Labor unions in the United States: Wikis


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Andy Stern of the SEIU is one of the most prominent union leaders in the 21st century

Labor unions in the United States are legally recognized as representatives of workers in many industries. The most prominent unions are among public sector employees such as teachers and police. Activity by labor unions in the United States today centers on collective bargaining over wages, benefits, and working conditions for their membership and on representing their members if management attempts to violate contract provisions. Although much smaller compared to their peak membership in the 1950s, unions also remain an important political factor (especially within the Democratic Party), both through mobilization of their own memberships and through coalitions with like-minded activist organizations. Today most unions are aligned with one of two larger umbrella organizations: the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win Federation, which split from the AFL-CIO in 2005. Both advocate policies and legislation on behalf of workers in the United States and Canada, and take an active role in politics. The AFL-CIO is especially concerned with global trade issues. American union membership in the private sector has in recent years fallen under 9% — levels not seen since 1932. In another example, Construction trades now only represent approximately 14% of the labor market. American unions remain an important political factor, both through mobilization of their own memberships and through coalitions with like-minded activist organizations around issues such as immigrant rights, trade policy, health care, and living wage campaigns. Unions allege that employer incited opposition (including engaging in what is commonly termed "union-busting": running "anti-union" campaigns, employing "union-busters" - a.k.a. "union avoidance" consultants, or engaging in unfair labor practices, like firing workers who support the union, which is illegal) has contributed to this decline in membership.

Unions are currently trying to reduce employers' influence over workers' decisions to be represented by a union by advocating new federal legislation that would allow workers to elect union representation by signing cards, a process often referred to as card check recognition. This proposed legislation is known as the Employee Free Choice Act. Under this proposed Act, once a majority of employees in a workplace have signed a card, the employer will be obligated to make a good-faith effort to bargain a contract with the union. Significantly, the card signing is to be performed in front of a union representative, who can identify the signer. The current process established by federal law requires at least 30% of employees to sign cards for the union, then wait 45 to 90 days for a federal official to conduct a secret ballot election in which 50% plus one of the employees must vote for the union in order to obligate the employer to bargain. Unions report that, under the present system, many employers use the 45 to 90 day period to conduct anti-union campaigns.

During the 2008 elections, the Employee Free Choice Act had widespread support of many legislators in the House and Senate, and of the President. Since then, support for the "card check" provisions of the EFCA subsided substantially.


Union history

Labor unions today

Labor unions in the United States
National trade union organization(s)
National government agency(ies)
United States Department of Labor
National Labor Relations Board
Primary trade union legislation
National Labor Relations Act
Taft-Hartley Act

Trade union membership

16.1 million[1]

Percentage of workforce

  ▪ Total - 12.4%
  ▪ Public sector - 36.8%
  ▪ Private sector - 7.6%
  ▪ Age 16 - 24 - 5.0%
  ▪ 25 - 34 - 10.7%
  ▪ 35 - 44 - 13.4%
  ▪ 45 - 54 - 16.0%
  ▪ 55 - 64 - 16.6%
  ▪ 65 and over - 9.0%
  ▪ Women - 11.4%
  ▪ Men - 13.4%

Standard Occupational Classification

  ▪ Management, professional - 13.4%
  ▪ Service - 11.9%
  ▪ Sales and office - 7.4%
  ▪ Natural resources,
  and maintenance - 17.7%
  ▪ Production,
  and material moving - 16.4%

International Labour Organization

United States is a member of the ILO

Convention ratification
Freedom of Association not ratified
Right to Organise not ratified

Today most labor unions in the United States are members of one of two larger umbrella organizations: the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) or the Change to Win Federation, which split from the AFL-CIO in 2005. Both organizations advocate policies and legislation favorable to workers in the United States and Canada, and take an active role in politics favoring the Democratic party but not exclusively so. The AFL-CIO is especially concerned with global trade issues.

Recently unions have become a larger issue within the 2008 "Economic Crisis" with the three largest automakers seeking $50 Billion in loans in order to stay viable. According to some Senators 'costly labor agreements' including pension and health plans put the U.S. automakers at a disadvantage to foreign companies resulting in their collapse.[2] Others point out that the United Auto Workers has made extensive concessions to the car companies over the last twenty years in order to help the companies remain competitive, and allege that the automakers' recent troubles are better ascribed to other factors.[3][4]

Private sector union members are tightly regulated by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), passed in 1935. The law is overseen by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent federal agency. Public sector unions are regulated partly by federal and partly by state laws. In general they have shown robust growth rates, for wages and working conditions are set through negotiations with elected local and state officials. The unions' political power thus comes into play, and of course the local government cannot threaten to move elsewhere, nor is there any threat from foreign competition. In California the public sector unions have been especially successful.

