee to recommend a minimum wage for all occupations. This process itself is not very different from collective bargaining, as the committee comprises labor and management representatives as well as others. In addition, changes in the minimum wage often exert a direct impact upon the rates set in collective bargaining, since the lowest rates set in many agreements are often close to the legal minimum.

A further complication in estimating the importance of collective bargaining in different countries arises from differences in the function of collective agreements. In many countries, in periods of full employment, effective wage rates exceed contract rates. This phenomenon—labeled “wages drift” in Sweden—must, however, be distinguished from the German system. In the German system, it is expected at all times that the contract rates are merely a minimum upon which will be based effective rates, which are arrived at sometimes in agreements between the workers’ council and the management but more often in individual negotiations. The distance between effective and contract rates varies over time, but in periods of full employment it is significant enough to make union demands for changes in contract rates often appear irrelevant to a substantial portion of the union membership —the portion whose effective rates are above the level the union is aiming at. The labor organizations have tried to meet this problem, which threatens to devalue collective bargaining for the rank and file, by “bringing bargaining closer to the plant,” i.e., concluding union-sponsored agreements for smaller areas and moving contract rates closer to effective rates. Occasionally they have included a so-called effective clause in their contract demands, which stipulates that any improvements granted in contract rates would also be added to effective rates above the contract level. But the absence of effective union organizations at the plant level in most European countries has proven a serious handicap for such developments.

”Extension” of agreements

In a number of countries, among them New Zealand, Australia, Germany, France, and the Netherlands, contracts can under certain circumstances be extended, usually by the government. Extension usually has two attributes: (1) the agreement is given the force of a law and (2) it is made applicable to plants and workers not represented at the bargaining table. The main purpose of extension is to protect the firms operating under the standards established by the agreement against the competition of firms not subject to them. Extension thus reduces the incentive to organize these firms; at the same time it makes essential a shaping of the agreement in such a way that it can be extended according to the prevailing rules. In Germany, for instance, and with a slight modification in the Netherlands, extension is possible only if the employers’ association represents firms employing a majority of the employees in the industry or portion of the industry covered by the contract. No requirements for the coverage of the union are included in the law. Union concern for the extension of the agreement may restrain union wages policy, since excessive demands may induce marginal employers to leave the association, thus depriving it of the membership necessary for the extension of the agreement. In France, extension is limited to contracts concluded by the “most representative unions.” In 1936, when the principle was first introduced into the legislation by the Popular Front government, this term may have been intended to refer to the union representing a majority of the employees in the bargaining unit. This interpretation would have given an effective bargaining monopoly to the then socialist-controlled CGT. Under political pressure this interpretation was abandoned, and the term “most representative union” now refers to all major unions.

The emphasis on the coverage of the employers’ association rather than that of the union tends to reduce labor’s interest in union security clauses of the type found in the United States. However, concern for union strength, financially and in terms of membership, operates in the opposite direction, particularly since the traditional incentive for union membership—class consciousness and a sense of class solidarity—has been waning in the postwar climate of prosperity and diminishing social and political discrimination against workers. European legislation frowns upon such institutions as the closed shop or the union shop. To be lawful, French agree-ments must contain clauses about the freedom of workers to join unions or not to join them. In the Netherlands, the law specifically exempts, from extension, provisions of a collective agreement “which aim at …coercing employers or workers into joining an employers’ or workers’ association … bringing about discrimination in treatment between organized and unorganized parties or persons…” The close relationships between unions and certain political parties tend to make compulsory unionism appear a violation of freedom of conscience and thus to give moral support to the prohibition of union security clauses. However, the agency shop, which requires payment of a fee by the worker to the union to compensate it for representing a nonmember, appears to be legal in certain countries, for example, in Switzerland. Moreover, when unions aspire to union shop clauses, it is commonly understood that the worker can join any bona fide union rather than a specific union. This may go back to the sense of class solidarity, which, at least until recently, meant more to the rank and file than did interunion competition.

Extension tends to reinforce the fairly general emphasis in Europe and other industrial nations outside the United States on large area-wide agreements. One of the implications of this is that the basic agreement must be sufficiently general to be applicable to many different firms in a fairly large area, which is frequently the entire country, as in France and Great Britain, or large parts of it, as in Germany. As a result, the basic agreement is rather brief; essential clauses are worked out at lower levels. Negotiations in the plant, however, and at least portions of the grievance handling are often in the hands of a nonunion organization, namely the workers’ council.

Centralization of bargaining

From the point of view of the degree of centralization of bargaining, the industrialized countries can be grouped into two categories. The Netherlands and Norway are examples of countries with highly centralized wage bargaining. Britain stands for the group characterized by competitive sectional bargaining. This classification relates to the role that the trade union federation plays in relation to the collective bargaining policies of its affiliates. Another possible classification refers to the degree of public control of the wage-setting process. Control may go hand in hand with centralization, since the latter facilitates the former, but logically the two must be kept apart; control is possible, although perhaps difficult to enforce, without centralized bargaining systems. Finally, the term “centralization” might refer to the territorial coverage of the agreement: whether it is national, regional, or local in scope or whether it is a firm or plant agreement. In this sense, most European agreements tend to be far more centralized than most agreements in the United States.

In the Netherlands, central control over bargaining has been in force since the end of the war. The key role in the process is played in fact, although not under the law, by the Labor Foundation. Officially this body merely provides advice on questions of general importance, but this advice has been so consistently accepted that it must be interpreted as almost decisive. In composition the foundation follows the general pattern of bipartite bodies: it consists of equal numbers of representatives of management and the unions. The union representatives come from the three main union federations, the socialistic NVV, the Roman Catholic KAB, and the Protestant CNV. This ranking corresponds to their numerical strength. The NVV has close to 500,000 members, the KAB 400,000, and the CNV more than 200,000. All three endeavor to organize workers in all industries. On the employers’ side a similar division exists, except that the religious organizations are relatively far weaker. The combined coverage of the employers’ organizations, expressed as a percentage of those eligible for membership, is double that of the unions.

Collective bargaining usually begins with discussions in the foundation, which lead to an expression of opinion as to mandatory or permissive changes in the existing agreements. These are then translated into more concrete terms by negotiations on lower levels. All agreements negotiated at the level of the firm or industry must be approved by the central authorities before they become legally valid. This decision is in fact in the hands of the Social and Economic Council, although the council merely advises the government, which has the legal authority to approve or reject agreements through a board of government mediators. The council, consisting of union, employer, and public representatives, seems to follow the recommendations of the foundation rather closely, and the minister in turn almost always accepts the council’s advice. The two elements of centralized bargaining and government control of wage change are thus closely intertwined. The wage structure is regulated by way of centrally determined principles of job evaluation and regional differentials. Since 1962 this system has undergone considerable change; it has been decentralized and controls have been reduced. The main impetus for these changes has come from extreme labor shortages.

Centralization without, or at least with a far lesser degree of, government control than the earlier Dutch system is exemplified by Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. In all three countries union membership comprises about two-thirds or more of all employees. This, together with the small size of the countries, facilitates centralized wage bargaining. The Norwegian system started after World War Ii with compulsory arbitration of contract changes. This was later limited to cases where wage demands had not received the approval of the central labor federation. In 1952, the principle of compulsory arbitration was altogether abandoned. As a result, wage policy is set in negotiations between the trade union federation and the employers’ association. However, the close relationship between the unions and the Labor party, which has been the government for most of the time, has provided for informal mutual coordination. In emergencies, such as the sharp price increases of 1958, the government has not hesitated to invoke compulsory arbitration procedures. The Swedish system, although similar in some respects to that in Norway, has been relying less on compulsory arbitration, which is used, if necessary, to settle disputes about the interpretation of agreements, and more on the internal discipline of employers’ and union federations, whose position is buttressed by their control over substantial funds. Cooperation between the government—led by the Social Democrats—and the socialist-led unions provides a high degree of assurance that union wage policy and government policy run along fairly parallel lines.

A higher degree of decentralization in bargaining has gradually evolved in Germany. While union organization after the fall of the Third Reich began on the local and regional level, the center of gravity of the movement shifted rapidly toward the main trade union federation, the DGB, when it was set up in 1949. Part of the DGB’s authority derived from the fact that whereas in the Weimar Republic the labor movement had been divided into competitive organizations along religious and political lines, the new unions were unified and at first exerted considerable public influence. Essentially this unity has been preserved in spite of the rise of a small Roman Catholic federation, whose main strength is concentrated in the Saar district, and the establishment of separate organizations, one for civil servants and another for part of the white-collar labor force. With the DGB acting as its official spokesman, the movement concentrated its efforts in the first phase of its life toward the attainment of changes in the structure of industrial management and the re-establishment of workers’ representation at the plant level. The first was achieved for coal and steel by the system of codetermination, the second by the Works Constitution Law. The main provisions of this law relate to the establishment of workers’ councils within the plants of private enterprise; later legislation extended this institution to public services. Although during the struggle for passage of these laws the federation took the lead, the later shift of emphasis to collective bargaining brought with it a transfer of power to the 16 industrial unions affiliated with the DGB, since the unions have full power in wage movements. The Metalworkers Union, in particular, has played a key part in bargaining developments. In spite of large membership figures in absolute terms, the DGB unions represent only about 35 per cent of the wage earners. The percentage is constantly declining, and union membership is frequently shortlived so that a considerable recruitment effort is necessary merely to maintain membership at a steady level.

Within the individual unions in Germany there is a high degree of centralization of authority. The full-time district officials, who were at first elected in some unions, are now usually appointed by the national executive committee of the union. This has particular significance since collective bargaining is carried on typically in the districts or for even larger areas and involves the top union officers. The plant organization of the unions, on the other hand, although eagerly promoted, is rather weak, as the workers’ councils, which are elected by all workers, perform the union functions at the plant level.

German employers’ associations—about which relatively little detail is known—are strong and have great discipline. The associations are combined in one central confederation, the BDA. Combativeness, after a long period of social peace devoted to the reconstruction of the country, is growing on both sides. The weapon of the lockout has been employed on a large scale, although it met with only modest success during a metalworkers’ strike in early 1963.

Although agreements are most commonly concluded for large areas, there are few really nation wide agreements. The basic contract is of limited scope, as far as subject matter is concerned, partly because the well-developed social security system and supplementary legislation regulate many fringe issues and partly because only principles are set-tied in this master contract and the details are regulated in agreements with less geographic coverage. Not infrequently special contracts with differing geographic application settle different subject matters. In particular, plant agreements worked out with the assistance of the workers’ council frequently supplement and improve, from the workers’ point of view, the terms of the master contract. Many companies offer voluntary fringe benefits beyond those set by law or by contract. The administration of these voluntary benefits and the supervision of the observation of contracts and laws form one of the main activities of the workers’ council. As the rates set in master contracts or other large-area agreements are usually quite modest in order to facilitate extension of the contracts, great emphasis is placed upon the improvements that plant or personal agreements can bring.

While there may be a consistent wage policy on a national scale on the part of the well-organized and disciplined employers, unions set their policy primarily within the limits of the individual industrial union. Attempts at a national wage policy —for example, a proposal that the government appoint a body of experts to review wage demands —have been without result. The government, however, has intervened rather frequently in wage negotiations by pleas for wage restraints.

British collective bargaining is far more decentralized. Union organization and bargaining systems have grown up over the decades without plan. Written and unwritten agreements and law and custom regulate industrial relations in an almost chaotic fashion. The centra] organizations on both sides—the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the British Employers’ Confederation (BEC)—have only limited power.

The TUC combines pure craft, amalgamated craft, industrial, and general unions ranging from a few hundred members to more than a million. Some unions are not affiliated with the TUC, some because of legal inhibitions and a few out of choice. With close to ten million members, the movement represents less than half the wage earners. A certain amount of order is established for bargaining purposes by the creation of federations of unions in related industries, as for instance those in shipbuilding or the National Federation of Building Trade Operatives. A slow process of amalgamation of smaller unions has been under way for many years, encouraged by TUC resolutions. The haphazard character of the organizations, the relatively weak position of the TUC, and the tradition of union autonomy in bargaining have pre-vented the movement so far from playing a part in formulating a national wage policy. Yet the idea is gaining ground that such a policy may be required and that the unions should accept their responsibilities within the framework necessary to formulate and implement it.

The experience of the Labour government that came into office in 1945 does not facilitate the task of the partisans of a national wage policy. “Voluntary wage restraint” was inaugurated in 1948 without union participation, and union support was lukewarm from the beginning. Yet in order to support the Labour government, the union drive for higher wages slowed down noticeably for some two years. Contract rates continued to rise, but distinctly less rapidly than prior to the “wage pause.” Under the impact of full employment, however, effective rates increased more rapidly than contract rates. The British unions thus suffered the same experience that the Swedish unions suffered under similar circumstances during the same period. The resulting tension within the movement led the unions in both countries to abandon the policy of voluntary restraint. A new experiment in a government-sponsored “incomes policy” has been under way in Britain since 1961. A balance of payments crisis in 1966 caused the government to establish a temporary wage freeze. A Prices and Incomes Board has been set up whose functions are not quite clear. The role that unions are to play under full employment, particularly in the systems of democratic planning that some countries in Europe are endeavoring to develop, is still uncertain.

The most immediate channel through which the government can exert influence upon wages is its control of the nationalized enterprises. Collective bargaining in many of these industries is subject to government instructions to the managing boards, and the impact of the wage bargains in nationalized industries is considerable since these industries are of great importance in the total economy of Great Britain, France, and several other European countries. Various forms of arbitration are potential levers for the implementation of a wage policy, as arbitration about the terms of a new contract, contrary to U.S. custom, is not infrequent in British industry. This may occur through an existing agreement or, as is more frequently the case, through the Industrial Court, which was established by the Industrial Courts Act of 1919. In fact, however, arbitrators have been more concerned with settling conflicts rapidly than with implementing any particular policy. No long-run solution has yet been found for the problem of fitting free collective bargaining into full employment economies.

Unionism and prosperity

Most observers agree that the prolonged boom in western and central Europe since the early 1950s has been accompanied by substantial changes in the spirit and operations of the unions. Full employment, indeed a labor shortage, rapidly rising real wages, and the continuing decline of social discrimination against workers have led to a transformation of European society. One aspect of this has been a distinct decrease of class consciousness among the workers and considerable modifications of the meaning of the traditional socialist allegiance of the majority of the workers. This has been one factor weakening union-party relations. Another has been the transformation of the structure of the labor force, particularly the growing share of white-collar and professional employees. As a result, union membership has been stagnating and the social democratic and labor parties have tended to change from class parties into people’s parties by de-emphasizing their working-class character.

Within the unions these developments have sharpened the need for stronger representation in the plant and for a shift of the center of gravity of collective bargaining away from union headquarters. At the same time, however, newly developing efforts toward some form of democratic planning extending into the area of personal incomes accentuate the necessity of centralized union leadership that is capable of implementing income policies arrived at by the planning process. The outcome of these contradictory tendencies is uncertain. Some relationship may exist between the trend toward planning and the decreasing use of the strike weapon in western Europe. However, the latter phenomenon also has been observed in countries rejecting the use of planning.

The decline of class consciousness threatens to remove the strongest pillar upon which European unionism has rested in the past. Effectiveness in the performance of the practical tasks of unionism is increasingly the appeal that the labor organizations are holding out to the younger generation. This, however, involves a transformation of spirit, structure, and emphasis, which long-established organizations are often reluctant to undergo.

Adolf Sturmthal


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Clegg, Hugh A. 1960 A New Approach to Industrial Democracy. Oxford: Blackwell.

Clegg, Hugh A.; Fox, Alan; and Thompson, A. F. 1964 A History of British Trade Unions Since 1889. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon.

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Edelman, J. Murray; and Fleming, Robben W. 1965 The Politics of Wage-Price Decisions: A Four-country Analysis. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

Ehrmann, Henry W. 1957 Organized Business in France. Princeton Univ. Press.

Flanders, Allan 1964 The Fawley Productivity Agreements: A Case Study of Management and Collective Bargaining. London: Faber & Faber.

Flanders, Allan; and Clegg, Hugh A. (editors) 1954 The System of Industrial Relations in Great Britain: Its History, Law and Institutions. Oxford: Blackwell.

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Perlman, Selig (1928) 1949 The Theory of the Labor Movement. New York: Kelley.

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A Decade of Industrial Relations Research, 1946–1956. New York: Harper.

Sturmthal, Adolf 1964 Workers Councils: A Study of Workplace Organization on Both Sides of the Iron Curtain. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Sturmthal, Adolf (editor) 1966 White Collar Trade Unions: Contemporary Developments in Industrialized Societies. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

Turner, Herbert A. 1962 Trade Union Growth; Structure and Policy: A Comparative Study of the Cotton Unions in England. Univ. of Toronto Press.

Webb, Sidney; and Webb, Beatrice (1897) 1920 Industrial Democracy. New ed. London and New York: Longmans.


The structure of labor unions is the result of a variety of influences Industrial processes, the size and form of the employing unit, the skills, character, and ethnic and national origin of the work force, as well as the time at which the union was first founded, all exercise some influence upon the structure and functions of labor organizations. While one might reduce all unions to a few primary types, many variants have been developed in an effort to adjust the activities of the organizations to the needs of specific groups.

