Evolution of Labor Unions Essay

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Evolution of Labor Unions


Definition, History and Evolution

Growth and Decline


Membership Policies

Labor Legislation

Vision and Direction

A New Global Federation

A labor union refers to a group of workers who share common goals in terms of wages, hours and work conditions (Boone and Kurtz, 2005 as qtd in Maxwell, 1999). In the beginning, labor unions in the United States consisted only of male, blue-collar workers. But as the economy evolved, white-collar and female workers were admitted as members (Maxwell).

History and Evolution

Workers in the 1700s and 1800s recognized the need to band together in response to inhuman working conditions, low wages and long work hours (Encyclopedia of Small Business, 2002; Maxwell, 1999). Labor unions flourished during the Industrial Revolution. By grouping together, workers found that they could bargain and pressure employers to respond to their demands. The specialization of employees increased production dramatically, bringing about prosperity during good times and hardships during depressions (Encyclopedia of Small Business, Maxwell).Buy full Download Microsoft Word File paper
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Essay on Evolution of Labor Unions Assignment

As the number of labor unions increased, two types emerged, namely, craft unions and industrial unions (Encyclopedia of Small Business, 2002; Maxwell, 1999). Workers under craft unions were skilled in a specific trade or craft. Examples of craft unions in the 1790s are the Philadelphia shoemakers in 1792, the Boston carpenters in 1793, and the New York printers in 1794. Workers without specializations formed industrial unions beginning from 1827. Examples were the United Steel Workers and the teamsters. The depression of 1837 nearly blotted out these unions but they resurfaced before the Civil War in 1861. From that time, they became strong enough to ward off recessions. Among the five major organizations between 1866 and 1936 were the National Labor Union and the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor. The National Labor Union put up a national federation of craft unions and reform groups and later became a political party until it collapsed within 6 years. The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor, on the other hand, endeavored to combine and unite both skilled and unskilled workers. But when it gathered more than 700,000 members, it split into two groups. One was the revolutionary socialist group and the other was the traditional group. The revolutionary socialist group wanted a government takeover of production, while the traditional group concentrated on the economic welfare of members. A short-lived organization, the Industrial Workers of the World, was organized in 1905. It introduced the sit-down strike and mass picketing concepts to unionism. In the early 1920s, workers in the steel, aluminum, auto and rubber industries formed many separate industrial unions. They belonged to the same industry but did not use the same skills. They did not subscribe to the craft union concept, which was the organizational structure of the American Federation of Labor or AFL. These industrial unions separated from the AFL in 1936 and became affiliates under the Congress of Industrial Organizations. By organizing entire industries instead of individual crafts, the Congress successfully dealt with mass-production industries. Its membership increased close to the level of the AFL (Encyclopedia of Small Business, Maxwell).

The four sectors of the American economy, which traditionally required strong union presence, are manufacturing, mining, construction and transportation (Encyclopedia of Small Business, 2002). These sectors lost substantial hold in the last few decades. Deregulation in the transportation sector, the growth of non-union contractors in the construction sector, and all the causes of union decline were also the causes in the manufacturing sector (Encyclopedia of Small Business).

Growth and Decline of Labor Unions

From less than a million in 1900, membership in labor unions slowly grew from 1920 to 1935 (Encyclopedia of Small Business, 2002; Maxwell, 1999). Modern labor movement was organized between 1933 and 1944 with an overwhelming increase in membership to more than 5 million. The New Deal legislation, the contest between the AFL and CIO, and World War II accounted for the increase. From 1943 to 1956, membership leaped to more than 15 million in 1950. A fourth of the labor force at the time consisted of union members when unions were sanctioned and recognized by the government. By 1955, the AFL and CIO settled the issues between them and fused into a very large organization, the AFL-CIO. Today, all labor unions in the U.S. are affiliated with the AFL-CIO, except the National Education Association (Maxwell, Encyclopedia of Small Business).