To join a traditional labor union, workers must either:

  • be given voluntary recognition from their employer or
  • have a majority of workers in a "bargaining unit" vote for union representation.

In either case, the government must then certify the newly formed union. Other forms of unionism include minority unionism, Solidarity unionism, and the practices of organizations such as the Industrial Workers of the World, which do not always follow traditional organizational models.

Public sector worker unions are governed by labor laws and labor boards in each of the 50 states. Northern states typically model their laws and boards after the NLRA and the NLRB. In other states, public workers have no right to establish a union as a legal entity. (About 40% of public employees in the USA do not have the right to organize a legally established union.)

Once the union has won the support of a majority of the bargaining unit and is certified in a workplace, it has the sole authority to negotiate the conditions of employment. However, under the NLRA, if a minority of employees voted for a union, those employees can then form a union which represents the rights of only those members who voted for the union. This minority model was once widely used, but was discarded when unions began to consistently win majority support. Unions are beginning to revisit the "members only" model of unionism because of new changes to labor law which unions view as curbing workers' ability to organize.

The employer and the union write the terms and conditions of employment in a legally binding contract. When disputes arise over the contract, most contracts call for the parties to resolve their differences through a grievance process to see if the dispute can be mutually resolved. If the union and the employer still cannot settle the matter, either party can choose to send the dispute to arbitration, where the case is argued before a neutral third party.

In the 1940s and 1950s links to organized crime were discovered in U.S. unions, hurting their image.

Since the 1970s, union membership has been steadily declining in the private-sector, due to uncontrolled mass-immigration; while growing in the public sector.

Right-to-work statutes forbid unions from negotiating agency shops. Thus, while unions do exist in "right-to-work" states, they are typically weaker.

Members of labor unions enjoy "Weingarten Rights." If management questions the union member on a matter that may lead to discipline or other changes in working conditions, union members can request representation by a union representative. Weingarten Rights are named for the first Supreme Court decision to recognize those rights.[5]

The NLRA goes farther in protecting the right of workers to organize unions. It protects the right of workers to engage in any "concerted activity" for mutual aid or protection. Thus, no union connection is needed. Concerted activity "in its inception involves only a speaker and a listener, for such activity is an indispensable preliminary step to employee self-organization."[6]



Union membership had been steadily declining in the US since 1983. In 2007, the labor department reported the first increase in union memberships in 25 years and the largest increase since 1979. Most of the recent gains in union membership have been in the service sector while the number of unionized employees in the manufacturing sector has declined. Most of the gains in the service sector have come in West Coast states like California where union membership is now at 16.7% compared with a national average of about 12.1%.[7]

Union density (the percentage of workers belonging to unions) has been declining since the late 1940s, however. Almost 36% of American workers were represented by unions in 1945. Historically, the rapid growth of public employee unions since the 1960s has served to mask an even more dramatic decline in private-sector union membership.

At the apex of union density in the 1940s, only about 9.8% of public employees were represented by unions, while 33.9% of private, non-agricultural workers had such representation. In this decade, those proportions have essentially reversed, with 36% of public workers being represented by unions while private sector union density had plummeted to around 7%. Recently, workers have increasingly chosen union membership. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics most recent survey indicates that union membership in the US has risen to 12.4% of all workers, from 12.1% in 2007. Private sector union membership has rebounded as well, increasing from 7.5% in 2007 to 7.6% in 2008. [8]

Labor Education Programs

In the US, labor education programs such as the Harvard Trade Union Program created in 1942 by Harvard University professor John T. Dunlop sought to educate union members to deal with important contemporary workplace food and labor law issues of the day. The Harvard Trade Union Program is currently part of a broader initiative at Harvard Law School called the Labor and Worklife Program that deals with a wide variety of labor and employment issues from union pension investment funds to the effects of nanotechnology on labor markets and the workplace.