The local. The basic unit of structure and government of labor organizations is the local union. The local takes a number of forms, though all have some characteristics in common. It may be made up of workers of a single craft—bricklayers, plumbers; of employees of an industry—automobile or steel workers; or of a number of occupational groups—but not all those employed in an industry. The International Typographical Union allows only one local to function in a community. Thus Big Six, the New York local, includes in its ranks the more than eleven thousand union printers in New York City. The basic working conditions and problems in the industry are sufficiently uniform so that labor-management issues can be handled by one local. Of course, the size of the business unit and conditions of employment in the newspaper, book, and job branches are different, but these variations may not be significant for collective bargaining or contract administration.

The majority of unions, even those which were originally craft organizations, usually allow more than one local to function in a given community. This practice, however, does not automatically give any group within the organization the right to set up new local units. The basis for multiple local unions is not always clear, especially in organizationsestablished in the early years of the century or before. In some early unions, locals were established on the basis of language. Thus, Swedish or German carpenters, Italian or Puerto Rican dressmakers, and German- or Yiddish-speaking printers might establish local unions which were chartered to allow non-English-speaking groups to conduct union affairs efficiently.

Multiple local unions were also established because the union included more than one type of worker. For example, there are separate local unions of plumbers and steamfitters; linemen and journeyman electricians; garment cutters and operators; carpenters and workers manufacturing doors, trim, and window frames; coal- and milk-wagon drivers; and garage mechanics and machinists. From the beginning it may have been believed that special problems could be better handled if members were segregated on the basis of skill or occupation. Another basis for union organization is residence of members. Here again, the purpose of establishing more than one local in a community is to facilitate union business.

The rise of unionism in manufacturing created new grounds for multiple local organizations. For example, unions operating in the steel, automobile ,and electrical manufacturing industries also recruit workers from a variety of other related industries. Under such conditions local unions may be based upon the employer unit or even a division or department of a single establishment. No common rule for deciding the number of local unions exists, although internationals may seek to prevent the existence of two locals in a particular area. It is not always easy to eliminate locals which have shrunk in size or which might be merged with another without loss of efficiency. Loyalty to a local union or pride ofleadership may be obstacles to mergers. National officers sometimes seek to combine two or more locals to eliminate political opponents, but opposition to mergers arises more generally because of loyalty to the old unit.

The local union transacts its business at periodic meetings and chooses officers to manage its affairs. If the number of members is small, the business of the union will be conducted by unpaid staff members who receive nominal payments and wages for time lost on union business. Locals are governed by their constitutions and bylaws, and if they are affiliated with a national or international union, their rules and policies must conform to the general constitution and bylaws.

The authority and the importance of local unions vary. In some organizations, the local union has almost complete discretion in the negotiation of the terms of employment. There may, at the same time, be some general objectives or standards which the locals are obligated to incorporate in their agreements; for example, the 5–day week or the 35–hour week. The power of the local incollective bargaining is influenced by the type of industry and marketin which it operates, and especially by whether the employing firms cater to a local, regional, or national market. Because their product is nottransferable, unions in the building construction industry have usuallyexercised a great deal of autonomy in collective bargaining and in themanagement of their own affairs. On the other hand, unions that bargain with firms or groups of firms operating in national product markets arelikely to limit more severely the discretion of their local unions inthe bargaining area. The national unions in coal mining, men’s clothing, glass, automobile, steel, and pottery manufacture are among those that exercise a more direct influence over the bargaining of theirlocals than do unions in the service trades and in building construction.

Locals of every union play important roles in carrying out the purposes of the organization, in collecting dues and assessments, inhandling grievances, and in protecting the rights and prerogatives ofmembers. Unless a local is a purely administrative unit, as in the seagoingunions, the local can manage much of its business without interference from higher union authorities. On many issues, however, the local union mustconform to rules and standards developed by the national or international organization. The local is formally a creature of theinternational union, and in many instances locals have arisen from the efforts of organizers employed by the international union.

As a rule, the local holds periodic business meetings at whichexpenditures are approved, appeals for financial or other kinds ofassistance are made, and general issues are discussed under the heading“good and welfare.” Attention has often been called to the lowattendance at local union meetings, the lack of interest shown in union affairs by large numbers of members, and the ability of minorities todetermine policy. The question is whether low attendance is a recent development or a problem that faced unionists in earlier generations. Acertain answer cannot be given, but evidence of an indirect kind doesexist. The fines levied for non-attendance and the rewards given for beingpresent indicate that union meetings were not normally overcrowded in the past, for reasons that are not difficult to perceive. The emphasis uponattendance at local meetings springs from an implicit view that unionsare general organizations for discussing social and economic policies. Few members regard the union from that point of view. The pri-mary functionof the union, from the point of view of the member, is to deal with the terms of employment. Attendance at local meetings will therefore be greateras contract-renewal time approaches, or when serious difficulties arise inthe administration of the contract. Normally, however, the business of theunion is conducted by a few activists— stewards, local officers, andthose deeply concerned with union policy.

To argue that poor attendance at meetings indicates the absence ofdemocracy is to give that term a curious definition. Democracy is a system ofgovernment that provides citizens with an opportunity to influence policydirectly or through elected officers. There are countries that compel voting in elections, but the United States does not. The reasons for lowattendance are complex. The greater dispersion of members makes the gathering of large numbers more difficult than in the past. Members may findthat to attend a union meeting they will have to eat out, reach home late, and miss their customary radio or television entertainment. Although failure to attend meetings may reflect inertia and lack of interest, it might also show satisfaction with the performance of the union.

Under present conditions it is not difficult for large numbers of workers in most industries to withdraw from a union if they aredissatisfied with its policies. While decertification requires effort andeven courage, workers intent upon ridding them-selves of a particular labororganization can usually succeed, providing they can muster a majority. Lowattendance at union meetings is accompanied by willingness to accept thedecisions of the organization, and this is the test of loyalty to theunion.

On the whole, trade unions are among the most democratic institutions in the United States, even though some local unions and larger bodies havebeen guilty of oppression and undemocratic practices. The typical ratherthan the extreme instances must be held in view when making judgments.Investigations of election complaints under the Landrum-Griffin Act haverevealed few violations of the members’ rights. Of the more than 52,000 local unions which held elections between September 14, 1959, and March 31, 1963, investigation disclosed violations in 380, but in only 207 instances might the results have been affected. In a number ofthese instances it is doubtful whether a court of law would overturn theelection were it to public office.

Intermediate bodies

The existence of a number of local unionsin a community has led to the development of such intermediate bodies as the joint or district board or council, a delegate body from a number of local unions of the same organization. These organizations exercise a considerable, and in some unions a predominant, influence over policy. In others, major power is retained by the locals. In the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the joint board has the primary role in negotiating and administering contracts. The district, as it is called in the International Association of Machinists, is an important delegate body engaging in organization, negotiations, and assistance to local unions, but the locals retain considerable autonomy. District councils are established in a number of the buildingtrades whenever more than a given number of local unions operate in a particular area. In some of these unions the district councils supervise the activities of the business agents and initially consider appeals from members. The teamsters’ union requires that locals in a particular area join the district council, but the power these bodies exercise is not uniform throughout the union. In some areas, the district councilis powerful in collective bargaining and in its influence upon the affiliatedlocals; in others, its influence is only nominal. A district council maycover a particular community or stretch over a large area, as do the district councils of some of the building trades. These councils maynegotiate and administer contracts with employers.

The need for rapid and decentralized decisions has compellednational unions to develop regional forms of organization. Regional headsmay be ap-pointed, or they may be vice-presidents or members of the executiveboard elected on a regional basis. In some unions the officer is chosen by the dele-gates or members from the district he represents, and in others he is elected by the entire delegate body at a convention or by the general member-ship in a referendum.

The United Mine Workers of America was organized on a district basisfrom its beginning. Some districts were established prior to the nationalunion. District organizations became small-scale replicas of the national union, with a president, vice-president, and executive boardchosen by the district membership. At one time, the districts in the UnitedMine Workers were much more powerful administratively and politically than they are now. Most national leaders served apprenticeships in district offices, although John Mitchell and John L. Lewis, the greatest and most creative leaders, did not occupysignificant offices on that level. The districts exercised sufficient autonomy so that they could refuse to accept the interstate agreementswith the operators if they believed their interests were not wellserved. During the 1920s the United Mine Workers of America faced a seriousinternal crisis that was generated in part by the decline in economic importance of the older, northern districts. The districts’ loss ofmembership and power led in a number of instances to their being placed inprovisional status, with their officers appointed by the international president. West Virginia and Kentucky, which were newly organized in theearly 1930s, were also placed under provisional rule, so that the districtsbecame mere administrative units under the control of the international office. This development was influenced not only by the shift of the locus of power within the union from the older organized districts ofIndiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania to the newer, southern regionsbut also by economic shifts which required a single national policy andsubordination of regional leaders to the needs of the nationalorganization.

Even when the regional organization is not formally established in the same way as in the mine workers’ union, it may perform important organizational and administrative functions, especially when the regional office is headed by an international officer. Usually theregional director or vice-president will direct a number of organizers, who may also handle issues that cannot be settled through directnegotiation at the plant level. The regional head is ultimately responsiblefor developments within his region, and in some unions he rules initially on appeals for or against members involving internal union affairs orquestions of collective bargaining affecting such issues as seniority and grievance processing. The regional head may be responsible fororganizing work, act as a mediator between rival groups in locals, andparticipate in the more difficult or more important collective bargaining negotiations within the region. Regional directors often acquire anindependent position within the union. They may have a considerablefollowing among the locals, and they are among the chief molders of the organization’s policy.

Unions on the railroads have established lodges at various terminal points, and the lodges on a particular carrier are members of a systemfederation. Local lodge chairmen perform the same functions as businessagents or staff members in other unions, and general chairmen might beregarded as regional representatives.

A number of unions have established state conferences of local unions. These may be formally organized as in the bricklayers’ union, or theymay be informal meetings of local representatives to discuss commonproblems. A variety of structural forms have developed as a result of thebreakdown of the old American Federation of Labor principle of exclusive jurisdiction. Under this rule, a union claimed the right to organize all workers within its jurisdiction, and other affiliates were obliged to avoid infringement upon its jurisdiction by refraining from organizing such workers. This principle could not be effectively applied in manufacturing industries, especially in those that used mass-production methods. Moreover, when the AFL ceased to be the only federation, the principle could not be enforced. As a result, unions have been organizing a greater variety of workers than previously, and new types of units have been devised to allow special groups to work out their problems.

Unions may set up conferences or divisions for particular industries or occupations within their jurisdiction. The Textile Workers’ Unionof America has a dyers’ division because the problems and pay scales of dyers are different from those of other textile workers. Longshoremen may allow warehousemen who belong to the same union to have a separate unit.The automobile workers’ union has established a skilled trades department to handle problems of training, bargaining, apprenticeship, and other matters affecting skilled workers. The union’s primary activities are in an industry made up of firms with many establishments. A variety of departments—General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, aircraft, foundry, die casting, and many more—have been set up to coordinate activities. The heads of departments are appointed by the president of the union with the consent of the executive board.

The teamsters’ union has developed two types of intermediate units. The geographical conference, the Western Conference of Teamsters, was initiated by David Beck. This was, at first, an informal grouping of teamster locals from 11 western states and British Columbia. The principal reason given for the formation of this body was the need to coordinate bargaining with employers who operated over a wide geographical area. Geographical conferences have now been established over the entire United States and Canada. In addition, conferences of localsin particular industries have been set up on a regional and national level. Meetings are held periodically at which bargaining and organizing methodsare discussed.

The Associated Actors and Artists of America is a federation of eight unions in the entertainment industry, although the component organizations appear as divisions of the federation. The Actors’Equity Association, American Federation of Television and RadioArtists, and the Screen Actors Guild contain about 70 per cent of the total membership. The Seafarers International Union of North America is an all-inclusive organization of unlicensed personnel on the East and Gulf coasts, but it has three nominal departments on the Pacific coast antedating the formation of the SIU—the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific, the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union, and the Pacific Coast Marine Firemen, Oilers and Water tenders Union.

District 50 of the United Mine Workers of America presents another exception. Originally established by the parent organization to recruit workers in nonmining occupations, it functioned for a long time as a districtof the miners’ union. It has, however, organized several hundredthousand workers in utilities, manufacturing, and construction and now functions as a sort of English-type general union.

National and international unions

For many purposes the international or national union is the most important unit of structure and government. It is autonomous, and it establishes its own rules for managing its own affairs and for collective bargaining. Normally, international unions claim that their geographical jurisdiction extends over the United States and Canada. A number of the unions formed prior to World War I began as national unions and changed their title when they expanded intoCanada. Not all international unions function in every state, province, and region of the two countries, nor are the unions spread uniformly over them. The spatial dispersion of membership is determined by the location of the employing units whose workers the union recruits, by the responses of workers it seeks to organize, and by the resistance it encounters from employers.

Officers of the international unions are elected by the delegates to the convention or by the membership in a referendum. It has been noted that the tenure of international officers is long, regardless of the structure of the union, the kinds of workers recruited, and even the political coloration of the union. Contests for higher union office are unusual. Heads of unions, like their counterparts in other kinds of organizations, become well known. Unless there is serious division within the official hierarchy or widespread dissatisfaction with performance or policy, incumbents of national office tend to be re-elected repeatedly. In contests for office, incumbents have several inherent advantages. They perform tasks that bring them into direct contact with the membership, their reports appear in the official press, and they may handle collective bargaining and grievance negotiations for large groups within the union. Because the functions of union officers are likely to be more administrative than political, an argument can be made for long tenure. Contests for office at this level have recently increased, and it appears that this change reflects the influence of the Landrum–GriffinAct.

Local unions and district councils hold their charters from the international unions, and the jurisdiction, rights, and duties of the locals are defined in the international union’s constitution. The international union has the right under defined conditions to investigate the policies and conduct of its subordinate units, and if evidence of malfeasance, incompetence, or dishonesty is found, it may impose a receivership or trusteeship upon the local.

Trusteeships Trusteeships are regulated by the Landrum–GriffinAct. They must be reported to the United States Department of Labor, and the reasons for their imposition must be given. They can continue for only 18 months and can be renewed only upon a show of necessity and with the permission of the secretary of labor. The need for occasional intervention in local affairs is generally recognized, but the possibility of abuse of this power is obvious. Evidence of dishonesty,failure to carry out organizational tasks or conform to union rules, and factional rivalries that make it difficult for the union to function or administer its contracts fairly and effectively may warrant the intervention of the international union. The rigor with which trusteeships are applied is not uniform. In some instances a trusteeship may simply meanthe appointment of a representative of the international to supervise or to oversee the local’s activities. In other cases it can mean the displacement of some or all of the local officers and thetransfer of their functions to an appointed representative.

Appellate tribunals. International unions also serve as appellate tribunals to which members can appeal penalties imposed bysubordinate units or make complaints against local officers or policies. Unions as a rule permit appeal to more than one tribunal; in some a member dissatisfied with the verdict can appeal successively to the district council, regional vice-president, the international president, andfinally the convention. Some unions limit the number of appeals on certain questions and allow appeals on other issues to go to the convention at the request of the appellant. As of 1965, the requirement of charges being presented in writing and a trial being allowed was written into law. However, in the past, unions generally required charges to be made in writing and laid down trial procedures and methods of appeal. In many unions the membership of the local ultimately determines, through a vote, the guilt or innocence of a defendant and assesses the penalty. Some writers have argued that this is unfair because members are interested parties. It might be noted that this method does not always work to the disadvantage of the defendant. There have been more than a few cases in which members rejected overwhelming evidence against a popular defendant and refused to impose a penalty. Moreover, many penalties arereduced or set aside on appeal. Most of the charges made against members are for violation of union rules that govern conduct on the job.Charges do not customarily involve internal political questions. However, the latter are likely to result in charges of denial of rights.

Other international functions. The most important direct activity of the international union is the organization of the workers in its jurisdiction. The size of the organizing staff, the amounts expendedfor such purposes, and the significance of such activities differ among organizations. Several of the international industrial unions maintain large numbers of organizers and other staff people who perform functions similar to those of local business agents in other unions. In these cases, the central organization manages more of the local’s business than, for example, in the printing and building trades unions, where organizing activity by the international is likely to be largely in the form of monetary or staff aid to locals.

The international union sometimes administers benefit programs. The older unions, largely although not exclusively in the skilled trades, were organized before governmental systems of social security were in operation. These unions were formed to carry on both protective and beneficial activities. The latter include mortuary, sickness, pension, and unemployment benefits, which may be paid under specified conditions.

In the seagoing unions the international union is the only significant unit. Locals are mainly administrative centers to collect dues and to handle grievances and other problems. The shore delegates forthe various ports are elected by a general membership referendum or by conventions.


The income of the locals is derived mainly from dues, initiation and readmission fees, and assessments, although the last are not a significant source in most unions. Dues tend to be higher in the unions of skilled workers who earn high wages. It is those organizations which provide the more extensive welfare benefits, and dues must be high enough to finance them. As a rule, international unions tend to discourage the levying of assessments by their locals. Because these contributions are imposed irregularly they are likely to arouse dissatisfaction and opposition amongmembers. Consequently, in many organizations the local must demonstrate serious need before such a levy will be approved by the national officers. The Landrum-Griffin Act provides that increases of local dues or levying of assessments can be made only by a majority vote through a secret ballot of members in good standing at a general or special meeting.

