Labor Movements and Unions

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Labor movements are collective activities by wage and salaried workers in market societies to improve their economic, social, and political status. The main manifestations of such movements are labor unions and political parties, but sometimes they include producer and consumer cooperatives; credit unions; newspapers; and educational, welfare, cultural, and recreational organizations. Labor movements and unions need sociological analysis because they are integral parts of two major and related institutions of society, the economy and polity. Apart from bringing about changes in these institutions, they are the main vehicles for mobilizing the class interests of wage and salaried employees. No other social science discipline offers such a broad perspective of study.

Yet, in the United States since the inception of sociology, labor movements have received surprisingly little attention. From their founding up to 1999, three main journals—The American Journal of Sociology, The American Sociological Review, and Social Forces—together representing 219 years of publication, published only sixty-three articles whose titles mention labor movements, unions, or strikes. American sociological research on the topic has fluctuated with labor's fortunes. As union membership grew from 1940 to 1960, research expanded and then lagged, with falling membership in the 1970s. The more rapid decline of labor since 1980 has recently stimulated research on the causes.

The bulk of American labor research has been done by historians and labor economists. To be sure, sociologists have made contributions while working on other topics such as social stratification (e.g., working-class formation, income inequality), organizations (leadership turnover), race and gender (discrimination in unions), political sociology (party preferences of union members), case studies of industry (shop-floor life, the labor process), and social movements (Jenkins 1985). Combining these contributions with those of labor economists and historians, a sizable literature is now available (see the bibliography in Stern and Cornfield 1996). In Europe, the bulk of labor research has been done by sociologists and historians.


Labor movements and unions emerged with the rise of capitalism, the Industrial Revolution, and free labor markets in eighteenth-century Europe. Historians agree that labor unions did not evolve from medieval guilds, which were status groups of master-owners whose monopoly of skills was protected by public authorities. Journeymen, apprentices, and laborers had fewer or no privileges (Pirenne 1932; Lederer 1932). In early capitalism, factory workers created ad hoc organizations to withhold their labor from employers, to control production and job training, and to protect wages and working conditions. Re-created with recurring crises, the organizations eventually became permanent (Jackson 1984). As product markets grew and spread, unions were forced to organize new locals in those markets to prevent wage competition among communities. The labor movement became larger, more institutionalized, and more diversified as it organized workers in different occupations, industries, and regions (Sturmthal 1974).

This fragmented response to threats forced labor leaders to press for a more united and centralized organization to respond to threats wherever and whenever they appeared. Invariably, some unions were reluctant to commit their resources for the welfare of a vague "movement." Failure to consider this persistent resistance has led many scholars to equate labor movement growth with the formation of the working class and with working-class politics. Although the two are related, their linkage varies enormously in different times and places. Where labor movements first emerged, they were not class movements, but efforts by a minority of skilled workers to protect their traditional privileges (Calhoun 1982). Even when unions expanded to include most workers, internal factions remained, based on skill, industry, status, and influence (Form 1985, p. 96). The emergence of class movements, on the other hand, involved complex processes of linking labor movements to other special interest groups and political parties (Katznelson and Zolberg 1986).

The character and strength of labor movements must be explained in the context of the societies in which they emerge, especially the ways they relate to distinctive traditions, economies, and political and governmental systems. Autonomous labor movements survive best in capitalist democratic industrial societies. To sustain free collective bargaining, labor, management, and government must exhibit considerable independence but not exert overwhelming power in the tripartite relationship. Where union membership is compulsory and universal, where unions are completely dominated by government and/or enterprise managers, unions lack the autonomy and strength to advance the special interests of workers. Paradoxically, where labor has total control over government and the economy, it lacks opposition and the attributes of free labor movements (Sturmthal 1968).