Labor unions use the term jurisdiction to refer to their claims to represent workers who perform a certain type of work and the right of their members to perform such work. For example, the work of unloading containerized cargo at United States ports, which both the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters have claimed rightfully should be assigned to workers they represent. A jurisdictional strike is a concerted refusal to work undertaken by a union to assert its members' right to such job assignments and to protest the assignment of disputed work to members of another union or to unorganized workers. Jurisdictional strikes occur most frequently in the United States in the construction industry.[9]

Unions also use jurisdiction to refer to the geographical boundaries of their operations, as in those cases in which a national or international union allocates the right to represent workers among different local unions based on the place of those workers' employment, either along geographical lines or by adopting the boundaries between political jurisdictions.[9]


Since the creation of (organized labor) unions in the 19th century, immigration had always been a tool of business to depress wages and break unions(basic supply and demand economics) The AFL-CIO had always been against immigration until 1999, when they reversed their stance. Most trade unionists see this as a 'stab-in-the-back.' Most trade unionists see the American government as their enemy, as the American government is responsible for 'mass immigration,' and have no desire to stem the flood. A more extreme movement is emerging from the trade unionists, one that sees 'armed struggle,' as viable option against their government and their despicable national leaders. The correlation between immigration and decline of trade unions is blatantly obvious. Cities that were once known for 80% market share for trade unions (such as Denver, Colorado) are now down to single digits due to the growth of Chicano immigration from Mexico and Central America.

    ==Unions and Globalization==

Declining Union Density: Disaggregating the Effect of Globalization

As noted above, the relative strength and size of unions in the United States has receded since the 1970s. Although most industrialized countries have seen a drop in unionization rates, the drop in union density (the unionized proportion of the working population) has been more significant in the United States than elsewhere. Popular explanations that pin this decline to a reduced popularity of unionization among workers and the general public appear to be misguided. In fact, public approval of unions climbed between 1981 and 1988, with 61% of Americans approving of unions in 1988. The rate of public confidence in the United States during this same time differed little from the analogous rate in other industrialized nations (Sexton, 2003).[10] Furthermore, dropping unionization rates cannot be attributed entirely to changing market structures. In fact, scholars have shown the tremendous complexity inherent in explaining why this decline of union density.

A broad range of forces have been identified as potential contributors to the drop in union density across countries. Sano and Williamson (2008)[11] outline quantitative studies that assess the relevance of these factors across countries. The first relevant set of factors relate to the receptiveness of unions’ institutional environments. For example, the presence of a Ghent system (where unions are responsible for the distribution of unemployment insurance) and of centralized collective bargaining (organized at a national or industry level as opposed to local or firm level) have both been shown to give unions more bargaining power and to correlate positively to higher rates of union density. Furthermore, unions have enjoyed higher rates of success in locations where they have greater access to the workplace as an organizing space (as determined both by law and by employer acceptance), and where they benefit from a corporatist relationship to the state and are thus allowed to participate more directly in the official governance structure. Moreover, the fluctuations of business cycles, particularly the rise and fall of unemployment rates and inflation, are also closely linked to changes in union density (Sano and Williamson, 2008).[12]

The relatively coherent scholarly perspective on the role of institutional openness to organized labor in determining union strength is not mirrored in the analysis of political and economic factors. For example, while Brady (2007) shows that political parties play an expected role in determining union strength, with left-wing governments generally promoting greater union density, other scholars contest this finding by pointing out important counterexamples and explaining the reverse causality inherent in this relationship (Ebbinghaus and Visser, 1999).[13]

More recently, as unions have become increasingly concerned with the impacts of market integration on their well-being, scholars have begun to assess whether popular concerns about a global “race to the bottom” are reflected in cross-country comparisons of union strength. These scholars use foreign direct investment (FDI) and the size of a country’s international trade as a percentage of its GDP to assess a country’s relative degree of market integration. These researchers typically find that globalization does affect union density, but is dependent on other factors, such as unions’ access to the workplace and the centralization of bargaining (Scruggs and Lange, 2002).[14] Sano and Williamson (2008)[15] find that globalization’s impact is conditional upon a country’s labor history. In the United States in particular, which has traditionally had relatively low levels of union density, globalization did not appear to significantly affect union density.

Studies focusing more narrowly on the U.S. labor movement corroborate the comparative findings about the importance of structural factors, but tend to emphasize the effects of changing labor markets due to globalization to a greater extent. For example, in their introduction to their book on effective organizing strategies, Bronfenbrenner (1998)[16] notes that in fact changes in the economy, such as increased global competition, capital flight, and the transitions from a manufacturing to a service economy and to a greater reliance on transitory and contingent workers, accounts for only a third of the decline in union density. In addition, she claims that the federal government in the 1980’s was largely responsible for giving employers the perception that they could engage in aggressive strategies to repress the formation of unions. Richard Freeman also points to the role of repressive employer strategies in reducing unionization, and highlights the way in which a state ideology of anti-unionism tacitly accepted these strategies (Sexton, 2003).[10] Finally, however, Goldfield (2007)[17] notes that the overall effects of globalization on unionization in the particular case of the United States may be understated in econometric studies on the subject. He notes that the threat of production shifts reduces unions’ bargaining power even if it does not eliminate them, and also claims that most of the effects of globalization on labor’s strength are indirect. In fact, they are most present in change towards a neoliberal political context that has promoted the deregulation and privatization of some industries and accepted increased employer flexibility in labor markets.