Like dues, initiation and readmission fees tend to be higher among the unions of skilled than of semiskilled and unskilled workers. Some unions base their dues and initiation fees upon skill and upon the benefit rights particular members enjoy. Dues are usually a specified amount per month or quarter, but a few organizations charge a percentage of income earned at the trade or calling. International unions may require that all locals levy uniform dues and initiation fees, others allow a range of charges, a third group places a floor under these payments, and a fourth places a ceiling upon them.

International unions are mainly financed by a tax of a given amount per member per month. The size of the per capita tax also depends upon the kind of workers the union recruits, their skills, and the benefits the union provides. Per capita taxes tend to be higher in the skilled trades unions in building, printing, and entertainment. The tax may be divided into separate portions for carrying on various activities or placed in a general fund. For example, many unions allocate a set amount to a journal or publication fund. Another part may be placed in the mortuary, pension, or health and welfare fund, and a third into a general fund for administrative expenditures. Organizing costs may be drawn from a general or a special fund. Many unions maintain separate funds for the payment of strike benefits and allocate some part of the per capita payment for this purpose. Assessments are another source of income, although there is a tendency to avoid such levies. The conditions under which international assessments can be imposed are frequently defined in union constitutions; in a number of organizations they require the approval of the membership. Some unions also require locals to remit part of their initiation and readmission fees. Interest from securities and rents from property are also sources of income for international unions.

Officers and salaries

International officers are chosen either by the delegates at the conventions or by the membership in a referendum. The head of the union is usually the president, who as the chief executive officer is in charge of organizing and acts in general as a supervisor of the affairs of the locals under his jurisdiction. He ordinarily has authority to appoint organizers and much of the staff at headquarters. He is likely to be the most powerful person in the union, but in some unions the executive board may have more influence on final decisions. Unions also elect a secretary and a treasurer or combine the two offices into a secretary-treasurer.

Below the president, secretary, and treasurer in rank are the vice-presidents and members of the executive board; in some unions the vice-presidents constitute the executive boards. These bodies hold considerable power in many unions. They can review most decisions made by the officers stationed at headquarters, and they must approve a wide variety of decisions. To some extent their power depends upon the caliber of the persons serving. Vice-presidents and executive board members are selected by the entire union or by districts and serve for specific terms.

Salaries of union officers can be divided into several levels. The highest are the salaries of the presidents, secretaries, and treasurers. Next in line are vice-presidents and executive board members; staff men may be included in the latter group or occupy a position of their own. The lowest group are the local officers, although in some unions the heads of large locals may be paid salaries equal to those of organizers or even international vice-presidents. In a few organizations the leaders of large locals also serve as executive board members or vice-presidents of the international union and may receive extra compensation for these services. As a rule the business agents and other full-time officers in local unions of skilled trades will receive salariessome what in excess of the wages received by the members. In addition to salaries, union officers receive expenses. Organizers and other international officers are allowed either a specified amount for daily expenses and travel expenditures or are paid for expenses incurred.


The American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations is made up (as of 1965) of 137 national and international unions. About another fifty international unions remain unaffiliated. There are, in addition, several small federations of unaffiliated unions and a large number of independent single-plant unions. Some of the national unions outside of federation have withdrawn because of policy differences, as did the United Mine Workers of America; some were expelled by the AFL on charges of corruption, as were theteamsters’ and bakery and confectionsery workers’ international unions; some were ousted by the CIO on charges ofcommunist domination, as were the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America and a number of others.

The AFL-CIO is engaged in organizing, or in assisting its affiliates to organize, and carries on educational campaigns on behalf of the labor movement. It seeks to settle jurisdictional differences among its affiliates, and it aids those occupying the same or contiguous jurisdictions to merge, an activity in which it has had only modestsuccess. It is engaged in two types of political activity.First, it supports before Congress legislation it regards as benefiting the population, irrespective of whether it affects the organized or the unorganized. Its legislative committee examines every bill introduced in the Congress to determine its effect upon labor. This committee carries out the instructions of conventions or the directives ofthe executive council. Second, through the Committee on Political Education, the AFL-CIO makes known the voting records of congressmen, aids in registering voters, and endorses and aids those candidates it holds worthy of support. It publishes bulletins and leaflets and seeks to rally union members and friends in support of its endorsements.

The supreme governing body of the AFL-CIO is the biennial or special convention. The officers are a president and a secretary-treasurer, who are the executive officers, and 27 vice-presidents, each of whom must be a member of an affiliated organization and be chosen by the convention. The president, as the chief executive officer of the organization, supervises its affairs and presides at all conventions and at meetings of the executive council and the general board. He has the power to interpret the constitution, but he can be overruled by the council. The secretary-treasurer is in charge of monies and property. The executive council is the governing body between conventions, and it carries out the directives and decisions of conventions. In addition, an executive committee of the president, secretary-treasurer, and six vice-presidents consults with and advises the president on policy matters. A general board is made up of members of the executive council and a principal officer of each of the affiliated national or international unions and of each trade and industrial department. It meets at least once ayear and decides questions submitted to it by the executivecouncil.

A department of organization is prescribed by the constitution. In addition, the constitution calls for the appointment by the president of 14 standing committees to carry out the tasks of the federation and the directives of the convention. These committees deal with legislation, civil rights, political education, ethical practices, international affairs, education, social security, community services, economic policy, housing, research, public relations, safety and occupational health, andveterans’ affairs.

A large staff carries out the work of the federation. The organizing department maintains 23 regional offices, each headed by a regional director. The organizing staff of the federation can be of considerable importance in a given area or situation. Generally, however, it serves as an aid or auxiliary to the activities of affiliated unions. The social security division assembles information on various aspects of welfare legislation and prepares memoranda for the officers and releases for the press. The research department analyzes economic data, prepares briefs and testimony, and issues a monthly economic bulletin. The publications division issues a weekly newspaper, a monthly magazine, and other printed materials.

Central bodies. Central bodies are directly affiliated with the AFL-CIO on a city, state, or regional basis. These are composed exclusively of locals of national and international unions and organizing committees affiliated with the federation. In addition, a number of local unions and organizing committees are directly chartered by the federation. Whenever a sufficiently large group of locals in a particular trade or industry is affiliated with the federation, it may at the decision of the executive council be formed into a national council, but it remains directly affiliated with the federation. Finally, groups of local unions may be authorized to combine into autonomous national and international unions. Groups of directly affiliated local unions may request the executive council to authorize such combinations. The federation performs all the services and exercises the same authority toward directly affiliated locals as national and international unions do in the case of their locals.

The AFL-CIO is supported by a per capita tax levied upon all affiliates and upon directly chartered local unions. Revenue may also be derived from assessments authorized by a convention, and the executive council can call for the payment of limited assessments.

Trade and industrial departments. The need to devise a method of cooperation among unions operating in contiguous trades was early recognized. Local trades councils in the building and metal trades were formed in the 1880s. These organizations sought to develop cooperation among the separate trades employed in the same industry. The AFL recognized the building trades councils and allowed these bodies to affiliate with it. The AFL, however, feared that formal cooperation by a group of international unions might lead to the emergence of a competing power in the trade union world. After several unofficial efforts, the AFL recognized the need for formal cooperation and established departments in a number of industries in 1908. The building and construction trades department charters trades councils and seeks to devise general policies that will promote the unions and the construction industry. It has developed, after many trials, a fairly successful method of handling jurisdictional disputes among its members, who have been drawn closer together by the desire to present a common front against the industrial unions in the work assignment disputes. The functions of the metal trades department are similar to those of other trades departments, except that it has not faced many internal disputes. It charters trades councils in the metal-working industries that sometimes negotiate common contracts with employers. The union label and service trades department conducts campaigns for the use of union-made products and the patronage of service establishments which display the union insignia.

The railway employees department is made up of six international unions whose members maintain and service railroad equipment. These unions bargain jointly with the carriers. The maritime trades department seeks to enroll unions whose members are employed in seagoing services, or in serving vessels, or in handling cargo. Similarly, the food trades department is made up of unions in the food processing and distributing industries. The industrial union department is made up of a wide variety of unions, and it functions more like a general federation than a department. It has sought to develop common organizing drives and unifiednegotiations with employers—coalition bargaining —in firms where a number of unions hold bargaining rights. It also carries one ducational, research, and lobbying activities.

The Government Employees’ Council was formed in 1945 so that unions of government employees would be able to prepare common programs for legislative and administrative action. The Railway Labor Executives’ Association is made up of the chief executive officers of the railway unions, all but two of which are affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Most of the railway unions have virtually all of their members in the railroad industry, but eight have members outside of that industryand several have the majority of their members outside. The association, formed in 1926, functions as a policymaking body on legislation and other issues of interest to railroad workers. It is not a federation ofunions.

Philip Taft


Barbash, Jack 1961 Labor’s Grass Roots. New York: Harper.

Chamberlain, Neil W. 1965 The Labor Sector: An Introduction to Labor in the American Economy. New York:McGraw-Hill.

Commons, John Rogers et al. 1918–1935 History of Labour in the United States. 4 vols. New York: Mac-mill an.

Galenson, Walter 1960 The CIO Challenge to the AFL: A History of the American Labor Movement, 1935–1941.Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Gitlow, Abraham L. (1957)1963 Labor and Industrial Society. Rev. ed. Homewood, 111.: Irwin. → First published asLabor Economics and Industrial Relations.

Hoxie, Robert (1917) 1936 Trade Unionism in the U.S. 2d ed. New York: Appleton.

Leiserson, William M. 1959 American Trade Union Democracy. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Miernyk, William H. 1965 The Economics of Labor and Collective Bargaining. Boston: Heath.

National Industrial Conference Board 1956 Sourcebook of Union Government, Structure and Procedures. New York: The Board.

Saposs, David J. 1926 Left Wing Unionism. New York: International Publishers.

Slighter, Sumner H.; Healy, James J.; and Livernash, E. ROBERT 1960 The Impact of Collective Bargaining on Management. Washington: Brookings Institution.

Taft, Philip 1954 The Structure and Government of Labor Unions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Taft, Philip 1964 Organized Labor in American History. NewYork: Harper.

Ulman, Lloyd 1955 The Rise of the National Union: The Development and Significance of Its Structure, Governing Institutions, and Economic Policies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ.Press.


The main questions to which this article is addressed are empirical ones: (1) To what extent have labor unions affected the relative wages of different groups of labor in the United States?(2) What factors account for the observed differences in effects ofunions?(3) How variable were the relative wage effects from one date toanother during the period 1929–1958? (4)What regularities appear in the variations of theeffects over time?

Absolute and relative wages

Throughout this article, thetermwages covers the earnings of selfemployed persons as well as the compensation of wage and salary workers. The latter includes all remuneration for time worked at either straight-time or premium rates and for time not worked (vacation, holiday, sick leave, call-in pay, and other paid leave) and employer contributions to public and private unemployment, pension, health, and other employee welfare funds. A worker’s absolute moneywage per hour—for short, hismoney wage—is the sum in dollars of all of the pecuniary rewards to him per hour of his labor services. His real wage is the same sum expressed in dollars of fixedpurchasing power.

Thegeneral wage level, which may be expressed in either money or real units, is the average (mean) wage per hour of all workers in the U.S. labor force.

Therelative wage of a group of workers is the ratio of the average (mean) wage of all workers in the group to the average wage of all workers in the labor force, i.e., to the general wage level. Relative wages are indicators of the percentage differences in wages among groups of workers. For example, if the relative wage of one group is 1.5 and that of a second group is 0.75, the average wage of the first group is 50 per cent greater than the average wage of all workers and 100 per cent greater than the average wage of the second group, and the average wage of the second group is 25 per cent below the average wage of all workers.

It is impossible for the wage of every worker to exceed (or, alternatively, to be below) the average wage of all workers. Indeed, the average relative wage of all workers is always exactly equal to unity. Therefore, if the relative wages of some workers exceed unity, the relative wages of some other workers must be less than unity.

This article deals only with the effects of labor unions on relative wages. Unionism affects the relative wages of different groups only if it causes the absolute wages of the groups to change by percentage amounts that differ among the groups. Furthermore, if unionism raises the relative wages of some groups, it thereby lowers the relative wages of some other groups. For example, if nonunion workers outnumber union workers in the labor force in a three to one ratio, a 9 per cent increase in the average relative wage of union workers implies a 3 per cent decline in the average relative wage of nonunion workers.

On the other hand, that unionism has increased the average wage of union workers by, say, 12 per cent relative to the average wage of nonunion workers does not imply that unionism has raised theaverageabsolute money or real wage of union workers by 12 per cent rather than some different percentages.The effects of unionism on the general level of either money or real wages cannot be deduced from knowledge only of the relative wage impact of unionism.

Methods of estimation

The average relative wage of a group of labor in the presence of the unionism existing at a particular date can be observed directly. What the corresponding average would have been in the absence of unionism, however, can be estimated onlyuncertainly from observable data. Two different types of approaches have been used to estimate the relative wage effects of unionism:

Theindirect approach estimates the effect of unionism on the relative wage of a group of labor from estimates of the effects of unionism on other economic magnitudes pertaining to the group, such as its relative employment, its relative quit rate, and the excess supply (queuing) of labor to the group. Evidence that such nonwage effects are not zero often can be taken as evidence that unionism has affected the relative wage of the group. It is usually difficult, however, to estimate the size of the implied relative wage effect from evidence on the nonwage effects.

In thedirect, orwage comparison, approach the relative wage effects are estimated from comparisons of the wages or changes in wages of two or more groups of labor differing in their degree of unionization. The relative wage effect estimates presented later in this article are based almost entirely on studies that have used thisapproach.

Four types of wage comparisons may be distinguished in these studies:

Variant 1 compares the average wage of a given, usually more or less highly unionized, group at a particular date with the average wage at the same date of a bench mark group. The latter group commonly is a nonunion group considered highly comparable to the given group. In a few studies,however, the bench mark group approximates all labor in the economy. The difference in average wage between the two groups is adjusted to eliminate the effects of factors other than unionism, and the adjusted difference is attributed to unionism. This procedure yields an estimate of the effect of unionism on the average wage of the given group relative to the average wage of the bench mark group at the particular date.

Variant 2 treats simultaneously three or more groups differing in degree of unionization. This variant adjusts the average wages of the covered groups for the effects of factors other than unionism andcorrelates the adjusted average wages with the degree of unionization of the groups. Commonly the adjustment and the correlation take place simultaneously in a multivariate analysis of wages, degree of unionization, and other variables. Variant 2 estimates the effect of unionism on the average wage of union workers in the covered groups, relative to the average wage of the covered nonunion workers. The resulting estimate may be biased, however, even when the adjustment of the wage data for the effects of factors other than unionism is perfect. In general, the algebraic size of the bias can be calculated onlyroughly.

Variant 3 compares the change from a base date to a given date in the average wage of a given group with the corresponding change for a bench mark group and adjusts the difference between the two wage changes for effects of factors other than unionism. The effect estimated by this procedure is the change from the base date to the given date in the effect of unionism on the average wage of the given group relative to the average wage of the bench mark group.

Variant 4 correlates the adjusted changes from a base date to a given date in the average wages of several groups of labor with the degree ofunionization of the groups at the given date. This variant estimates the change between the two dates in the effect of unionism on the average wage of covered union labor relative to the average wage of covered nonunion labor. This estimate, like that from Variant 2, may be biased.

The central problem in all of the wage comparison procedures is adjusting the wage data for the effects of variables, other than unionism, that may be correlated with the effects of unionism. The data and procedures that have been used to make such adjustments are too detailed andtoo specialized to the individual studies to be summarized briefly. It should be said, however, that in general the adjustments have not been so refined as to leave little margin for error in the estimates of the relative wage effects of unions. For this reason the estimates given below should be regarded as quite tentative.

Recent research in the United States

Although unionism in the United States is well over a century old, it was not until the end of World War ii that union members comprised as much as 25 per cent of the U.S. labor force.A decade earlier union membership was about 8 per cent of the labor force, which was only slightly higher than the corresponding percentage in 1905. Since 1945 unionization in the U.S. labor force has remained around 25 per cent, rising by a small amount from 1945 to 1953 and then declining to a level in 1960 almost the same as that in 1945.

It is not surprising, therefore, that almost all of the empirical research on the relative wage impact of unionism in the United States was done after 1945. Two other factors help to explain the concentration of the research in the recent period. First, the supply of wage and other data required for research in this area also expanded greatly during the 1930s and 1940s. Second, command of the techniques of statistical economics was uncommon among economists until after 1945.

The empirical findings summarized below are based on evidence presented in 21 of the recent studies of unionism and wage differentials in the United States (see Lewis 1963, chapters 3–4, for reviews of thesestudies ). Since a considerable part of the recent research has been reported only in unpublished papers and doctoral dissertations, the summary undoubtedly is not exhaustive.