Labor movements vary in structure and behavior according to their relationships to government and other institutions. Movements fall into roughly five types. In the independent type, as in the United States, labor is independent of all major institutions, especially parties, government, and religion. Although labor seeks political influence, it participates in a shifting multiclass coalition of a particular party. Corporate labor movements, as exhibited in Britain, Scandinavia, Germany, Italy, and France, are often formally incorporated into the political system, sometimes playing a dominant role in labor, religious, socialist, or social democratic parties. When such parties win electoral victories, labor participates in governmental bodies—cabinets, legislatures, and government agencies. In the third or party-dominant movement, sometimes found in developing societies with mixed economies, labor is part of a permanent ruling coalition—for instance, the Institutional Revolutionary Party of Mexico. Here labor loses some freedom to push for the special interests of workers because it is rarely strong enough to resist decisions of the coalition. In totalitarian fascist and communist regimes, labor movements are totally subordinate to the ruling party and exhibit the least independence. Finally, in enterprise labor movements, labor functions primarily in a consultative capacity at the enterprise level. Nationally, labor belongs to a loose federation of unions with weak links to major parties, organizations, and institutions.

In independent movements, labor seeks economic gains primarily by bargaining with management. In the political realm, it seeks governmental protection for the right to organize and bargain as well as protective legislation such as unemployment, old age, and medical insurance. In the corporate type, apart from bargaining with employers, labor makes gains through legislation that forces management to deal with labor in arriving at enterprise policies regarding job rights, the organization of work, investment and other decisions, as in codetermination in Germany and Scandinavia (Nutzinger and Backhaus 1980). Public ownership of certain industries (often mines, public utilities, and transportation) is also an option. Labor strength is highest in this type of movement. In the party-dominant movement, labor at best makes gains for a minority of organized workers, stratifying the working class. Under totalitarian regimes, labor may be given certain functions, such as assigning housing or supervising cooperatives, but its ability to bargain with government and enterprise management is severely limited (Lane and O'Dell 1978). In enterprise unionism, organized workers may gain employment security and career rewards in exchange for loyalty to the enterprise. The unorganized are exposed to the vicissitudes of the market (Okochi et al. 1974).


Scholars have long tried to explain why the American labor movement has not developed into the sort of corporatist socialist movement found in other advanced industrial democracies (Sombart 1906). Most scholars agree that European societies, compared to the United States, have had longer and stronger links to past institutions. When landed aristocrats, business, military, and religious elites resisted worker participation in the political system, class-oriented parties appeared. In such class environments, labor unions developed or joined other parties to obtain voting rights for workers, government protection of unions, benefits unavailable through collective bargaining, and eventual public ownership of industries. In addition to supporting class parties, labor movements developed structures attuned to their interests—for example, an intellectual elite, cooperatives, newspapers, banks, schools, and recreational clubs. In response to socialist and communist movements, Catholics not only launched their own labor movements and parties, but also organized schools, hospitals, newspapers, and clubs to embrace workers in a harmonious class-inclusive environment (Knapp 1976). Rejecting "captured" socialist, communist, and religious labor movements, liberals sought to organize free or neutral unions and parties that appealed to some workers and middle-class adherents (Sturmthal 1968).

The labor movement in the United States faced a different environment. The absence of an agricultural aristocracy and traditional governmental, military, and religious elites dampened class sentiments. Early extension of suffrage to all adult males removed that objective as a rallying cry for labor parties. The rapid expansion of industry into new cities, high rates of internal migration and immigration, the separation of ethnic groups in neighborhoods, and religious diversity slowed the formation of multiple working-class bonds. Moreover, an aggressive capitalist class, not bound by traditional obligations toward subordinates, fashioned laws and courts to protect property rights and suppress unions as conspiratorial monopolies (Dougherty 1941, pp. 635–677).

Even so, trade assemblies and craft unions emerged in several cities in the decade after the Civil War. In the 1880s, the Knights of Labor tried to organize unions that included all workers, even the white-collar and small businesses. This attempt lasted roughly a decade. Beginning in 1905, the militant International Workers of the World (IWW) organized workers of all skills to join unions and engage in political action to destroy capitalism (Dougherty 1941, pp. 317–349). The IWW too lasted a decade. For a few years, splintered socialist parties tried to support class-oriented unions. These efforts failed largely because the American political system places structural limitations on the development of third parties. The presidential system, decentralized state structures, constitutional barriers to the federal government making national economic policy, and the electoral college system favor a multiclass two-party system (Lipset 1977).