Union Strategies in the face of globalization

Regardless of the actual impact of market integration on union density or on workers themselves, organized labor has been engaged in a variety of strategies to limit the agenda of globalization and to promote labor regulations in an international context. The most prominent example of this has been the opposition of labor groups to free trade initiatives such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). In both cases, unions expressed strong opposition to the agreements, but to some extent pushed for the incorporation of basic labor standards in the agreement if one were to pass (Bolle, 2005).[18]

However, Mayer (2006)[19] has shown that it was precisely unions’ opposition to NAFTA overall that jeopardized organized labor’s ability to influence the debate on labor standards in a significant way. During Clinton’s presidential campaign, labor unions wanted NAFTA to include a side deal to provide for a kind of international social charter, a set of standards that would be enforceable both in domestic courts and through international institutions. Kantor, then U.S. trade representative, had strong ties to organized labor and believed that he could get unions to come along with the agreement, particularly if they were given a strong voice in the negotiation process. However, when it became clear that Mexico would not stand for this kind of an agreement, some critics from the labor movement would not settle for any viable alternatives. In response, part of the labor movement wanted to declare their open opposition to the agreement, and to push for NAFTA’s rejection in Congress (Mayer, 2006).[20] Ultimately, the ambivalence of labor groups led those within the Administration who supported NAFTA to believe that strengthening NAFTA’s labor side agreement too much would cost more votes among Republicans than it would garner among Democrats, and would make it harder for the United States to elicit support from Mexico (Cameron and Tomlin, 2000).[21]

Nevertheless, Graubart (2008)[22] shows that, despite unions’ open disappointment with the outcome of this labor-side negotiation, labor activists, including the AFL-CIO have used the side agreement’s citizen petition process to highlight ongoing political campaigns and struggles in their home countries. He claims that despite the relative weakness of the legal provisions themselves, the side-agreement has served a legitimizing functioning, giving certain social struggles a new kind of standing.

Furthermore, unions have recently been engaged in a developing field of transnational labor regulation embodied in corporate codes of conduct. However, O’Brien (2002)[23] notes that unions have been only peripherally involved in this process, and remain ambivalent about its potential effects. They worry that these codes could have legitimizing effects on companies that don’t actually live up to good practices, and that companies could use codes to excuse or distract attention from the repression of unions. Braun and Gearhart (2008) note that although unions do participate in the structure of a number of these agreements, their original interest in codes of conduct differed from the interests of human rights and other non-governmental activists. They believed that codes of conduct would be important first steps in creating written principles that a company would be compelled to comply with in later organizing contracts, but did not foresee the establishment of monitoring systems such as the Fair Labor Association. These authors point out that are motivated by power, want to gain insider status politically and are accountable to a constituency that requires them to provide them with direct benefits. In contrast, activists from the non-governmental sector are motivated by ideals, are free of accountability and gain legitimacy from being political outsiders. Therefore, the interests of unions are not likely to align well with the interests of those who draft and monitor corporate codes of conduct.

Finally, unions have made some attempts to organize across borders. In fact, Eder (2002)[24] notes that transnational organizing is not a new phenomenon but has been facilitated by technological change. Nevertheless, he claims that while unions pay lip service to global solidarity, they still act largely in their national self-interest. He argues that unions in the global North are becoming increasingly depoliticized while those in the South grow politically, and that global differentiation of production processes leads to divergent strategies and interests in different regions of the world. These structural differences tend to hinder effective global solidarity. However, in light of the weakness of international labor, Herod (2002)[25] notes that globalization of production need not be met by a globalization of union strategies in order to be contained. In fact, he points out that local strategies, such as the United Auto Workers’ strike against General Motors in 1998, can sometimes effectively interrupt global production processes in ways that they could not before the advent of widespread market integration. Thus, workers need not be connected organizationally to others around the world to effectively influence the behavior of a transnational corporation.