Nine of the studies cover large segments of the U.S. labor force and use the Variant 2 or Variant 4 wage comparison procedures to estimate the relative wage effect of unionism. Thus the summary numbers that emerge from these global studies all tend to be estimates either of the effect of unionism on the average wage of all union workers, relative to the average wage of all nonunion workers at a particular date—in short, the average union/nonunion relative wage effect—or of the change in this effect between two dates. These studies provide little or no information on the dispersion of the relative wage effects among different groups of union workers.

The other 12 studies deal with relatively small parts of the U.S. labor force as follows: production workers in basic steel manufacturing (Rees 1951); hotel employees in large cities (Scherer 1956); production workers in rubber tire manufacturing (Sobel 1954); skilled craftsmen and, separately, common labor in building construction in large cities (Sobotka 1953); production workers in bituminous coal mining (Greenslade 1952); employees in selected establishments, localities, and occupations, separately, by industry, in the manufacturing of paints andvarnishes, wooden furniture, footwear, cotton textiles, hosiery, automotive parts, and women’s dresses (Maher 1956); barbers in large cities (reported in Lewis 1963, chapter 3); production workers in the manufacturing of men’s and boys’ suits and coats (Rayack 1958);commercial airline pilots (Sobotka et al. 1958); street railway and bus motormen (Lurie 1961); seamen in east coast ocean transportation (Rapping 1961); and physicians (Friedman & Kuznets 1945; Lewis 1963, chapter 3).

These detailed studies provide a check on the estimates of the average union/nonunion relative wage effect drawn from the global studies. More importantly, it is only from such studies that the dispersion in the relative wage effects of unionism among detailed industries and occupations can be gauged.

Variation of influence over time

The clearest finding emerging from the 21 studies is that the size of the effect of unionism on the average union/nonunion relative wage in the United States has varied greatly and in a systematic fashion over time. The largest effect apparently occurred about 1932, during the rapid downturn of the depression. In 1932 the average union/nonunion relative wage effect may have been 25 per cent or even larger. In the recovery period from 1933 to the outbreak of World War II the effect dropped sharply to a level that was probably between 10 and 20 per cent in 1939.

The decline in the effect continued through World War II and into theperiod of rapid inflation that followed the war. At the trough, which occurred in the period 1945–1948, the effect of unionism on the average union/nonunion relative wage was approximately zero. (There is some evidence that the union/nonunion relative wage effect also was near zero at the peak of the inflation following World War I.)

The very low relative wage effect observed during 1945–1948 did not persist, however, in the following ten years. By 1957–1958 the effect of unionism on the average wage of union labor relative to the average wage of nonunion labor had risen to about 10 to 15 per cent. It should be noted in this connection that the rate of inflation of the U.S. general price level during 1949–1958 was only about a third as large as that during1939–1948.

In the late 1950s the extent of unionization of the U.S. labor force was approximately 25 per cent. Therefore, about one-fourth—or threeto four percentage points of the 10 to 15 per cent effect of unionism on the average union/nonunion relative wage estimated for 1957–1958—consists of a decline in the average wage of nonunion workers relative to the average wage of all workers. The remainder, 7to 11 per cent, is the estimated effect of unionism on the average wage of union workers relative to the average wage of all workers.

Role of money wage rigidity. That the effects of unionism on the relative wages of union workers tended to be greatest during periods of rapid deflation of the general price level and lowest during times of unexpectedly rapid inflation was observed and commented upon by the authors of several of the unionism wage studies. Albert Rees, Milton Friedman,Walter A. Morton, and numerous other economists have attributed the apparent negative correlation between the rate of inflation and theunion/nonunion relative wage effect of unionism to wage rigiditiesintroduced by collective bargaining: the union contract running for aperiod of a year or more, the reluctance of employers of union labor toagree to unusually large money wage in-creases during periods of unexpectedly great inflation lest the inflation not continue, and the similar opposition of unions to wage decreases during periods of declining prices.

One of the studies (Lewis 1963, chapter 6) has tried to measure the sensitivity of the average union/nonunion relative wage effect of unionism to variations in the rate of inflation and the rate of unemployment in the U.S. labor force during the period 1919–1958. The results of the study tend to confirm the large variability over timeof the relative wage effect observed in other studies and suggest thatthe variability is more largely ac-counted for by negative correlation with the rate of inflation than by positive correlation with the rate of unemployment.

Effects on the interindustrial relative wage structure

The effect of unionism on the average relative wage of the workers employed in a particular industry is a weighted average of corresponding relativewage effects for (a) the union labor and (fc) trie nonunion labor in theindustry, where the relative weight for the union labor is the extent ofunionization of the workers in the industry. For example, if the extentof unionization were 50 per cent and if unionism had raised the relativewage of the union workers in the industry by 20 per cent and lowered therelative wage of nonunion workers by 2 per cent, the effect of unionism on the average relative wage of the industry would be a plus 9 per cent. Therefore, the greater the dispersion among industries in the extent oftheir unionization and in the effects of unions on the relativewages of union workers and of nonunion workers, the greater will be thedispersion among industries in the effects of unionism on their averagerelative wages.

Since 1944 roughly three-fourths of the persons engaged intransportation and about half of those in mining, construction,manufacturing, communications, and electric and gas utilities have beencovered by collective bargaining arrangements. However, within each of these industry divisions there is considerable dispersion in extent ofunionization among detailed industries.

In contrast, the extent of unionization has been close to zero in agriculture, trade, finance and insurance, and government (excludinggovernment enterprises). The same is true in general of the serviceindustries except for hotels and eating and drinking places in large cities, the entertainment industries, and some of the personal service indus-tries. About half of the labor force is employed in the agriculture, trade, finance and insurance, service, and government industry divisions.

Estimates of extent of unionization by industry, with considerableindustry detail, are available for all of the major industry divisions in the United States. On the other hand, the 12 detailed”industry” studies of unionism and wages provide estimates of the relative wage effects of unionism for only a short list of industries. Nevertheless, the general character of the distribution of the relative wage effects among all U.S. industries can be gauged by combining the results of the 12 studies with the data on extent of unionization by industry. In the late 1950s the majority of workers probably were employed in industries whose average relative wages were raised orlowered by unionism by no more than 4 per cent. The data also indicate thatthe distribution was positively skewed with relative wage effects in someindustries equal to or exceeding 20 per cent. It is unlikely, however, that the payroll of these industries was more than a very small fraction of the aggregate compensation of the whole labor force.

The industries in which the relative wage effects of unionism were the largest algebraically tended to be those with above average relative wages. Therefore, unionism has been a factor making the relative inequalityof average wages among indus-tries larger than it otherwise would be. In 1958the coefficient of variation of average wages among industries was about 6 to 10 per cent larger than it would have been in the absence of any effects of unions on relative wages.

Effects on relative wages by occupation

Fragmentary dataindicate that the dispersion of extent of unionization among occupations isprobably at least as large as that among industries. Within industries characterized by industrial unionism— unionism of wage earnersregardless of occupation —there is, of course, relatively littledispersion in extent of unionization among the wage earner occupations. Onthe other hand, in both these indus-tries and others, white-collar(supervisory and other nonproduction) employees typically have not beenorganized by unions. In addition, in industries in which unionism followscraft (occupation) lines, such as printing and building construction,there are some substantial differences in extent of unionization among thewage earner occupations.

These differences in extent of unionization by occupation, together with the estimates of relative wage effects of unionism drawn from the studies that have dealt with occupations, suggest that the dispersion in relative wage effects of unionism among all occupations in the United States may be as large or larger than that among all industries.Furthermore, the interoccupational distribution of relative wage effects ofunionism, like that for industries, probably is positively skewed, with asmall fraction of the labor force employed in occupations in which therelative wage effects were larger than 20 per cent

Differing effects among union workers

The 12 studies thatdealt with fairly small groups of union workers indicate that thedispersion across union jurisdictions of the effects of unions on therelative wages of union workers probably was substantial except in theperiod near the end of World War II. For the period 1954–1957, for example, the esti-mates of these effects, drawn from the six studies thatprovided figures for this period, ranged from zero to about 50 percent.

Unfortunately, although the 12 “industry” studies covered 18 different groups of workers, there is no single date at which numerical estimates are available for each of these groups. For example, for the period 1936–1939 there are estimates for seven groups:(1) bituminous coal miners (30%); (2) skilled building craftsmen (25% ); (3) wage earners in men’s clothing manufacturing (16%);

(4) wage earners in rubber tire manufacturing (14%); (5) motormen in local transit (8%); (6) unskilled building labor (5% ); (7) hotelemployees (0%) . For the later period, 1954–1957, there are estimates for six groups, only three of which are on the preceding list: (1) bituminous coal miners (50% ); (2) commercial airline pilots (27%); (3) east coast seamen (20%); (4) barbers (19% ); (5) motormen in localtransit (12% ); (6 ) wage earners in men’s clothing manufacturing (0% ).Furthermore, some of the differences among the studies in the estimates atthese and other dates consist more largely, no doubt, of errors of estimationthan of real differences in effects, and in some other instances estimationerrors may have hidden real differences. For these reasons any ranking ofthe 18 groups according to the size of the relative wage effect at aparticular date is subject to considerable uncertainty.

Nevertheless, it can hardly be doubted that there were some largedifferences in relative wage effects from one union jurisdiction to anotherin the latter part of the 1950s. What factors account for thisdispersion? In the literature on labor unions, there is much evidence that the relative wage effect for the union workers in an industry will tend to be greater the larger the ratio of the output of union firms in the industry to the corresponding output of nonunion firms. The studies of unionism and wages also support the view that the relative wage effect will be larger, other things the same, the greater the rate of increase in the demand for labor in the industry.

That these two factors may fail to explain a substantial fraction of the dispersion among unions in relative wage effects for union workers is indicated by the fact that, except for 1945–1948, the largest effects estimated in the 12 studies consistently were those for bituminous coal miners. These miners, to be sure, have been relatively highly unionized; but so were many of the other groups covered in the studies. Furthermore, since World War II the relative demand for labor inbituminous coal mining has been declining.

Some observers of unionism in the United States have attributed the large relative wage effects for unionized coal miners in part to an unusual lack of concern by the United Mine Workers, the union representing most of the unionized coal miners, for the reduced employment of union miners resulting from high relative wage effects. It may be true that differences among unions in the extent of their concern for the employment of their members are important in explaining the differences in their relative wage effects. Until measures of such “taste” or “choice” differences among unions are developed, however, the quantitative significance of these differences for relative wages cannot be gauged.

Numerous other factors have been suggested by economists to explain the dispersion among unions in their effects on the relative wages of union workers: the ease of substituting other productive services for the services of union labor in production; the elasticity of supply of these other productive services to employers of union labor; the ratio of the cost of union labor to the cost of the other productive services; the degree of concentration of output (“degree of monopoly”)among firms in unionized industries; the ease of entry of new firms into unionized industries; the extent to which union control of the supply of labor in its jurisdiction is facilitated by governmental licensing of occupations and trades; and other factors. For each of the enumerated factors it is relatively easy to find cases that apparently support its inclusion among the variables explaining interunion dispersion of relative wage effects.

However, the absence of data on several of these factors, the small number and likely selection biases in the sample of groups of union workers for which estimates of relative wage effects of unionism are available, the differences among the estimates in the dates to which they pertain, the errors in the estimates, and the need to control for the effects of other factors while examining those of each particular factor impede, at present, evaluation of the relative importance of these factors or even the estimation of thedirection of their effects. Such evaluation will require much additional research on the factors themselves and on the impact of unionism in industries and occupations for which relative wage effect estimates are unavailable for recent years.

H. GreggLewis


Friedman, Milton; and Kuznets, Simon 1945 Income From Independent Professional Practice. National Bureau of Economic Research, General Series, No. 45. New York: The Bureau.

Garbarino, Joseph W. 1950 A Theory of Interindustry

Wage Structure Variation.Quarterly Journal of Economics 64:282–305.

Goldner, William 1958 Labor Market Factors and

Skill Differentials in Wage Rates. Pages 207–216 in Industrial Relations Research Association, Proceedings of the Tenth Annual Meeting. New York: The Association.

Greenslade, Rush V. 1952 The Economic Effects of

Collective Bargaining in Bituminous Coal Mining. Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. of Chicago.

Levinson, Harold M. 1951 Unionism, Wage Trends, and Income Distribution, 1914–1947.Michigan BusinessStudies 10, no.4.

Levinson, Harold M. 1960 Postwar Movement of Prices and Wages in Manufacturing Industries. U.S. Congress, Joint Economic Committee, Study Paper No. 21. Washington: Government Printing Office.

Lewis, H. Gregg 1963 Unionism and Relative Wages in the United States: An Empirical Inquiry. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Lurie, Melvin 1961 The Effects of Unionization on

Wages in the Transit Industry.Journal of Political Economy 69:558–572.

Maker, John E. 1956 Union, Nonunion Wage Differentials.American Economic Review 46, no. 3:336–352.

Princeton University, Industrial Relations Section1960 Wage Behavior in the Postwar Period: An Empirical Analysis. Research Report Series, No. 100. Princeton Univ., Industrial Relations Section.

Rapping, Leonard A. 1961 The Impact of Federal Subsidies and Maritime Unionism on the Relative Earnings of Seamen. Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. of Chicago.

Rayack, Elton 1958 The Impact of Unionism on Wages in the Men’s Clothing Industry: 1911–1956. Pages 674–688in Industrial Relations Research Association, Proceedings of the SpringMeeting. New York: The Association.

Rees, Albert 1951 Postwar Wage Determination in the Basic Steel Industry.American Economic Review 41: 389–404.

Rees, Albert 1962 The Economics of Trade Unions. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Ross, Arthur M. 1948 The Influence of Unionism Upon Earnings.Quarterly Journal of Economics 62:263–286.

Ross, Arthur M.; and Goldner, William 1950 Forces Affecting the Interindustry Wage Structure.Quarterly Journal of Economics 64:254–281.

Scherer, Joseph 1956 The Union Impact on Wages: The Case of the Year-round Hotel Industry.Industrial and Labor Relations Review 9:213–224.

Sobel, Irvin 1954 Collective Bargaining and Decentralization in the Rubber-tire Industry.Journal of Political Economy 62:12–25.

Sobotka, Stephen P. 1953 Union Influence on Wages: The Construction Industry.Journal of Political Economy 61:127–143.

Sobotka, Stephen P. et al. 1958 Analysis of Airline Pilot Earnings. Unpublished manuscript, Northwestern Univ., Transportation Center.

Labor Unions

views updated May 18 2018

Labor Unions

A labor union is an organization of wage earners or salary workers established for the purpose of protecting their collective interests when dealing with employers. Although unions are prevalent in most industrialized countries, union representation of workers has generally declined in most countries over the past 30 to 40 years. In the United States, unions represented about one-third of all workers in the 1950s. In 2005 unions represented less than 12.5 percent of the labor force7.8 percent of the labor force in the private sector; unions represented between 36.5 percent of public-sector workers.


Unions can be categorized by ideology and organizational form. A distinction is often made between political unionism and business unionism. The goals and objectives of these types may overlap, political unions are related to some larger working-class movement. Most political unions have some formal association with a working-class political party; these types of unions are more prevalent in Europe than they are in the United States. Contemporary American labor unions are best viewed as business unions. Business unions generally accept the capitalist economy and focus their attention on protecting and enhancing workers' economic welfare by collective bargaining. U.S. law entitles unions to bargain with employers over wages, hours, and working conditions.

But while most American unions are classified as business rather than political unions, U.S. business unions are also involved in politics. Most lobby and participate in electoral activities to support their economic goals. For example, many unions campaigned against passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The labor movement feared that NAFTA would undercut jobs of union workers and weaken unions' ability to negotiate favorable contracts with employers.

The earliest unions in the United States were known as craft unions. They represented employees in a single occupation or group of closely related occupations. Members of craft unions are generally highly skilled workers, in construction, for example, carpenters, plumbers, and electrical workers. Craft unions are most common in occupations in which employees frequently switch employers. A construction worker is usually hired to complete work at a specific job site and then moves on to work elsewhere (often for another employer). In addition to collective bargaining, craft unions often serve as a placement service for members. Employers contact the union's hiring hall and union members currently out of work are referred to the job.

Closely related to craft unions, though distinct in many respects, are professional unions. A professional is generally understood to be an employee with advanced and highly specialized skills, often requiring some credentials, such as a college degree and/or a license. Professional unions are much more recent than craft unions and are most common in the public sector. Teacher's unions are one of the most visible examples of this kind of union.

Most unionized workers in the United States belong to industrial unions. An industrial union represents workers across a wide range of occupations within one or more industries. A good example of a typical industrial union is the United Automobile Workers (UAW). It represents skilled craft workers, assembly-line workers, and unskilled workers in all of the major American automobile companies. The UAW negotiates separate contracts for workers in each of these companies. Although most industrial unions began by organizing workers in a single industry or group of related industries, most have diversified over the past 30 to 40 years. For example, the UAW also represents workers in the tractor and earth-moving equipment industry (e.g., Caterpillar and John Deere) and in the aerospace industry (e.g., Boeing), and in the late 1990s it added such disparate groups as the Graphics Artists Guild (3,000 members), the National Writers Union (5,000 members), and various service, technical, and graduate student employees at more than 20 colleges and universities across the country. In addition, the UAW and other national unions have increasingly sought to expand their influence into emerging high-tech sectors of the economy.