Weaknesses of class-oriented unions favored the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which successfully began to organize the skilled trades in 1891. The AFL concentrated on the skilled, because skilled workers dominated their trades and were capable of the sustained solidarity needed to win strikes. As an elite minority of the working class, the Federation focused largely on wage gains, better working conditions, and remained "neutral" in party politics. Yet, without legislative protection, union gains were periodically eroded by market downturns and antiunion employer drives. Thus, as a percentage of the labor force, the AFL experienced robust growth in the prosperous years before and during World War I. Membership declined rapidly in the depressions following the war; rose dramatically along with the formation of the Committee on Industrial Organizations just before and during World War II; declined slowly after the war for two decades; and then declined more rapidly in the economic recessions of the 1970s and 1980s, from which it has not recovered. That the decline was not more precipitous after World War II was due to the legislative protection that labor received in the late 1930s under the Democratic administration's New Deal.


A combination of events has tilted the American labor movement toward the European social democratic model and the latter toward the American. During the Great Depression in the United States, the Democratic Party came to power with the backing of urban-industrial and middle-class voters. The party quickly enacted legislation to increase labor's purchasing power, reduce price competition in industry, protect union organizing, and restore economic order. The National Labor Relations Act (1935) gave unions legal protection to organize, and labor conducted a militant drive for members. The recruitment of many semiskilled workers into new unions organized by the Committee on Industrial Organization (CIO) of the AFL threatened the dominance of the skilled trades in the Federation, leading to a withdrawal of the CIO from the Federation. Yet, eager to protect and extend recent gains, the divided labor movement began to abandon its traditional nonpartisan political stand. After World War II, both labor movements created electoral organizations to support Democratic candidates and mobilize their members to vote. The two labor movements merged in 1955, as did their electoral arms, to form the Committee on Political Education (COPE), formally independent of the Democratic party, but essentially functioning as part of it.

This labor-party rapprochement, committed to a social security program and a welfare state, led some scholars to conclude that the American labor movement was no longer exceptional, because it had helped create a welfare state similar to that forged by the social democratic parties in Europe (Greenstone 1977). The claim is strained because neither American labor nor the major parties ever embraced a socialist framework (Marks 1989, Chap. 6). More important, American labor has never been formally incorporated into the party and government, nor has government passed laws giving labor consultative rights in work plant operations, both central features of European corporatist labor movements. In Europe, experiments by labor-dominated governments to nationalize industries have met with limited success (Panitch 1976), and some parties have abandoned or severely curtailed nationalization programs. The matter has been and remains an issue within parties, with some unions strongly opposing it (Currie 1979). To obtain power or maintain it by democratic means, the parties found it necessary to obtain the support of middle-class employees who want the social security guarantees of a welfare state, but not nationalization of industry. To maintain a vigorous economy, social democratic parties have enacted pro-business policies, not unlike those of the Democratic Party in the United States. For example, pro-business legislation by the Clinton administration or free trade with Latin America opposed by labor. In short, conservative forces both in and outside social democratic parties have pushed European political economies toward the American model.

Where labor is part of a coalition of a permanent ruling party as in the Mexico or the former Yugoslavia, labor has sometimes shown independence and initiated strikes despite government opposition (Bronstein 1995). And even in Japan, some enterprise unions have abandoned traditional consensus policies and challenged management and government with strikes and political turmoil (Okochi et al. 1974; Kuruvilla et al. 1990). Korea has moved even farther in this direction (Deyo 1997).

If present trends continue, perhaps a slow convergence of labor movement structures will take place. Sufficient research is not available to uncover all the causes of this plausible trend, but several play a role. In totalitarian or enterprise labor movements, when governments or managements create organizations that resemble labor movements (unions, elections, bargaining sessions, and consultation), appearances may become realities during leadership crises, especially in face of turbulent external events. Thus, in Poland, during authority crises of the ruling party and the state in the late 1980s, unions began to assert control over working conditions, wage determination, and political choice (Martin 1997). With the help of clergy, intellectuals, farmers, and others, unions defied central authority and instigated a movement to bring about a democratic party and state.

These authority crises in the party-dominant, totalitarian, and enterprise labor movements often result from changes in their external environments. Top labor officials become acquainted with the independent and corporate types of movements while participating in international agencies like the International Labor Office of the United Nations. The ability of independent and corporate movements to gain visible economic and political rewards for their members has not escaped the notice of labor leaders of other types of movements. Thus, when they confront authority crises, they have a vision of the kind of changes that would help them.