See also


  1. ^ Bureau of Labor Statistics (January 28, 2009). "Union members in 2008". Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor. 
    Greenhouse, Steven (January 28, 2009). "Union membership up sharply in 2008, report says". The New York Times: p. A18. 
    Whoriskey, Peter (January 29, 2009). "American union ranks grow after 'bottoming out'; first significant increase in 25 years". The Washington Post: p. A8. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ Whoriskey, Peter (20 December 2008), "UAW's Sacrifices Look to Some Like Surrender", Washington Post, 
  4. ^ Maynard, Micheline (2004). The End of Detroit: How the Big Three Lost Their Grip on the American Car Market. Currency/Doubleday. ISBN 0385507704. 
  5. ^ NLRB v. J. Weingarten, Inc., 420 U.S. 251 (1975); Tate & Renner Attorneys at Law
  6. ^ Root-Carlin, Inc., 92 NLRB 1313, 27 LRRM, 1235, citing NLRB v. City Yellow Cab Co. (6th Cir. 1965), 344 F.2d 575, 582;
  7. ^ Bureau of Labor Statistics (January 25, 2008). "Union members in 2007". Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor. 
    Greenhouse, Steven (January 26, 2008). "Union membership sees biggest rise since ’83". The New York Times: p. A11. 
    Freeman, Sholnn (January 26, 2008). "Union membership up slightly in 2007; Growth was biggest in Western states; Midwest rolls shrank with job losses". The Washington Post: p. D2. 
  8. ^
  9. ^ a b Hunt, James W. and Strongin, Patricia K. The Law of the Workplace: Rights of Employers and Employees. 3rd ed. Washington, D.C.: BNA Books, 1994. ISBN 0871798417; Whitney, Nathaniel Rugges. Jurisdiction in American Building-Trades Unions. Charleston, S.C.: BiblioBazaar, 2008 (originally published 1914). ISBN 055945399X
  10. ^ a b Sexton, Patricia Cayo. “The Decline of the Labor Movement.” The Social Movements Reader: Cases and Concepts. Goodwin, Jeff and James M. Jasper, eds. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003
  11. ^ Sano, Joelle and John B. Williamson. (2008) “Factors Affecting Union Decline and their Implications for Labor Reform.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology. 49: 479-500
  12. ^ Sano, Joelle and John B. Williamson. (2008) “Factors Affecting Union Decline and their Implications for Labor Reform.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology. 49: 479-500
  13. ^ Ebbinghaus, B. and Visser, J. (1999) "When Institutions Matter. Union Growth and Decline in Western Europe, 1950–1995", European Sociological Review 15(2): 135–58
  14. ^ Scruggs, L. and Lange, P. (2002) ‘Where Have all the Members Gone? Globalizations, Institutions, and Union Density’, The Journal of Politics 64(1): 126–53.
  15. ^ Sano, Joelle and John B. Williamson. (2008) “Factors Affecting Union Decline and their Implications for Labor Reform.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology. 49: 479-500.
  16. ^ Bronfenbrenner, Kate. Organizing to Win: New Research on Union Strategies. Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press, 1998.
  17. ^ Goldfield, Michael. “The impact of globalization and neoliberalism on the decline of organized labour in the United States.” Labor, Globalization and the State: Workers, women and migrants confront neoliberalism. Banerjee, Debdas and Michael Goldfield, eds. London: Routledge, 2007.
  18. ^ Bolle, Mary Jane. “DR-CAFTA Labor Rights Issues.” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. Order Code RS22159. 8 Jul 2005.
  19. ^ Mayer, Frederick. Interpreting NAFTA: The Science and Art of Political Analysis. Columbia International Affairs Online (2006) <> (3 Apr 2009)
  20. ^ Mayer, Frederick. Interpreting NAFTA: The Science and Art of Political Analysis. Columbia International Affairs Online (2006)<> (3 Apr 2009)
  21. ^ Cameron, Maxwell A. and Brian W. Tomlin. The Making of NAFTA: How the Deal was Done. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.
  22. ^ Graubart, Jonathan. Legalizing Transnational Activism: The Struggle to Gain Social Change from NAFTA’s Citizen Petitions. University Park, PA; The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008.
  23. ^ O’Brien, Robert. “The varied paths to minimum global labour standards.” Global Unions? Theory and Strategies of organized labour in the global political economy. Harrod, Jeffrey and Robert O’Brien, eds. London: Routledge, 2002.
  24. ^ Eder, Mine. “The constraints on labour internationalism: contradictions and prospects.” Global Unions? Theory and Strategies of organized labour in the global political economy. Harrod, Jeffrey and Robert O’Brien, eds. London: Routledge, 2002.
  25. ^ Herod, Andrew. “Organizing globally, organizing locally: union spatial strategy in a global economy.” Global Unions? Theory and Strategies of organized labour in the global political economy. Harrod, Jeffrey and Robert O’Brien, eds. London: Routledge, 2002.



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Fair Employment FEPC
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