Another organizational form is the general union. General unions organize workers across all occupations and industries. Although some highly diversified unions, such as the Teamsters, may appear to be general unions at first glance, this form of organization does not really exist in the United States. Because they are typically politically oriented, general unions are more common in Europe and developing countries.

Open Shop and Closed Shop

The term "open shop" refers to a company policy that does not restrict the business's employee work force to union members. "Closed shop," on the other hand, refers to a company that hires only union members. Under this latter arrangement, employees are required to join the existing union within a specified time after they have been hired.


Union membership in the United States has varied considerably throughout the country's history. Although unions have been in existence in some form in the United States for nearly 200 years, they did not attain any meaningful level of power and influence until the 1930s, when several factors combined to spur a dramatic rise in union growth (the unionization rate went from about 12 percent of the labor force in 1935 to between 32 percent and 35 percent in the mid-1950s):

  1. The American economy shifted from an agricultural to an industrial base; industrial workers, who were concentrated in urban areas and increasingly shared the same language (English), were thus able to create a common culture that was absent among earlier generations of workers.
  2. The Depression created a backlash against big business entities, who were viewed as the chief culprits for the country's economic difficulties.
  3. Changing political dynamics also played an important role. Active support for organized labor was an integral part of Roosevelt's New Deal, and the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935 was a potent new weapon for union organizers. The NLRA provided a means for official recognition of labor unions. Once recognized, an employer was legally bound to bargain with the union, enforceable by government action.
  4. Economic growth during World War II and in the post-war era was an important facilitator of union growth.

By the mid-1950s, the most union-prone sectors of the American economy had largely been organized, and millions of workers saw improvements in their living standards as a direct result of union activity. Many economists observed that this rise in union fortunes helped non-union workers as well. "Collective bargaining has significantly improved the wages and working conditions of unionized and nonunionized workers," contended Levitan, Carlson, and Shapiro in Protecting American Workers. "Other benefits of union representation include increased leisure, better medical coverage, and more secure pensions. Finally, unions have helped nonunion workers by lobbying for legislation that grants all workers such protections as equal employment, safe and healthy workplaces, and secure pensions."

Unions maintained their strength at just under one-third of the labor force until about 1960. Union membership declined gradually, decreasing to about 25 percent of the labor force in the mid-1970s. The rate of decline was much sharper in the 1980s, and by the year 2005 private sector union membership had declined to less than 8 percent of the total.

Factors often cited for the decline in union membership include the following:

  • Changing nature of the global economy. International competition has increased significantly over the past few generations, especially in sectors of the economy that were heavily unionized (e.g., automobiles, steel, and textiles). As these industries became more competitive globally, employer resistance to unions often increased. In addition, it became feasible for employers to relocate production facilities to areas of the country which have traditionally been less supportive of unionism (such as the southern and Mountain states) or overseas to less developed countries that have low wages and few unions. Finally, employment in traditionally nonunion industries expanded, while employment in heavily unionized sectors declined.
  • Shifting demographics of the labor force. In the 1930s, "blue collar" workers represented a large proportion of the labor force. Now "white collar" workers (i.e., managers, professionals, and clericals) are a very large component of the labor force. Historically, white collar workers have been more difficult to organize (except in the public sector).
  • Changing attitudes of government. As early as 1947, amendments were added to the NLRA that significantly expanded employer rights and limited the rights of unions. The best-known of these laws was the Taft-Hartley Act. Moreover, appointees to the National Labor Relations Board, which enforces the NLRA, became more pro-management in outlook during the 1970s and early 1980s.
  • Growing public and management perceptions that some union demands and attitudes were unreasonable.
  • Ineffective union organization efforts, despite continued belief in the legitimacy of labor unions among the American workforce. "Labor leaders are partly to blame for the disconnect between prounion sentiment and dwindling membership," charged Business Week. "For decades, they have focused on preserving jobs rather than organizing the fastest-growing parts of the economy, such as services and high tech."

By the mid-1990s, however, there were indications that America's leading unions had adopted more proactive measures in order to shore up existing membership and expand the presence of unions into high-tech "New Economy" sectors and other areas. But this revival of organized labor, since then, has not translated into growing union membership.


Unions have traditionally been strong in four sectors of the American economy: manufacturing, mining, construction, and transportation. They have lost substantial ground in all four of these sectors in the last few decades, however. In the transportation sector, an important factor has been deregulation, particularly in the trucking and airline industries. Substantial increases in competition in those industries have made it difficult for unions to negotiate favorable contracts or organize new units. In construction, the growth of nonunion contractors, able to hire qualified workers outside of the union hall hiring system, undercut union contractors. At one time, more than 80 percent of all commercial construction in the United States had been unionized; today, however, the percentage of workers engaged in construction that belong to unions is a fraction of that. Foreign competition, technological change, and played-out mines, meanwhile, have all weakened mining unions. In manufacturing, the whole range of factors previously discussed has been responsible for union decline. The only sector of the economy where unions have gained strength in recent years has been public employment. In the mid-2000s, almost more than 36 percent of public employees at all levels of governmentlocal, state, and federalwere unionized.


Labor unions are complex and vary considerably with respect to internal structure and administrative processes. It is easiest to differentiate among three distinct levels within the labor movement: local unions, national unions, and federations.

Local Unions

Local unions are the building blocks of the labor movement. Although there are some free-standing local unions, the vast majority of locals are in some way affiliated with a national or international union. Most craft unions began as local unions, which then joined together to form national organizations. Some major industrial unions also began as amalgamations of local unions, though it was generally more common for national organizations to be formed first, with locals to be established later.

The duties of a local union almost always include the administration of a union contract, which means assuring that the employer is honoring all of the provisions of the contract at the local level. In some instances, local unions might also negotiate contracts, although unions vary considerably in terms of the degree to which the parent union is involved in the negotiation process.

Another important function of the local union is servicing the needs of those represented by the union. If a worker represented by the union believes his or her rights under the union contract have been violated, then the union may intervene on that person's behalf. Examples of such situations include the discharge of an employee, failure to promote an employee according to a contract seniority clause, or failure to pay an employee for overtime. Virtually any provision of a contract can become a source of contention. The local union may try to settle the issue informally. If that effort is not successful, the union may file what is known as a grievance. This is a formal statement of the dispute with the employer; most contracts set forth a grievance procedure. In general, grievance procedures involve several different steps, with higher levels of management entering at each step. If the grievance cannot be settled through this mechanism, then the union may, if the contract allows, request a hearing before a neutral arbitrator, whose decision is final and binding.

Most craft unions have apprenticeship programs to train new workers in the craft. The local union, usually in cooperation with an employers' association, will be responsible for managing the apprenticeship program. In addition, local unions with hiring halls are responsible for making job referrals.

The jurisdiction of a local union depends to a large extent on the organizational form of the parent organization. Locals of industrial unions most often represent workers within a single plant or facility of a company (and thus are termed plant locals.) For example, in the case of the UAW, each factory or production facility of each automobile manufacturer has a separate local union. In some instances, a factory may be so big that it requires more than a single local, but this is not usually the case.

In contrast to plant locals, local craft unions (as well as some industrial unions) are best described as area locals. An area local represents all of a union's members in a particular geographical region and may deal with many different employers. Area locals are typically formed for one of two reasons. First, members may in the course of a year work for a number of different employers, as in the case of craft unions. Consequently, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to establish and maintain a separate local in each work location. Second, members may work continuously for a single employer, but each employer or location may be too small to justify a separate local union. The latter case is more typical of some industrial unions. The size of the region served by a local union depends on the number of members available. In large metropolitan areas, an area local might serve only members in a particular city. In less densely populated regions, an area local may have a jurisdiction that covers an entire state.

Internal structures and administrative procedures differ between plant and area locals. In almost all local unions, the membership meeting represents the apex of power, as the officers of the union are accountable to the members much as the officers of a corporation are accountable to stockholders. However, in practice, membership participation in union affairs may be quite limited. In such instances, local union officers often enjoy considerable power.

Plant locals have a number of elected officialsusually a president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer. In almost all cases, the officers are full-time employees of the company the union represents, and the contract generally allows some release time for union affairs. In addition to the principal officers of the local, there are also a number of stewards. Stewards may be elected or appointed, depending upon the union. The steward serves as the everyday contact between the union and its rank-and-file members. If members have concerns about the affairs of the union, these may be voiced to the steward. The steward's most important responsibility is handling grievances. Should a worker represented by the union have a dispute with the employer over his or her rights under the contract, the steward has the initial responsibility of representing the worker. Usually the steward will discuss the matter with the employee's supervisor to see if the dispute can be resolved. If not, then a formal grievance may be filed, and it then proceeds through the grievance system. At higher levels in the grievance system the employee may be represented by a chief steward or union officers.

Area locals typically have more complex internal structures than plant locals. This is usually because of the large geographical region under the local's jurisdiction, along with the greater dispersion of members within the region. As in the case of plant locals, area locals hold periodic meetings in which the officials of the union are accountable to members. There are also elected officers in area locals, as well as stewards for the various work sites in the local's jurisdiction. The principal difference between a plant local and an area local is that the latter typically employs one or more full-time staff members to handle the affairs of the union on a daily basis. These staff members are usually called business agents. Given the dispersion of members over a large geographical area and the possibility that the local may be responsible for administering many different contracts, it is the business agent's responsibility to visit work sites regularly and deal with problems that may arise. The business agent may also be responsible for managing any apprenticeship programs and the union's hiring hall. Contracts are often negotiated directly by local unions and the business agents are usually responsible for these negotiations. In some unions, elected officers may serve as business agents, but normally business agents are separate staff members. Depending on the size of the local union, there may be a number of assistant business agents.

National Unions

National unions are composed of the various local unions that they have chartered. Some unions have locals in Canada and therefore call themselves international unions. However, the terms international union and national union are generally used interchangeably.

As with local unions, the administrative structures of national unions vary considerably in complexity. One important factor is the size of the union: larger unions are structurally more complex. Structural complexity also differs between craft and industrial unions. Craft unions tend be smaller organizations that feature a decentralized decision-making structure. With craft unions, contracts usually have a limited geographical scope and are negotiated by local unions. The parent union can be of significant assistance, however. The national union pools the resources of local unions, thus helping out with things such as strike funds, and it may also provide research services and serve as the local union's voice in political matters at the national and state levels. In general, there are few intermediate units between the national office and the local craft unions. National officers, elected periodically, generally work on a full-time basis for the union. Such unions also hold national conventions, most often every couple of years. The officers of the national union are accountable to the convention, much as the officers of a local are accountable to membership meetings.

National industrial unions are typically more complex. They tend to be larger and have a more heterogeneous membership than craft unions (both in terms of skills and demographic traits). Although there are exceptions, contracts in industrial unions tend to be negotiated primarily by staff members from the national office. In many cases, the bargaining unit will include all locals from a particular company (across the entire country). Even if contracts are negotiated by locals, representatives from the national union will often participate in talks to assure that the contract conforms to patterns established by the national organization.

As with craft unions, national unions have periodic conventions and national officers. Depending on the union, the national officers may be elected directly by rank-and-file members or by some other body (such as convention delegates). National unions generally have a substantial paid staff who provide a variety of different services (e.g., research, legal representation, organizing new members, negotiating contracts, and servicing locals). National unions may also have one or more layers of hierarchy between the local unions and the national offices. For example, in the case of the UAW, there are different divisions responsible for the major industries in which that union represents workers. Within the automobile industry, there are divisions that correspond to each of the major manufacturers. There are other divisions that deal with the needs of special groups within the union (such as minority workers and skilled craft workers). Consequently, the structures of large industrial unions are often as complex as the companies with which they deal.


A federation is an association of unions. It is not a union in the usual sense of the term. Rather, it provides a range of services to affiliated unions, much as an organization such as the National Association of Manufacturers provides services to its member firms.


"All's Not Fair in Labor Wars." Business Week. 19 July 1999.

Lawler, J.J. Unionization and Deunionization: Strategy, Tactics, and Outcomes. University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

Levitan, Sar A., Peter E. Carlson, and Isaac Shapiro. Protecting American Workers: An Assessment of Government Programs. Bureau of National Affairs, 1986.

Powell, Adam Lee. "The Future of Our Profession Depends on Unions, This Nurse Asserts." RN. December 2005.

Strope, Leigh. "Union Seeks Net Increase: Web site used in bid to attract new members." The Houston Chronicle. 23 June 2004.

Trombly, Maria, and Kathleen Ohlson. "Unions Take Aim at High-Tech Workers." Computerworld. 14 August 2000.

Troy, Leo. "Beyond Unions and Collective Bargaining." WorkingUSA. January/February 2000.

U.S. Department of Labor. "Table 3. Union Affiliation of Employed Wage and Salary Workers by Occupation and Industry." Available from Retrieved on 30 March 2006.

                             Hillstrom, Northern Lights

                              updated by Magee, ECDI

Labor Unions

views updated May 18 2018

Labor Unions

Throughout much of the twentieth century, the American labor movement has been a dynamic force for social change. The struggle for workplace representation and social equality has reshaped much of the American political landscape. Yet, the cultural impact and significance of labor unions goes far beyond the political action of shop floor organization. Unions, both through their actions and union imagery, have deeply influenced American popular culture. At different times and in different ways, workers have used their unions to define their own sense of individual and collective identity. Unions have been at the forefront in defining American working-class masculinity. They have struggled with the issues of gender relations both within their organizations and with their imagery and rhetoric. Labor organizations have served as both standard bearers of racial separation and forces for racial integration. While the labor movement has helped to create a forum for social action and some union members have been at the forefront of other social movements, unions have also been a force of conservatism, moderation, and a continuing identity of whiteness. Thus, the cultural impact of unions on twentieth century American popular culture is multi-faceted and conflicted. Through their own actions and the representations of unions in American film, music, television, and literature, labor organizations have served as a focal point for the construction of a sense of community. While this community provided some with a collective identity and a sense of belonging, it also defined whom the community accepted and who remained outside of it.

Racial and ethnic divisions played a significant role in labor organizing during the nineteenth century. In many ways, ethnic communities and similarities fostered organization within that ethnicity; for instance, Irish-American workers were likely to join Irish labor unions. Yet, such actions opened the door for company managers to play one ethnicity, or race, off another. Capital broke the post war strikes of 1919 with such actions. Because of their insulated ethnic and racial communities, workers were not able to transcend the divisions that separated them. Following 1919, both capital and labor leaders tried to learn from their mistakes. Seeing the strength of ethnic-based organizations, businesses tried to diversify their workforce and combine different ethnicities and races. Such work place interaction, however, only assisted the development of trans-ethnic and trans-racial organizing. With the collapse of the economy in 1929, ethnic banks, stores, and other pillars of ethnic cohesion collapsed. As the last vestiges of the ethnic community went bankrupt, workers turned to each other and to their unions to reestablish a sense of community.

Such trans-ethnic and trans-racial organizations proved to be the backbone of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The new labor congress based itself on the concept of clear class-consciousness. Workers would have standing in the industrial union regardless of skill, trade, ethnicity, race, or gender. Although later developments would prove racism and sexism a persistent problem for the labor movement, the CIO's commitment to trans-racial organization remains significant. Many CIO members truly believed in the late 1930s that they had overcome racial and ethnic divisions. However, the career of A. Philip Randolph and the struggle of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters show that the internal conflict over racial identity remained an important part of the American labor movement.

By the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, Pullman sleeping cars had become the epitome of luxury in railroad travel. An essential part of the Pullman experience was the service of the Pullman porter. Always an African-American male, the porter's job was to see to every need of the passenger. When these porters tried to organize into the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) beginning in the mid-1920s, they encountered resistance not only from the Pullman Company but also from the predominately white CIO as well. The Pullman workers appointed as their leader A. Philip Randolph, a veteran civil rights advocate. As president of the BSCP, Randolph took on much of the leadership of the CIO, pointing out to them the hypocrisy of denying admission to a black union. White unionists' backlash against Randolph and the BSCP suggests the persistence of racism within the labor movement. For many white workers, their union jobs helped to define them not only as workers but as whites as well. A white organization that held black workers aside reinforced racial identities and hierarchies.

The porters' selection of Randolph to lead their organizing drive demonstrates the important connections that existed between labor and other social movements. Before he joined the BSCP, Randolph worked for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Even after becoming the union president, Randolph remained closely tied to the campaign for civil rights. Randolph and other black trade unionists were an important part of the 1941 March on Washington Movement. By threatening a mass demonstration in Washington, Randolph forced President Franklin Roosevelt to open wartime production jobs to black workers. A. Philip Randolph remained a major figure in the Civil Rights movement and was a prominent figure on the march on Washington in 1963 led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Trade union activity not only helped to define a conservative white identity; rather racial minorities also used labor organizations to foster racial pride as well. Thus, when African-American garbage men struck in Memphis during 1968, they walked their picket lines with the simple slogan "I am a man."