More important, rising global trade and economic interdependence fosters convergence. For example, in the 1970s, Japanese and Korean auto manufacturers began to enlarge their share of the automobile markets of the United States and western Europe increasing their unemployment. While management and unions both called for tariff protection, Japanese and Korean and labor demanded and received pay increases (Deyo 1989). On making a partial recovery, American and European corporations, in pursuit of higher profits, began to outsource production in countries with lower wage rates—for example, Mexico and Brazil. Then, with limited success, American labor leaders pressed government to place tariffs on auto imports and urged labor leaders in the exporting countries to demand higher wages. However, international labor cooperation remains puny compared to growth of world trade.


In the advanced industrial capitalist democracies since the 1970s, the proportion of union members has declined in manufacturing and risen in the services and government. Some movements have shrunk rapidly, while others have remained relatively stable. Unions that had earlier won legal rights in the conduct of enterprise (codetermination, administering unemployment insurance, production planning, national bargaining) lost fewer members, for instance, corporate types of labor movements as found in Scandinavia and Germany rather than the independent type as in the United States.

In a study of eighteen advanced capitalist countries from 1970 to 1990, Western (1995) found increasing dispersion in the rates of union decline, with the highest declines in countries with the lowest initial union density—such as the United States, Britain, and France. By 1990, the declines, wherever they occurred, were traced to unfavorable global economic conditions, decentralization of collective bargaining institutions, and electoral weakening of labor-oriented parties.

In the United States, the percentage of the labor force that was unionized shrank from 37 percent in 1945 to 14 percent in 1999. Union density in the private sector declined to one-tenth of the labor force, while public sector union density grew to over two-fifths. As unions were forced into a defensive position, strike rates declined precipitously. The causes of labor's decline are complex. The most common explanation, the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy, is inadequate. In a study of eleven capitalist democracies, Lipset (1986) found that union decline did not vary with manufacturing decline. Goldfield's study (1987) showed that after eliminating changes in the economy, industries, and occupations as possible causes, employer antiunion drives under Republican administrations tilted decisions of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against organized labor. But Freeman and Medoff (1984) emphasized that white-collar unions grew rapidly despite employer resistance. Finally, some of the union decline is traced to labor's spending less money on organizing drives.

Undoubtedly, other factors were also involved in the decline, notably the outsourcing of manufacturing to other countries and the national conservative trend attending Republican electoral victories and consequent antilabor policies. Moreover, several new constituencies in the Democratic Party (blacks, women, educators, business) competed for party influence. Despite some Democratic electoral victories since 1992 and greater organizing efforts by the new AFL-CIO leadership, labor's slow downward trend has continued.

Labor movements trends in other parts of the world defy easy generalization. The best descriptions of their recent experiences appear in the International Labour Review. Clearly, free labor movements did not automatically emerge with the demise of totalitarian regimes in former soviet states. For example, in Poland, where the union-sponsored Solidarity Party gained governmental control, unions almost ceased behaving like unions at the plant level, failing to bargain with management in support of the government's anti-inflation policy. In contrast, unions in the Czech Republic, by not participating in the Civic Forum which gained control of the government, bargained with government to win codetermination rights in industry and reduce unemployment (Ost 1997). In Romania, miners have episodically threatened violence against the government to win back-pay and wage increases. In other ex-soviet countries, especially Russia, the collapse of the economy virtually stalled the formation of a free labor movement.

In east Asia, union density has been declining recently not only in the industrializing tigers of Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore but also in the more recent industrializing countries of Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, and Vietnam (Deyo 1997). Where unions and the working class have improved their positions, labor-market shortages, favorable government policies, and paternalism have been primarily responsible, rather than strong unions. Patriarchal and patrimoninal regimes have excluded unions from decision making at the enterprise level or have weakened them when they appeared. Only in Korea, where industrial workers are rather homogeneous, are residentially concentrated, and have developed autonomous organization, have unions intermittently exhibited strong independence (Deyo 1989).

In Latin America, recent declines in autocratic regimes have encouraged the rise of autonomous labor movements. Yet, three factors that vary enormously by country are union autonomy from the state; the amount of collective bargaining; and dialogue among unions, the state, and management. Although some progress toward free-trade unionism has appeared in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Chile, government pressure to achieve economic stability in the face of inflation, unemployment, poverty, and the legacy of autocratic military regimes has slowed basic changes in the tripartite relations of labor, state, and management (Bronstein 1995).


