Labor Unions the Union Movement Ascended Research Proposal

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Labor Unions

The union movement ascended in the 19th century as a response to the poor working conditions on the Industrial Revolution. By coming together and mobilizing, workers were able to secure basic improvements to their work environment, as well as benefits such as funeral expenses, and basic protections against illness and old age.

The movement rapidly expanded into the early 20th century. The AFL reached a membership of 1.4 million workers by 1904.

The creation of the CIO in 1932 heralded an era of rapid union expansion as mass production industries were brought into the movement. The AFL and CIO joined forces in 1955, but shortly thereafter the union movement headed into decline.

In recent years, the movement has entered a phase of self-reflection. The AFL-CIO saw three of its four largest federations split from the group in 2005. Some of the key ideological differences were that the split groups wanted to shift spending priorities away from political campaigns and towards attracting new members, structural reorganization and a reduction of the central bureaucracy.

The union movement today is searching for its relevance. It still represents millions of members and is very active politically. However, many younger workers are disillusioned about organized labor, and many of the historical reasons for labor's existence have been addressed not only by governments but by corporations as well.

The Rise and Fall of Unions

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Unions were able to rise to prominence as a result of several key factors. Among these were lack of government protection for workers, a poorly educated workforce, and eventually in the wake of the Depression, government intervention that aligned corporate and labor interests.

The appalling working conditions of the mid-19th century were a result of an oversupply of manual labor and lack of governance. Companies had the legal capability to exploit workers and the workers themselves did not have any power. By organizing, they were able to gain some leverage against their employers and win basic concessions.

Research Proposal on Labor Unions the Union Movement Ascended in Assignment

Union recruiting was an aggressive endeavor at the time. The right of workers to organize was not widely recognized, and corporations used a variety of techniques include strikebreakers and the dismissal of organizers to discourage workers from organizing. Unions, for their part, typically sold themselves on the basis of the benefits they offered workers. They would plant an employee or group of employees in a target company and quickly begin to rally support for better working conditions, wages and benefits. If opposition emerged, the organizers would gather the support of other unions.

The Great Depression saw several significant changes to the legal environment that propelled union membership to greater heights. The New Deal's National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) aligned labor and corporate interests. In an unrestricted market, corporations frequently resorted to price competition in order to win market share. The result was cost-cutting, especially with regards to labor, one of industry's most significant inputs.

NIRA essentially was a deal between government and industry wherein corporations would be allowed to operate as cartels to increase prices so long as they shared those prices with workers. While NIRA was eventually ruled unconstitutional, many of its labor provisions carried over into the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Several industry-specific acts also sought to limit competition, thereby ensuring companies sufficient profitability to pay union wages.

This era saw the most dramatic increases in union membership since the movement began, and unionized peaked in 1945 at around 34% of the workforce. However, the demise of NIRA meant that the goals of labor and industry were no longer aligned. Corporations once again engaged in price competition, a goal which once again proved incongruous with a large unionized workforce.

The demise of unions has been a slow process. The legal framework of NIRA and NLRA has been gradually unwound. Forced back into price competition, corporations cut costs with automation and outsourcing. Both government and corporations have given American workers the benefits and wages that unions traditionally fought for. Increasing education has created a workforce more aware of its own rights, and more confident of its ability to achieve this without surrendering control of its future to a union. The result has been a precipitous decline in unionization over the past several decades, so much that the incoming workforce, Generation Y, only has 5% union membership.

Unions Today

With decreasing membership comes two significant problems. One is a decline in dues, which finance union architecture. The other is a decrease in political and social relevance. The basic source of power for any union is the size of its membership. Politically, unions choose endorse candidates, and there is a strong degree of unanimity in voting amongst union members. In exchange for votes, unions influence political agendas.

Socially, unions have long sought to represent the interests of the working class. As the U.S. shifts away from a production economy into a service and information-based economy, the fundamental nature of the working class has shifted. Many workers in these sectors feel that unions do not represent their needs, or that they themselves are better suited to represent their own needs.

When John Kerry, backed by the unions, was defeated in the 2004 election, the movement began a process of reflection that culminated in the 2005 split amongst the AFL-CIO that saw three of its largest federations leave. The split group, dubbed Change to Win Federation, has a different view of the future of the union movement from the AFL-CIO.

The AFL-CIO continues to operate in much the same way as it has for the past few decades. It is heavily involved in politics, as evidence by its prominent role in the Obama campaign. It endorses political candidates and attempts to exert influence on the basis of its 10 million plus membership.

The recruiting methods of the AFL-CIO have reverted to more of a soft sell. The union promotes the benefits of unions, and uses statistics to outline these advantages. This is due to a couple of key factors. One is that the movement is facing a generally hostile political environment. The AFL-CIO feels that with the current leadership in place, aggressive moves from the union will result in legislative backlash. The focus on political activism indicates a view that the union movement needs to create for itself a more favorable political environment before increasing their aggressiveness. A more favorable political environment will put them in a better position to regain their strength.

One of the main differences between the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win Federation is the philosophical approach to rebuilding the union movement. Change to Win has sought to address some of the problems leading to a decline in unionism at their core. The group seeks operate with less bureaucracy that AFL-CIO. The underlying premise of this is that in the face of declining membership, union leadership needs to reduce its own costs. This is one component of a plan to rebuild the movement's financial health.

The second part of this plan is to focus on growing membership. Like the AFL-CIO, the Change to Win Federation believes it has a role in the American workforce. The group is not as politically active, preferring to focus on building membership. The selling points are the same as for AFL-CIO, although more clearly articulated. The CTWF puts a stronger emphasis in its promotions and policies on black and Latino workers, and on foreign workers, who it believes should be brought into the economic mainstream. CTWF is also more sophisticated in its policies towards what it views as key legislative threats to the union movement - classifying workers as independent contractors rather than employees, the use of undocumented foreign laborers to lower labor costs to employers, and globalization.

The Future of the Union Movement

The movement continues to be under threat. Some of the key threats are a perceived lack of relevance, a hostile legislative environment, and the split between the AFL-CIO and CTWF. The lack of relevance of the movement derives from several factors. One is the increasing education of American workers, which makes them less likely to turn over control of their working life to the unions. Workers today see unions as representing an obsolete notion of the career path, an issue unionism has yet to address. Increasingly, companies are offering their employees packages similar to what unions offer. Both of these factors affect the historical trade-off workers had to make when considering the opportunity to join a union - to give up personal control over your career in exchange for better pay, benefits and working conditions. An increasingly educated workforce finds themselves more confident in taking control over their own fate, and a reduction in labor abuse reduces the benefits of organizing.

The legislative environment is another challenge. The seminal moment in anti-union public policy came when Ronald Reagan fired the airline traffic controllers in 1981. That one move stripped unions of their symbolic strength, and laws passed since then to foster greater globalization have helped reinforce that loss in law. Union leaders… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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