Likewise Chicano farm laborers looked to labor organizations to claim their sense of self worth and racial identity. In the mid-1960s, the United Farm Workers (UFW), led by Cesar Chavez, organized in the fields of California where large producers hired mostly migratory farm laborers to harvest their crops. The farm workers organized mostly to protect themselves from poor wages, dangerous work, and hazardous chemicals, yet UFW demonstrations were full of references to Chicano culture and racial pride. Much like the Irish or Polish labor unions of the late nineteenth century, Mexican-American ethnic cohesiveness fostered labor organization and vice versa. Yet, the response within the AFL-CIO and other trade unions was mixed. Like the campaign of the BSCP, the rise of the UFW threatened the racial identity of many white trade unionists. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, for example, launched a campaign to both unionize delivery drivers in the California fields and to break the strength of the UFW. In this way, racial divisions and the use of unions to promote racial identity remained a contested aspect of the American labor movement.

In addition to race, the labor movement has a conflicted past on gender relations and gendered identity. For most male workers, union membership defined the nature of working-class masculinity. The campaign for a "family wage" demonstrates how deep this masculinity lies in labor organizations. For most of the twentieth century, a principle demand of labor organizations has been the family wage. This denotes that the company should pay workers enough to support a family, but it also suggests that a man should make enough money to prevent his wife from working. The family wage ideal suggests that work is a masculine space where women should not be present. Likewise, the imagery of labor and labor organizations revolved around the masculine nature of work. Artists often depicted industrial labor as a muscular man engaged in physical labor. When the AFL and the CIO joined in 1955, their official logo became two very muscular arms shaking hands. The images of "Rosie the Riveter" and other women working in wartime plants during World War II reinforced the masculine ideal of labor. Propaganda posters show these women as muscular, tough, and man enough to do the job. Such masculine imagery conflicted heavily with the reality of female labor. Despite female participation in union activity, however, labor identity remained centered upon an ideal of masculinity.

With the rise of industrial unionism and the decline of ethnically based communities in the 1930s, labor unions came to represent more than just a source of racial and gender identity. In many ways, union membership and union activities became the focal point of communities and provided members with a sense of belonging and camaraderie. Organizations such as union bowling teams and softball leagues, along with activities like dances at union halls and union picnics, brought union members together outside of the shop floor. Through such actions, the members of the union became a sort of extended family and promoted what historian Liz Cohen calls a "culture of solidarity." Such an extension of union activity enhanced labor's impact on American popular culture. Unions began to take part in civic activities that were outside the scope of their particular point of production. From such civic activities emerged the concept of the "union town." Some cities became known not only for the strength of their unions but the influence that unions and union members held in that town. Likewise, the culture of solidarity enhanced the impact of the union on family structures. As children attended union picnics or participated in parades, they became deeply aware of being a part of a union family. The prospect of growing up and joining the union became, for working-class males, a rite of passage into American masculinity. The songs of Bruce Springsteen perhaps portray this transition best. Springsteen suggests that the moment of entrance into working-class manhood was the day a young man received his first union card. Once a part of the union, he could then enjoy the communal identity that unions provided.

Bruce Springsteen is not the only example of union imagery in American popular culture. On the contrary, the images of labor, workers, and unions have been consistent in American culture. Much like unions themselves, popular culture has been conflicted over the presentation of union themes and union imagery. Many of the representations have focused on unions as organizations devoted to fighting social inequalities and striving for workplace equality. Yet there exists within American popular culture a common depiction of unions and union members as backward looking conservatives or exploitative, corrupt manipulators. Both images occur with frequency in American popular culture, often present within the same film or other cultural representation.

The first real presence of labor imagery in twentieth century popular culture was probably the proletarian novel. Extremely popular for the first few decades of the century, proletarian novels emerged from the traditions of muckraking journalism. Often these novelists used their work to expose the exploitative nature and conditions of the American working class. Because of this purpose, unions commonly held a revered position within the novels as organizations formed by the workers to tackle the problems of large-scale industrial capitalism. Upton Sinclair presents an excellent example of the proletarian novelist. Arriving in Chicago at the turn of the century, Sinclair announced that he intended to write the Uncle Tom's Cabin of the labor movement. Sinclair's book The Jungle (1906) details the working environment and living conditions in the packinghouses of Chicago. Many attribute his descriptions of meat packing to the creation of governmental regulations and food safety laws. Sinclair continued his descriptions of working-class life and union organization in later works like Oil! (1927) and King Coal (1917).

In a similar fashion, John Steinbeck details the movement of migratory workers from Oklahoma to the fields of California in The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Though his description of the Joad family, Steinbeck presents a family struggling to stay together despite the hardships of the Depression and the exploitation of the California farmers. Steinbeck also creates the character of Tom Joad, who quickly becomes a symbol of the idealistic union organizer. Like Sinclair, Steinbeck offers—in works like The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row (1945)—descriptions of working-class life and the struggle for workers to gain, through unionization, a measure of respect. In his USA trilogy (1930, 1932, 1936), John Dos Passos takes a slightly different approach. Several characters within his works are members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). However, Dos Passos does not offer detailed descriptions of workers' lives. Rather he uses union members as a foil to the rest of his characters. Dos Passos, Steinbeck, and Sinclair have important similarities. Each of them was an advocate and supporter of the labor movement and their representations of unions in their work portray their politics.

The proletarian novelist aimed his work mostly toward a middle class audience. Yet in the first several decades of the century, a nationalized consumer economy emerged that was capable of creating mass cultural images through film and music. For the first time, the working class became the audience for much of American mass culture. Thus, as the working class began to receive the images of unions and union activities, labor and labor-related themes came to dominate American culture. In the genre of film, Hollywood started to create movies about working people and their organizations. These included the film version of Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath (1940), starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. However, Hollywood did not always follow the direction of the proletarian novelists. Instead, Hollywood presents conflicted imagery of unions and union organizations. Unions and union members come to represent both social possibility and conservative regression. In addition to the characterization of Tom Joad, there is the story of corrupt unionism in On the Waterfront (1954). In the film, Marlon Brando portrays worker Terry Malloy's fight against a corrupt union boss who rules the organization through violence and fear. Yet the imagery within On the Waterfront is conflicted as well. On one hand, the film presents unions and union leadership as a corrupt and dictatorial organization, yet underlying Brando's fight is the notion that a worker's union is something worth fighting for.

For the most part, Hollywood films during the early Cold War were rooted in anti-communism and anti-radicalism. The Hollywood black list prevented many filmmakers from making sympathetic labor films. The exception is the production of Salt of the Earth (1954). Made by a blacklisted crew and starring many amateur actors, Salt of the Earth tells the story of Chicano miners in their struggle to maintain their solidarity and bring some measure of safety to their labor. Such a depiction of a successful strike and class-based solidarity was uncommon for its time.

Hollywood soon returned to stories celebrating workers and their desire for union organization. Norma Rae (1979), starring Sally Fields, is one such movie. In the film, Fields plays a textile worker who struggles, against seemingly insurmountable odds, to establish a union in her plant. Likewise, Matewan (1979) offers a story of a union organizer and the miners who organize trans-racially to battle the mining company. Even Sylvester Stallone took a spin as a tough but idealistic Teamster organizer in F.I.S.T. (1978). Yet for every sympathetic representation, there are also films like Hoffa (1992) which offer a darker picture of union activity. As Jimmy Hoffa, Jack Nicholson presents a labor leader who rules the Teamsters through violence, corruption, and absolute power. In Hoffa, workers only protest when the leadership tells them to do so. Hoffa, however, does remain a semi-sympathetic character because he suggests that everything he does is in the interest of the membership. Ultimately, though, Nicholson's Hoffa is closer to the representation of the working class in television. From Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners (1955-1956) to Archie Bunker in All in the Family (1971-1979), television has represented working-class males as self-centered conservatives who are lovable yet ignorantly out of touch with the rest of society.

Beyond movies and literature, the labor movement's greatest cultural legacy is probably the labor troubadour. Many labor organizations have used folk songs and folk music as a way of promoting their cause. From this has emerged the tradition of socially conscious folk and rock music. The first well-known labor troubadour of the twentieth century was Joe Hill (1879?-1915). As an organizer for the IWW, Hill wrote songs relating the desire for union representation. Convicted for murder on questionable charges, Hill was executed in Utah in 1915. Since then, his name and his songs have become an important part of union mythology. Taking up where Hill left off, Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) became the voice of the labor movement in the 1930s. Through songs such as "This land is your land," Guthrie expressed not only the struggles of Southern migrant labor but suggests to his listeners the importance of joining a union and claiming the rights of an American citizen. Similarly, Pete Seeger's (1919—) roots lie in the traditions of the labor union folk singer. Like Guthrie, Seeger sings of the pride of working and the desire for equality and union representation. Yet, Seeger and his style of folk music achieved an influential popularity within American culture, eventually leading to socially conscious folk singers like Bob Dylan (1941—).

Labor's influence on music does not end with folk music. Rather, several rock and roll artists explore in their music the impact of working-class origins. Perhaps the best example of this is the music of Bruce Springsteen (1949—). Through stories about the acquisition of a union card or the closing down of the local textile mill, labor unions and working-class culture represent a major part of Springsteen's music. In songs such as "My Hometown" (on Born in the USA [1984]) or "Youngstown" (on The Ghost of Tom Joad [1995]), Springsteen confronts the meaning of union membership and working-class culture in a de-industrializing society. Springsteen even evoked the memory of past labor imagery by entitling one of his albums The Ghost of Tom Joad after the Steinbeck character. Because of such imagery in music, films, and other cultural mediums, unions and the American working class remain an important aspect of American popular culture. The industrial worker is never far from the American cultural mind and, in the twentieth century, industrial labor is closely tied to union membership and the forms of communal organizations and identities unions create.

—S. Paul O'Hara

Further Reading:

Cohen, Lizabeth. Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth-Century. New York, Verso, 1996.

Dudley, Kathryn Marie. The End of the Line: Lost Jobs, New Lives in Postindustrial America. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Faue, Elizabeth. Community and Suffering: Men, Women, and the Labor Movement in Minneapolis, 1915-1945. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Lichtenstein, Nelson. Labor's War at Home: The CIO in World War II. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1982.

——. The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor. New York, Basic Books, 1995.

Lipsitz, George. Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Meier, August, and Elliot Rudwick. Black Detroit and the Rise of the UAW. New York, Oxford University Press, 1979.

Milkman, Ruth, editor. Women, Work, and Protest: A Century of U.S. Women's Labor History. Boston, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.

Zieger, Robert. The CIO: 1935-1955. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Labor Union

views updated Jun 11 2018


An association, combination, or organization of employees who band together to secure favorable wages, improved working conditions, and better work hours, and to resolve grievances against employers.

The history of labor unions in the United States has much to do with changes in technology and the development of capitalism. Although labor unions can be compared to European merchant and craft guilds of the Middle Ages, they arose with the factory system and the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century.

The first efforts to organize employees were met with fierce resistance by employers. The U.S. legal system played a part in this resistance. In Commonwealth v. Pullis (Phila. Mayor's Ct. 1806), generally known as the Philadelphia Cordwainers' case, bootmakers and shoemakers of Philadelphia were indicted as a combination for conspiring to raise their wages. The prosecution argued that the common-law doctrine of criminal conspiracy applied. The jury agreed that the union was illegal, and the defendants were fined. From that case came the labor conspiracy doctrine, which held that collective (as distinguished from individual) bargaining would interfere with the natural operation of the marketplace, raise wages to artificially high levels, and destroy competition. This early resistance to unions led to an adversarial relationship between unions and employers.

Between 1806 and 1842, the labor conspiracy doctrine was applied in a handful of cases. Then, during the 1840s, U.S. courts began to question the doctrine. The most important case in this regard was Commonwealth v. Hunt, 45 Mass. (4 Met.) 11, 38 A.M. Dec. 346 (Mass. 1842), in which Chief Justice lemuel shaw set aside an indictment of members of the bootmakers' union for conspiracy. Shaw agreed with employers that competition was vital to the economy but concluded that unions were one way of stimulating competition. As long as the methods they used were legal, unions were free to seek concessions from employers. By the end of the nineteenth century, courts generally held that strikes for higher wages or shorter workdays were legal.

Despite the decline of the labor conspiracy theory, unions faced other legal challenges to their existence. The labor injunction and prosecution under antitrust laws became powerful weapons for employers who were involved in labor disputes. In an 1896 case, Vegelahn v. Guntner, 167 Mass. 92, 44 N.E. 1077, the highest court in Massachusetts upheld an injunction that forbade peaceful picketing outside the employer's premises.

The first national labor federation to remain active for more than a few years was the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor. It was established in 1869 and had set as goals the eight-hour workday, equal pay for equal work, and the abolition of child labor. The Knights of Labor grew to 700,000 members by 1886 but went into decline that year with a series of failed strikes. By 1900, it had disappeared.

Labor unions nevertheless gained strength in 1886 with the formation of the american federation of labor (AFL). Composed of 25 national trade unions and numbering over 316,000 members, the AFL was a loose confederation of autonomous unions, each with exclusive rights to deal with the workers and employers in its own field. The AFL concentrated on pursuing achievable goals such as higher wages and shorter hours, and it renounced identification with any political party or movement. Members were encouraged to support politicians who were friendly to labor, whatever their party affiliation.

Following the passage of the sherman anti-trust act in 1890 (15 U.S.C.A. §§ 1 et seq.), which prohibited combinations in restraint of trade, courts punished and enjoined labor practices that were considered wrongful. In the Danbury Hatters case (Loewe v. Lawlor, 208 U.S. 274, 28 S. Ct. 301, 52 L. Ed. 488 [1908]), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the application of the act to an appeal that involved a labor publication for a general boycott of named nonunion employers. In 1911, in Gompers v. Buck's Stove & Range Co., 221 U.S. 418, 31 S. Ct. 492, 55 L. Ed. 797, the Court upheld an injunction against a union that had placed the name of the employer on the AFL "We Don't Patronize" list, which was a call for a boycott of the employer.

Opposition to labor unions was particularly intense during the late nineteenth century. Several unsuccessful strikes in the 1890s demonstrated the power of companies to crush unions. In 1892, steelworkers struck against the Carnegie Steel Company's Homestead, Pennsylvania, plant. The company hired private guards to protect the plant, but violence broke out. The strike failed, and most of the workers quit the union and returned to work. In 1894, members of the American Railway Union struck the Pullman Palace Car Company, which made railroad cars. The federal government sent in troops to end the strike.

Despite these setbacks, labor unions gradually increased their political power at the federal level. In 1914, Congress enacted the clayton act, sections 6 (15 U.S.C.A. § 7) and 20 (29 U.S.C.A. § 52), declaring that human labor was not to be considered an article of commerce and that the existence of unions was not to be considered a violation of antitrust laws. In addition, the act prohibited federal courts from issuing injunctions in labor disputes except to prevent irreparable injury to property. This prohibition was absolute when peaceful picketing and boycotts were involved.

Employers had better success fighting unions by using the so-called yellow-dog contract. This agreement required a prospective employee to state that he or she was not a member of a union and would not become one. Although some states enacted laws that prohibited employers from requiring employees to sign this type of contract, the U.S. Supreme Court declared such statutes unconstitutional as an infringement of freedom of contract (Coppage v. Kansas, 236 U.S. 1, 35 S. Ct. 240, 59 L. Ed. 441 [1915]).

By 1920, trade unions had over five million members. During the 1920s, however, the trade union movement suffered a decline, precipitated in part by a severe economic depression in 1921-22. Unemployment rose, and competition for jobs became intense. By 1929, union membership had dropped to 3.5 million.

The Great Depression of the 1930s caused more unemployment and a further decline in union membership. Unions responded with numerous strikes, but few were successful. Despite these reverses, the legal position of unions was enhanced during the 1930s. In 1932, Congress passed the norris-laguardia act (29 U.S.C.A. §§ 101 et seq.), which declared yellow-dog contracts to be contrary to public policy and stringently limited the power of federal courts to issue injunctions in labor disputes. In cases in which an injunction still might be issued, the act imposed strict procedural limitations and safeguards in order to prevent more instances of abuses by the courts. The Norris-LaGuardia Act effectively ended "government by injunction" and has remained a fundamental law in labor disputes.

During the 1930s, the AFL itself was in turmoil over the aspirations of the labor movement. The trade unions that dominated the AFL were composed of skilled workers who opposed organizing the unskilled or semiskilled workers on the manufacturing production line. Several unions rebelled at this refusal to organize and formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). The CIO aggressively organized millions of workers who labored in automobile, steel, and rubber plants. In 1938, unhappy with this effort, the AFL expelled the unions that formed the CIO. The CIO then formed its own organization, changed its name to Congress of Industrial Organizations, and elected John L. Lewis, of the United Mine Workers, as its first president.

U.S. labor relations were dramatically altered in 1935 with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the wagner act (29 U.S.C.A. §§ 151 et seq.). For the first time, labor unions were given legal rights and powers under federal law. The act guaranteed the right of collective bargaining, free from employer domination or influence. It made it an unfair labor practice for an employer to interfere with employees in the exercise of their right to bargain collectively; to interfere with or to influence unions; to discriminate in hiring or firing because of an employee's union membership; to discriminate against an employee who avails himself or herself of legal rights; or to refuse to bargain collectively.

The Wagner Act also established the national labor relations board, which has the power to investigate employees' complaints and to issue cease and desist orders. If an employer were to defy such an order, the board may ask a federal court of appeals for an enforcement order, or it could ask the court to review the cease-and-desist order. The board could conduct elections to determine which union should represent the employees in a bargaining unit and certify the union as their agent, and it could designate the bargaining unit.