Even labor movements that are large, strong, and autonomous face constant problems. Unlike most institutions, all labor movements claim to be democratic in ideology, structure, and behavior. Union officers are supposed to be leaders, not bosses, and, their primary task is to improve the well-being of membership. Sociologists have long pondered whether large and complex democratic organizations can escape becoming oligarchies with self-serving officers. The most famous proponent of this proposition was Roberto Michels (1911), who studied the history of the Socialist Party in pre–World War I Germany. He found that its officers had become a self-perpetuating elite who controlled communication with the membership, appointed their staff and successors, and pursued their self-interests, often oblivious of member needs and concerns.

Several case studies of unions have challenged Michels's thesis. Lipset, Trow, and Coleman (1956) found that the unique party system of the International Typographical Union fostered electoral competition, officer turnover, and membership involvement in union affairs. Edelstein and Warner's (1979) study of fifty-one international unions revealed that officer turnover varied with constitutional provisions, such as frequency of elections, percentages of officers elected, and frequency of conventions. Cornfield (1989) found that substantial ethnic turnover among officers of the United Furniture Workers resulted from changes in the economy, the regional dispersal of the industry, political disputes among officers, ethnic tolerance of the membership, and a tradition of member-ship involvement in union affairs.

While most case studies of turnover among union leaders have focused on relatively small unions whose members exhibit rather homogeneous skills and earnings, the studies do not reveal the extent to which these conditions apply to the universe of unions. Marcus's study (1964) of all major unions in the country revealed that the larger and more heterogeneous the union, the slower the leadership turnover, the less frequently conventions were held, and the more decision making was concentrated in the officers.

Other dimensions of stratification within unions persist over their life histories. In a rare study, Bauman (1972) demonstrated that cleavages along skill lines persisted during the entire history of the British labor movement. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, skilled workers formed their own societies. From 1850 to 1890, they formed craft unions that gained recognition. Between 1890 and 1924, they became an elite sector of the labor movement and maintained their status and influence in the large industrial unions. With the development of the Liberal and Labour parties, trade union leaders became subordinated to universitytrained, middle-class intellectuals who dominated the parties, seats in Parliament, and high government positions. Herman Benson (1986) argued that this pattern also applies to the American labor movement, and Alain Touraine (1986) argued it is universal. In short, the rising size and organizational complexity of the labor movement are accompanied by increasing internal stratification and a less responsive bureaucracy, confirming Michels's original argument.


Although the future of the American labor movement is difficult to predict, the movement will surely survive and change. Michels argued that as movements become institutions, they lose the loyalty and commitment of the founding generations. Although economic gains always remain paramount goals of unions, money is not uppermost in the minds of members while they are working. Whatever changes take place in the economy or polity, workers live where they work. The historic union goal to improve working conditions erodes with the bureaucratization of enterprises and the labor movement. Therefore, improving the quality of work life must become a renewed priority of labor leaders, so as to invigorate member loyalty and commitment. This involves greater worker participation in the control of work organization, a challenge that management will surely resist, but union leaders must relentlessly pursue.

When labor was a larger constituency of the American Democratic Party, it had more influence in party affairs despite COPE's weak electoral organization. Form (1995) has shown that especially at the grass-roots level, COPE is severely fragmented along occupational and industrial lines; more important, union members are hardly aware of labor's political goals and electoral efforts. Understandably, Democratic Party elites have responded more to other, better-organized constituencies. Unless labor makes common cause with some of them in the workplace as well as in the political arena, labor's party influence will continue to decline. Paradoxically, the more selflessly labor supports other constituencies, the more politically influential it will become. Labor's natural allies are African Americans, Hispanics, educators, women's movements, and environmentalists. The challenge of labor leaders is to convince their members to support this strategy.

Finally, like business, labor must become a worldwide movement. Self-interest requires labor movements in advanced capitalist economies to assist foreign labor movements in making economic, social, and political gains. This surely is the toughest assignment, but unless progress is made on this front, labor may continue to decline.

(see also: Labor Force, Social Movements)


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William Form

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