Union membership began to decrease from 1956 to 1961 from three causes (Encyclopedia of Small Business, 2002; Maxwell, 1999). For the first time, there were more white-collar workers than blue-collar, women swarmed the workforce, and the economy shifted focus from production to service. But union membership resumed growth in 1961. It had 4 million more members from 1964 to 1974, especially during the Vietnam War. Most of them were public-sector employees and professionals (Encyclopedia of Small Business, Maxwell).

Since the 1980s, percentage of union membership has fallen for a number of causes (Encyclopedia of Small Business, 2002; Maxwell, 1999). These were a decrease in blue-collar jobs, labor laws for workers, better employee-management relationships, and a change from a manufacturing to a service economy. A service economy brought in more women and young people who were not easily organized. In the 1990s and the early years of the 21st century, the number of unionized workers declined. Yet almost 16 million workers belonged to labor unions. These 16 million comprised 1/8th to 1/6th of the labor force (Encyclopedia of Small Business, Maxwell).


Labor unions are local, national or international (Encyclopedia of Small Business, 2002; Maxwell, 1999). Members of local unions come from specific geographic areas, such as a city, state or region. Local unions comprise a national union, which operates under one constitution. Examples of two large national unions are the Teamsters and the United Steel Workers of America. Each of these consists of many local unions. Decisions emanate from the local level by those qualified to make them. Then they go up to the national level. The policy of decentralization recognizes the autonomy of every local union to make these decisions. A single set of rules guides decision-making from the local level and grants each local union its own charter. And international unions consist of members from and outside the U.S., such as Canada (Encyclopedia of Small Business, Maxwell).

The primary motive of national labor unions is economic (Encyclopedia of Small Business, 2002; Maxwell, 1999). Their main function is collective bargaining, although most of the process takes place at the local level. The primary role of leaders of local and national labor unions is bargaining labor-management contracts on wages, hours, working conditions and dispute settlements. And on top of the organization ladder is the federation, which is made up of national unions and/or international unions. A federation coordinates its affiliated unions, settles disputes between them and functions as the political representative of its members. An example is the AFL-CIO (Encyclopedia of Small Business, Maxwell).

Membership Policies

There is an agency-shop policy and an open-shop policy. The agency-shop policy accepts both union and non-union workers to be employed (Encyclopedia of Small Business, 2002; Maxwell, 1999). But non-union members must pay a fee equal to union dues as their fair share of the costs of representation in negotiations but not of the union's political activities. The open-shop policy, on the other hand, accepts voluntary membership or non-membership. It does not require the payment of fees by non-union workers (Encyclopedia of Small Business, Maxwell).

Labor Legislation

The 1932 Norris-LaGuardia Act was the first federal legislation to affect labor unions and management (Encyclopedia of Small Business, 2002; Maxwell, 1999). The Act protects union activities, such as strikes and picketing by making it hard for management to secure injunctions against these activities. The 1935 Wagner Act, or the National Labor Relations Act, legalized collective bargaining and compelled employers to come to negotiations with union officials. It established the National Labor Relations Board. This Board supervises union elections and monitors unfair labor practices. The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act fixed 40 hours of basic work per week, criminalized child labor and set a minimum wage. The Taft-Harley Act restricted the power of unions by prohibiting them from certain activities. These included compelling employees to join the union, charging exorbitant fees, refusing to bargain collectively with an employer, and using union dues to make political contributions. This Act was amended by the 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act, which requires a constitution and by-laws, secret-ballot elections of officers, and a given financial reporting procedure. The 1988 Plant-Closing-Notification Act regulates management procedures. It also requires employers to give workers a 60-day warning for mass layoffs or plant closings (Encyclopedia of Small Business, Maxwell).

Vision and Direction

Labor unions are formed out of the necessity to protect the health and welfare of American workers (Encyclopedia of Small Business, 2002; Maxwell, 1999). They have given a single voice to workers and secure fair treatment for them in the workplace. In contemporary times, laws were passed to guarantee many of their rights, which previously… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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