The heart of the Wagner Act was section 7 (29 U.S.C.A. § 157), which stated the public policy that workers have the right to engage in self-organization, in collective bargaining, and in concerted activities in support of self-organization and collective bargaining. Armed with these rights, unions grew in membership and strength during the late 1930s and through world war ii.

A number of states reacted negatively to these legal changes by enacting laws that sought to restrict and lessen the power of unions. An antiunion backlash developed after World War II, when strikes against the automobile industry and other large corporations reached record numbers. This reaction culminated in the passage of the labor-management relations act of 1947, also known as the taft-hartley act (29 U.S.C.A. §§ 141 et seq.). The Taft-Hartley Act amended section 7 of the Wagner Act, affirming the rights that had been formulated in 1935 but providing that workers shall have the right to refrain from any of the listed activities. Whereas the Wagner Act listed only employers' unfair labor practices, Taft-Hartley added unions' unfair labor practices. The act created the federal mediation and conciliation service, which provides a method for addressing strikes that create a national emergency. It also banned the closed shop, which requires an employer to hire only union members and to discharge any employee who drops union membership. Taft-Hartley effectively replaced the Wagner Act as the basic federal statute regulating labor relations.

In 1955, the AFL and CIO merged into a single organization, the AFL-CIO. The staunchly anti-communist AFL agreed to the merger only after the CIO had purged its organization of communists and supporters of communist ideals. George Meany was appointed the first president of the new organization.

In 1959, Congress enacted the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, also

known as the landrum-griffin act (29 U.S.C.A. §§ 401 et seq.). Title VII of the act contains many amendments to the Taft-Hartley Act, of which two are especially important. First, Landrum-Griffin made peaceful picketing of organizational or recognitional objectives illegal under certain circumstances. Second, it closed loopholes in the provisions of Taft-Hartley that forbadesecondary boycotts.

Other sections of Landrum-Griffin provided for a bill of rights for union members, financial disclosure requirements for unions and their officers, and safeguards in union elections. All of these matters concerned internal union practices, strongly suggesting that union corruption had become a problem. In fact, a 1957 congressional investigation of the Teamsters union had uncovered widespread corruption and had much to do with the introduction of these new statutory provisions.

Labor unions continued to thrive in the 1960s, as a robust economy relied on a large manufacturing industry to maintain growth. Although no comprehensive union legislation was enacted during that decade, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 (42 U.S.C.A. §§ 2000a et seq.), made an important contribution to national labor policy. The act declared it an unfair labor practice for an employer or union to discriminate against a person by reason of race, religion, color, sex, or national origin. Administration of this provision is vested in the equal employment opportunity commission (EEOC). Under the civil rights act, if the EEOC is unable to achieve voluntary compliance, the person allegingdiscrimination is authorized to bring a civil action in federal district court. The 1972 amendment gave the EEOC the right to bring such an action. The effect of the law has been to desegregate many trade unions that maintained an all-white membership policy.

The union movement considerably improved working conditions for migrant workers in the late 1960s and the 1970s. The united farm workers, under the leadership of cesar chavez, led successful boycotts and strikes against California growers, most notably against the wine-grape growers.

Many unions suffered, however, with an economic downturn in the 1970s and 1980s, and with the decline of well-paying manufacturing jobs. Automation of industrial processes reduced the number of workers who were required on assembly lines. In addition, many U.S. companies moved either to states that did not have a strong union background or to developing countries where labor costs were significantly lower. Union members became more concerned about job security than about higher wages, particularly in the manufacturing industry, and they agreed to concede salary and benefit givebacks. In return, unions sought greater labor-management cooperation and a larger voice in the allocation of jobs and in the work environment.

Union membership has also declined in response to a shift from blue-collar manufacturing jobs to white-collar service and technology jobs. By the end of 2002, just 13.2 percent of the U.S. workforce claimed union membership, compared with a high of 34.7 percent in 1954.

further readings

Bagchi, Aditi. 2003. "Unions and the Duty of Good Faith In Employment Contracts." Yale Law Journal 112 (May).

Bureau of Labor Statistics site. Available online at <> (accessed April 21, 2003).


Child Labor Laws; Craft Union; Employment Law; Hoffa, James Riddle; Labor Law; Right-To-Work Laws.

Labor Unions

views updated May 18 2018


A labor union has been defined as "a group of workers who have banded together to achieve common goals in the key areas of wages, hours, and working conditions" (Boone and Kurtz, 2005). Originally, labor unions were primarily made up of male, blue-collar workers, but as the economy of the United States evolved from production industries to service industries, union membership has seen a dramatic increase in white-collar and female workers.


Labor unions began to evolve in the United States in the 1700s and 1800s because of the need for safety and security for workers. Workers formed labor unions in response to intolerable working conditions, low wages, and long hours. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, men, women, and even children worked in unsafe factories from dawn to dark every day of the week for only pennies a day. These oppressive conditions forced workers to look for ways to improve their situation. They gradually learned that by banding together and bargaining as a group, they could pressure employers to respond to their demands.

The progression of the Industrial Revolution and the formation of labor unions go hand in hand. The Industrial Revolution brought about specialization of employees in the workplace and a dramatic increase in production. This factory system, which developed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, brought to workers both prosperity (steady employment in good economic times) and hardship (bad working conditions and unemployment) during depressions. Thus, the Industrial Revolution changed the American class structure, turning skilled tradesmen into the working class, who found it very difficult to escape factory life.

As more and more workers united to improve their situation, two types of labor unions emerged. Craft unions were made up of workers who were skilled in a specific trade. Many craft unions were organized in the 1790s, such as the Philadelphia shoemakers in 1792, the Boston carpenters in 1793, and the New York printers in 1794.

Beginning in 1827, laborers who worked in the same industry, regardless of their specific job, formed industrial unions, such as the United Steel Workers and the Teamsters. The 1837 depression nearly wiped out these unions, but they were reborn shortly before the Civil War (18611865) and became strong enough to survive recessions.

Five major labor organizations emerged between 1866 and 1936. The National Labor Union was organized in 1866. Though it became a political party and collapsed within six years, it did successfully bring together into a

national federation both craft unions and reform groups. The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor, founded in 1869, sought to unite all workers, both skilled and unskilled. In 1886, when its membership had reached more than 700,000, it split into two groups. The revolutionary socialist group wanted the government to take over production; the traditional group wanted to remain focused on the economic well-being of its members.

This second group merged with a group of individual craft unions in 1886 to become the American Federation of Labor (AFL). This was the beginning of modern union structure. The AFL's first president, Samuel Gompers (18501924), kept the improvement of wages, hours, and working conditions as the objectives of the union. AFL membership grew rapidly until the 1920s, when there were few skilled craftworkers yet to be organized. By that time, three-fourths of the organized workers in the United States were members of the AFL.

In 1905 an organization called the Industrial Workers of the World was established. Though it was short-lived, this union introduced the sit-down strike and mass picketing. In the early 1920s, workers in the steel, aluminum, auto, and rubber industries formed many individual industrial unions (groups of employees working in the same industry, yet not using the same skills). These unions did not agree with the craft union concept (grouping workers with the same specific skill), which was the organizational structure of the AFL. Therefore, in 1936 they split with the AFL and became a new group of affiliated unions called the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Organizing complete industries instead of individual crafts proved a successful way to deal with mass-production industries, and the CIO's membership soon grew to nearly that of the AFL.


Even with so much union organization activity going on, there were fewer than 1 million union members in the United States in 1900. Membership in labor unions grew slowly from 1920 to 1935, but the modern labor movement was born in the decade between 1933 and 1944. The combination of New Deal labor legislation, competition between the AFL and the CIO, and World War II (19391945) quadrupled union membership, which by 1937 was more than 5 million. Union membership continued to increase from 1943 through 1956, reaching more than 15 million in 1950. One-fourth of the labor force were union members at that time, when the government officially sanctioned unions.

In 1955 the AFL and CIO settled their differences and merged into one extremely large labor organization. All the major national unions in the United States today except the National Education Association are affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

Union membership declined from 1956 to 1961, when white-collar workers outnumbered blue-collar workers for the first time, women were entering the workforce in large numbers, and the economy was changing from a production to a service industry orientation. In 1961 growth resumed; from 1964 to 1974, especially during the time of the Vietnam War, unions gained 4 million members, largely public-sector employees and professionals.


The percentage of U.S. workers who are union members has fallen since the 1980s. This decline is largely due to the decrease in the number of blue-collar jobs, labor legislation protecting workers, better employee-management relationships, and the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy (bringing into the workforce more women and young people, who are not easily organized). During the 1990s and the early years of the twenty-first century, despite the decline in the percent of workers who were unionized, nearly 16 million U.S. workers, between one-eighth and one-sixth of the labor force, belonged to labor unions.


Labor unions are organized on several different levels. Local unions represent members in a specific geographic area, such as a city, state, or region. These local unions make up the base of a national union, which unites all its affiliated local unions under one constitution. The Teamsters and the United Steel Workers of America are two examples of large national unions, each uniting many local unions. The decision-making process of national unions is decentralized, which allows decisions to be made at the local level, by those best qualified to make them. Thus, the national union recognizes the autonomy of each local union yet unites them under one set of rules and grants each local union its charter.

Some unions have an international level. These international unions have members both inside and outside the United States, such as in Canada. Their organization is similar to national unions, with local unions being the base of the union structure. The primary emphasis of national unions is economic. Their main function is collective bargaining, though much of the negotiation process occurs at the local union level. Bargaining labormanagement contracts, which deal with wages, hours, and working conditions, and settling labor-management disputes are the primary roles of the local and national union leadership.

The top level of labor union organization is the federation, such as the AFL-CIO. Such a federation is made up of many national and/or international unions. The purpose of the federation level is to coordinate its affiliated unions, settle disputes between them, and serve as the political representative of the union members.


Various employment policies have been used in business and industry to determine union membership. The closed-shop policy, which was outlawed by the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, forced workers to join the union in order to be hired at a company and to remain a union member in order to continue employment. The union-shop policy requires all current employees of a company to join the union when it is certified as their bargaining agent (voted in by the majority of the workers). New employees must also join the union under the union-shop policy. The Taft-Hartley Act, however, allows individual states to outlaw the union-shop policy. Most union contracts negotiated in the 1990s operated under the union-shop policy.

The agency-shop policy allows both union and nonunion workers to be employed by an organization, but the nonunion employees must pay a union fee equal to union dues. This policy requires nonunion workers to pay their "fair share" of the expenses of the union's representing them in negotiations, but none of the cost of the union's political activities. The open-shop policy allows voluntary union membership or nonmembership for all workers. It does not require nonunion workers to pay any union dues or fees.


Both labor unions and management have been affected by federal legislation since 1932, when the Norris-LaGuardia Act was passed. This law protects union activities such as strikes and picketing by making it difficult for management to obtain injunctions against them. In 1935 the Wagner Act (also known as the National Labor Relations Act) made collective bargaining legal and forced employers to negotiate with union officials. The National Labor Relations Board was established by this act. The board oversees union elections and guards against unfair labor practices.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 set a maximum of forty hours for a basic workweek, outlawed child labor, and set a minimum wage. The Taft-Hartley Act limited the power of unions by prohibiting unions from such activities as coercing employees to join unions, charging excessive fees, refusing to bargain collectively with an employer, and using union dues for political contributions. The Taft-Hartley Act was amended in 1959 by the Landrum-Griffin Act, which requires a union to have a constitution and bylaws, secret-ballot elections of officers, and a financial reporting procedure. Management procedures are also regulated by legislation, such as the Plant-Closing Notification Act of 1988, which requires employers to give workers a sixty-day warning of mass layoffs or plant closings.


Labor unions were born out of necessity, to protect the health and well-being of American workers. Through the years, they have provided a unified voice for workers and obtained fair treatment of them in the workplace. During the twentieth century, however, laws were passed that guarantee employees many of the rights that once had to be negotiated in labor-management contracts. An increase in employee-management teamwork and communication has also reduced the need for workers to be represented by labor unions. Thus, labor unions no longer play the vital role they once did in American labor-management relations.

see also Collective Bargaining ; Negotiation


Boone, Louis E., and Kurtz, David L. (2005). Contemporary business (11th ed.). Mason, OH: Thomson South-Western.

Chaison, Gary N. (2006). Unions in America. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Estey, Marten (1981). The unions: Structure, development, and management (3rd ed.). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Masters, Marick F. (1997). Unions at the crossroads. Westport, CT: Quorum.

Wray, Ralph D., Luft, Robert L., and Highland, Patrick J. (1996). Fundamentals of human relations. Cincinnati: South-Western.

G. W. Maxwell

Labor Union

views updated May 21 2018

Labor Union


A labor union is typically an association of wage and salary earners aimed at improving the welfare of its associates through raising the bargained wage above the competitive level, improving working conditions, and preserving occupational levels. These aims can be achieved by unions using a number of strategies, according to the institutional framework under which unions and employers operate, general economic conditions, and political economy considerations.

In most industrialized economies, wages are largely determined through collective agreements between unions and employer confederations. Total output is shared between the two parts according to the relative bargaining power. These agreements are usually binding for a proportion of total employees that does not include union members only. The proportion of contracts usually covered by collective agreements is known in the literature as union coverage. The membership rate among wage and salary earners is referred to as union density .

The bargaining process may take place at the firm, industry, regional, or national level and may involve other issues, such as the work schedule, working conditions, holidays, and training. The attitude of unions during the bargaining process may differ, according to how much they internalize the consequences of the bargaining decisions on the economy as a whole. This amounts to unions being more or less coordinated with employer confederations in defining bargaining outcomes that can be beneficial or detrimental for economy-wide growth and welfare. Alternatively unions may adopt bargaining strategies aimed at improving the welfare of their associates only, regardless of the consequences on the economic system. For example, unions mainly representing insidersthat is, employed workersmay bargain for a higher wage, therefore improving the welfare of associated employees, despite the adverse effect on outsiders, including the unemployed and new entrants in the labor market.

Sometimes unions actions and organization may be defined and managed under specific regulations. For example, in the United States public sector workers do not have the right to strike, while in other countries certain limitations apply in order to guarantee a minimum amount of public services during collective actions. Other regulations apply to the collection and management of union dues. For example, all employees may be required to pay union dues within a fixed period of time after hiring, although unions may be limited in their ways of spending financial resources collected from nonmembers.

One possible representation of union preferences is based on the assumption that union members are identical. The union objective function consists then of the expected utility of the representative member. This amounts to the utility associated, respectively, to the state of employment and unemployment, that is, by the real wage W and the reservation wage W, weighted by the probability of being in each of the two states. With N and L being, respectively, the labor force and the employment level, and v(·) an indirect utility function, this can be written as with v(W) >0; v(W)0.

Union members are, however, typically heterogeneous. In this case, the union objective function will depend on the mechanisms regulating the functioning of the union. If unions are perfectly democratic organizations, then their objectives will typically depend on the preferences of the median member. However, because they are collective organizations, unions respond to political economy incentive structures, like firms and political parties, and their leaders may be assigned discretionary power. In this case, union leaders may operate for objectives that are different from their organizations statutory objectives.

Wage-bargaining models can be classified into two main theoretical frameworks, known in the literature as right to manage and efficient bargaining. Under the right-to-manage approach, unions and firms bargain over the wage, with firms setting labor demand given the bargained wage. As a result, the bargaining outcome will always be on the labor-demand curve. This approach can be rationalized under a simple Nash framework, with the bargained wage W* being the result of the following maximization problem: max B = V (W )γII(W )1-γ, where V(W)

and II(W ) are, respectively, the bargaining outcome gains for unions and firms, and γ(with 0 <γ < 1) is the bargaining power of unions. A higher wage will increase the employed workers utility, but at the same time it will lower the firms profits per worker as well as the aggregate employment level.

Under the efficient bargaining approach, it is shown that unions and firms can reach bargaining outcomes that are Pareto-improving with respect to the right-to-manage hypothesis. The bargaining equilibrium is then located on the contract curve, that is, on the locus of the tangency points between firms isoprofit curves and unions indifference curves. The exact location of the equilibrium on the contract curve will depend on the relative bargaining power γ. The empirical evidence is mainly consistent with the first setting.

Historically, in many industrialized countries, union density rates have increased especially during the expansion of the industrial sector. Recent decades, characterized by a declining industrial sector and the development of a service-oriented economy in many advanced economies, have witnessed heterogeneous patterns in union density rates, with a decline in some countries and an increase in others. These patterns seem to have followed the general institutional settings prevailing in each country as well as the ability of unions to adapt their objectives and strategies to new economic environments. As a result union density rates across Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries display a significant amount of variation, from a minimum of around 10 percent in France, the United States, and Spain in 2001 to a maximum of around 80 percent in Finland and Sweden. The same is true for union coverage that ranges from a minimum of 14 percent in the United States to above 90 percent in Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, and Sweden. Even within the same country, unions are characterized by different membership rates across sectors. For example, in the United States private sector unions represent around 8.5 percent of workers, whereas public sector unions represent around 30 percent of workers in their sector.

SEE ALSO Game Theory; Labor; Negotiation; Unions; Wages


Booth, Alison. 1995. The Economics of the Trade Union. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Cahuc, Pierre, and André Zylberberg. 2004. Labor Economics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Pencavel, John. 1991. Labor Market Under Trade Unionism: Employment, Wages and Hours. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Luca Nunziata

Labor Unions

views updated May 29 2018


Clothing industry workers, severely exploited during most of the nineteenth century in countries at the forefront of the industrial revolution (such as Great Britain, France, Germany, and the United States), made powerful efforts to form effective trade unions during the latter part of the century. The initial stages of unionization saw the creation of numerous separate unions, which tended then to go through a process of amalgamation in order to increase membership and bargaining power. This process can be seen very clearly in the case of Great Britain, for example, where by the beginning of the twentieth century, clothing workers' unions included the Amalgamated Society of Journeymen Tailors, the Amalgamated Union of Clothiers' Operatives, the Amalgamated Jewish Tailors, Pressers and Machinists' Trade Union, the London Clothiers Cutters, the Shirt, Jacket and Overall Workers, and the Belfast Shirt and Collar Workers. These joined together to form the United Garment Workers' Union (UGWU) in 1912. The UGWU subsequently added other unions, including the Scottish National Association of Operative Tailors, the London Operative Tailors, and the Amalgamated Society of Tailors and Tailoresses. With the merger in 1931 of the UGWU with the United Ladies Tailors (London) and the Waterproof Garment Workers Union, the amalgamated union changed its name to the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers. In the United States, The United Garment Workers of America (UGWA) was organized in 1891, incorporating several earlier independent unions; the more radical Amalgamated Garment Workers Union (AGWU) broke away from the UGWA in 1914. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union was founded in 1900. Textile workers, less concentrated in urban areas, were slower to unionize; the Textile Workers Union of America was organized in 1939, and later merged with the AGWU. Similar processes of organization and amalgamation marked the history of garment and textile workers unions in the countries of Western Europe.

Once a potent force in the textile and apparel industries, labor unions have been on the decline in the post–World War II period in many parts of the world, including Central and Eastern Europe, Central America, the United States, and Europe. Among the reasons for this decline are employer resistance or anti-unionism, the increasing power of multinational corporations, inadequate statutory protection for unions and union organizing in developing countries, and the inadequacy of unions to respond quickly and efficiently to labor issues. The long-term history of the garment and textile industries has been for production to move from high-wage to lowwage (which usually means from union to nonunion) countries, or regions within countries; this poses a severe challenge to labor unions in the field.

Globalization of textile and apparel production along with the dislocation of workers from industrialized countries to developing countries have meant that unions have had to reach across national boundaries to create linkages among workers for this sector. For example, members of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) have worked through its International Trade Secretariat to organize workers and to address basic worker rights and working conditions in Central America and the Caribbean.

Internationalization of the labor movement is not a new phenomenon; it began in the late nineteenth century in Europe. Stimulated by the economic and political conditions of various countries, such as industrial growth, increased international trade, and more competitive world markets, workers in industrialized nations became apprehensive about working conditions in developing countries and sought "to establish minimum labor standards by international agreement" (Lorwin, p. xii).

The demand for international labor standards after World War I resulted in the establishment of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 1919 under the League of Nations. The ILO became a specialized agency in the United Nations in 1946. Through a series of conventions and recommendations, labor standards to be attained worldwide were set forth by this organization. In 1998, the ILO organized a tripartite meeting for government, employer, and worker representatives to exchange views on labor practices in the textile, apparel, and footwear industries. Its report addresses labor issues concerning workers' rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, the elimination of child labor and forced or compulsory labor, and the end of gender discrimination with respect to employment and occupation. The representatives engaged in a social dialogue about these issues.

International Labor Organizations

ICFTU. The International Confederation of Free Trade Union's regional organizational affiliates are found in Asia and the Pacific (APRO–Asia-Pacific Regional Organization), Africa (AFRO–African Regional Organization), and the Americas (ORIT–Inter-American Regional Workers' Organization). They act as channels of communication and maintain linkages with the European Trade Union Confederation and the Global Union Federation, of which the International Textile, Garment, and Leather Workers Federation (ITGLWF) is one of ten members.

It brings together more than 200 affiliate organizations in more than 100 countries. Affiliates include UNITE in the United States and Canada, KFAT—the National Union of Knitwear, Footwear and Apparel Trades in the United Kingdom, and the BTGLWF—Bangladesh Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation.

Operating as an integral part of the ITGWLF are its regional organizations in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. The issues that are addressed with its regional organizations and affiliates include: (1) the elimination of forced and child labor; (2) the promotion of occupational health and safety standards; (3) the participation of women in worker-employer dialogues, especially home workers in the informal sector as well as workers in the export processing zones in different countries; and (4) the encouragement of social responsibility by multinational manufacturers, merchandisers, and retailers. It works closely with the ICFTU, the ITSs, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

UNITE Formed

In 1995, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union merged to form the Union of Needle-trades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) in the United States. They joined forces to provide strength for collective bargaining and a voice concerning domestic and international labor issues. Since its inception, UNITE has been involved with: (1) initiating "Stop Sweatshop" campaigns to bring attention to working conditions in New York, California, and South America; (2) assisting university students in forming United Students Against Sweatshops—an organization to keep universities from selling garments made under sweatshop conditions; (3) demanding that labor standards be enforced in global trade agreements with developing countries during trade talks; (4) challenging retailers to improve working conditions and observe workers' rights in factories making their clothes; and (5) promoting the visibility of the "Made in the USA" label to help retain textile and apparel jobs in America. These and other activities help UNITE to fulfill its goals; that is, to bring workers together, to protect members' work contracts, to prepare a workers' agenda or a list of things to be accomplished, and advocate against sweatshops, nationally and internationally. In Canada, UNITE has more than 25,000 members and has called attention to its sweatshops and home workers which mostly employ women workers.


Garment and textile workers unions have responded to changing economic, social, and political conditions throughout the world by emphasizing international organization and cooperation. The issues that led to the formation of strong garment and textile workers unions in the industrialized world of the nineteenth century remain important throughout the world, and can only be addressed on an international level and with reference to the international labor standards promulgated and upheld by the ILO. In addition, NGOs, such as the Clean Clothes Campaign, the National Labor Committee, and the Women Workers Worldwide, have been established to draw further attention to labor issues worldwide. Unions face continuing challenges to organize industrial workers in developing countries, and to reach into informal sectors of production in many parts of the world, sectors in which women's and child labor continue to be exploited.

See alsoGlobalization; Sweatshops .


Clete, Daniel. Culture of Misfortune: An Interpretive History of Textile Unionism in the United States. Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Gordon, Michael E., and Lowell Turner, eds. Transnational Cooperation among Labor Unions. Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Lorwin, Lewis L. The International Labor Movement: History, Policies, Outlook. New York: Harper, 1953.

Nissen, Bruce, ed. Unions in a Globalized Environment: Changing Borders, Organizational Boundaries, and Social Roles. Armonk, N.Y., and London: M. E. Sharpe, 2002.

O'Brien, Robert. "Workers and world order: The tentative transformation of the international union movement." Review of International Studies 26 (2000): 533–555.

Windmuller, John P. International Trade Secretariats: The Industrial Trade Union International. Foreign Labor Trends Report. Washington, D.C: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of International Labor affairs, 1995.

Internet Resources

International Labour Office. Business and Social Initiatives Database, 1996–2003. Available from <>.

——. Codes of Conduct and Multinational Enterprises. Available from <>.

——. Labour Practices in the Footwear, Leather, Textiles and Clothing Industries. Report for discussion at the Tripartite Meeting. Geneva: International Labour Organization. Available from <>.

International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers' Federation. About the ITGLWF. Available from <>.

——. ITGLWF Affiliates. Available from <>.

UNITE: A New Union With a Long History. Available from <>.

United Nations Association of the United States of America. Internet Resources: Worker Rights in the Global Economy, 1999–2000. Available from <>.

Gloria M. Williams

Labor Union

views updated May 29 2018

Labor Union

What It Means

A labor union is a group of workers who have joined together to negotiate with employers in order to secure better wages and working conditions. Unions originally consisted of male “blue-collar” workers (people who perform manual or physical labor, often for an hourly wage). Since the latter half of the twentieth century, however, more women and “white-collar” workers (people who perform less physically exacting labor, often for a salary rather than an hourly wage) have joined unions. As of 2006, about 12 percent of all workers in the United States belonged to a union.

Labor unions negotiate the terms of their employment through a method called collective bargaining. In this process a representative of the union negotiates with a representative of the employer. The two sides in these negotiations are often referred to as “labor” (the union) and “management” (the employer). By means of collective bargaining, labor attempts to set favorable terms of employment, which include a fair wage, a reasonable amount of hours of work required per week, health insurance, safe working conditions, and an official process for filing grievances or complaints concerning working conditions.

When labor and management agree to a set of working conditions, they sign an official document called a collective bargaining agreement (CBA). When labor and management cannot settle on the terms of the CBA, a work stoppage often occurs. Sometimes workers refuse to report for work until their demands are met. Such an event is called a strike. Other times owners close down operations and do not grant workers the opportunity to do their jobs. This is a called a lockout. When either of these events occurs, negotiations often turn bitter and one side is forced to give in because it cannot bear the financial losses of a work stoppage. No matter how the agreement is achieved, the terms of the CBA apply to all members of the union. In order to receive the benefits of union membership, members are required to pay union dues (a small portion of a worker’s wages that pays for costs associated with the organization and governing of the union).

When Did It Begin?

Labor unions first appeared in the late 1700s, shortly after the start of the Industrial Revolution. Large-scale industrialization during the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the United States brought intolerable working conditions: most notably low wages, long hours, and dangerous work environments. Workers, many of whom were women and children, were often required to work from dawn until dusk for only pennies a day. Employees learned that they had to unite to force management to meet their demands.

In the United States, two types of labor unions evolved: craft unions and industrial unions. Craft unions consisted of workers who practiced a specific trade. In 1792 Philadelphia shoemakers organized what many historians believe was the nation’s first craft union. Boston carpenters formed a craft union in 1793, as did New York City printers in 1794. An industrial union, on the other hand, consists of a group of employees in the same industry, regardless of the task they perform in that industry. For example, members of the United Steel Workers Union all work in the steel industry, but not all of the members of the union have the same job.

During the late 1830s, industrial unions were nearly eliminated in the United States when the nation suffered an economic crisis, but unions rebounded just prior to the Civil War and grew steadily thereafter through the mid-1950s. The greatest period of growth for American labor unions came between 1933 and 1944. During this time, union membership quadrupled because of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation, which supported the organizing power of unions, and because of an economic boost that resulted from the impending World War II.

More Detailed Information

The strike is a labor union’s greatest weapon when management remains unwilling to meet the union’s demands. Although strikes can be effective, they can also cost workers a considerable amount of money in lost wages. Thus, most labor unions use strikes as a last resort after all other measures to reach an agreement have been exhausted. When they do strike, workers gather outside their place of employment and form what is called a picket line. Walking back and forth outside of the job site, strikers typically carry signs protesting their working conditions and describing their demands. Any worker who “crosses the picket line,” or reports to work before the strike has been formally resolved, is called a scab.

Workers do not often strike over just one issue. In most strikes, a union prioritizes one or two issues above all other demands. Strikes are therefore identified according to the union’s primary demand. In an “economic strike,” workers demand higher wages, fewer work hours, or better benefits, such as health care or holiday pay. In an “organization strike,” the union seeks official recognition of its status as a labor union from its employers. A “grievance strike” occurs when the labor union finds that management has failed to live up to the terms of an existing CBA. Other types of strikes include the “wildcat strike” and the “sympathy strike.” Wildcat strikes are unauthorized by the union. They happen when a faction of disgruntled laborers organizes a work stoppage without the consent of union leadership. Sympathy strikes happen when one group of workers stops reporting for duty on behalf of another group of workers.

Philadelphia, which is likely the birthplace of the nation’s first craft union, is also believed to be the location of the first labor strike in the United States. In 1786 a group of printers who were not joined in an official labor union waged a strike. In May 1786 a skilled print craftsman in Philadelphia made $5.83 per week. On the final day of the month, 26 of the printers vowed not to work another day until they were paid $6.00 per month. The strike worked. Not all strikes staged in Philadelphia were as successful, however. For example, when an association of shoemakers called Philadelphia’s Society of Journeymen Cordwainers (the word cordwainer comes from cordovan, which is a soft leather used to make many types of shoes) went on strike for higher wages in 1806, the Philadelphia Mayor’s Court ruled that unions were criminal conspiracies whose aim was to wrongfully injure owners and their businesses. Most states ruled similarly, with one notable exception being the Massachusetts Supreme Court, which stated that labor strikes were not by definition criminal conspiracies.

Some of the most highly publicized strikes in recent history have been staged by professional athletes. For example, major league baseball players went on strike on August 12, 1994, and the dispute was not settled until April 2, 1995. During the strike, all of the playoffs, including the World Series, were cancelled. Up to this point, no professional sports league had cancelled its playoffs because of a work stoppage. Ten years after the baseball strike, the National Hockey League (NHL) lost the entire 2004–05 season and the playoffs due to a lockout staged by the owners.

Recent Trends

Union membership in the United States has steadily declined since the mid-1970s, due in part to a decline in American manufacturing. Consequently, unions have looked to the service industry to acquire new members. In the late-1990s health-care professionals began joining the Service Employees International Union in unprecedented numbers. After an increase of more than 265,000 new members in 1999, which was the largest growth in 20 years, union membership in the United States began declining once again in first years of the twenty-first century. In 2002 unions lost a total of 280,000 members, slipping to 16.1 million members nationwide.

Though their membership numbers are down, unions remain a considerable force in the United States, especially those associated with the transportation industry. In 1997 union employees at UPS (United Parcel Service) staged what would become the largest strike in the United States in 20 years. UPS acquiesced to nearly all of the union’s demands. The company lost an average of $30 million per day during the two-week strike. In 2002 dockworkers at ports throughout the United States went on strike for 10 days, costing shipping companies between $400 and $600 million in losses. In 2003 Broadway musicians in New York City went on strike, causing the theater industry to cancel 18 musicals. During the strike, theaters lost more than $10 million in revenues, and nearby restaurants lost over $50 million in sales, according to some estimates.

Labor Unions

views updated May 21 2018


Labor unions are the major organizations pursuing the collective interests of workers in the areas of health and safety, especially in the mining, manufacturing, construction, health care, and transportation sectors. Beyond assisting members with their day-to-day needs through contract negotiation and administration, unions actively work for legislative and regulatory remedies for health and safety problems. Union influence extends far beyond the workplaces of the 14 percent of workers in the United States who are unionized. Unions bargain for specific improvements in working conditions; representation and systems for improving conditions, such as health and safety committees; and procedures for members to submit specific complaints to abate hazards. They also provide technical assistance, information, and training to members facing chemical or safety dangers. Additionally, traditional bargaining for hours of work, medical benefits, disability insurance, and job security positively impact the health status of workers.

Unions work politically for the passage and implementation of laws, standards, and regulations designed to improve working conditions and worker health. Early twentieth-century legislation included wage and hour laws, limitations on child labor and industrial home work, workers' compensation, and state labor departments to inspect workplaces for hazards. The labor movement united with public health and public interest groups to pass the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 and the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, greatly expanding the federal presence in these areas. Unions have been the critical force behind most major Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, providing evidence in the rulemaking record and initiating litigation to force rulemaking and to defend rules against industry opposition. Exposure standards spearheaded by the union movement include those for lead, formaldehyde, benzene, asbestos, blood-borne pathogens, and coke-oven emissions.

In the second half of the twentieth century, union and worker activity in occupational health greatly expanded. The environmental movement of the 1960s led workers to be concerned about the levels of chemical exposure in the workplace. The black lung movement in the coal mines and the white lung movement based in cotton mills spurred the enforcement of exposure limits to chemicals and dusts. The emerging epidemic of asbestos-caused cancer and lung disease defined an approach exposure control and compensation of victims, including those in the general community. Limited rights of workers under the 1970 OSHA law were expanded through collective bargaining, in part due to public recognition of work- ers' rights to be fully informed of hazards and to fully participate in their abatement. Unions campaigned for and then implemented information rules, such as chemical hazard communication and community right-to-know, to facilitate the control of chemicals.

Unions also defended research institutions such as the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), bargained for joint research programs with employers, and participated in studies that identified many previously unknown chemical hazards. Most recently, unions helped expose underreporting of musculoskeletal disorders, which spurred ergonomics programs and greatly extended the reach of the health and safety paradigm to light industry and the white collar and service sectors. The expanding health care sector was itself recognized as a high-risk employer, particularly in the areas of infectious disease, chemical exposure, and ergonomic problems. The early twenty-first-century climate of corporate downsizing and off-shore production will challenge union-based and public occupational health and safety institutions.

Franklin E. Mirer

(see also: Asbestos; Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Cumulative Trauma; Mining; National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health; Occupational Disease; Occupational Lung Disease; Occupational Safety and Health; Occupational Safety and Health Administration )

labor union

views updated May 21 2018

la·bor un·ion • n. an organized association of workers, often in a trade or profession, formed to protect and further their rights and interests.

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