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. Though 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. Today, unions represent less than 15 percent of the labor force—and less than 10 percent of the labor force in the private sector (unions represented between 35-40 percent of public-sector workers in the late 1990s). But although labor unions are not as strong a force in the United States economy as they have been in earlier decades, they continue to be an important factor in American business.


Unions can be categorized according to ideology and organizational forms. A distinction is often made between political unionism and business unionism. Although the goals and objectives of politically oriented unions may overlap those of business unions, political unions are primarily 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 support the capitalist economic system and focus their attention on protecting and enhancing the economic welfare of the workers they represent, usually through some form of collective bargaining. According to U.S. law, unions can 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 often do have some involvement in nation's politics. Most large national unions are involved in lobbying and electoral activities at various levels of government, including the national level. However, such political efforts serve to supplement their principal 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 the ability of unions to negotiate favorable contracts with employers.

The earliest unions in the United States were known as craft unions. Craft unions represent employees in a single occupation or group of closely related occupations. The members of craft unions are generally highly skilled workers. Examples of craft unions include the various skilled trades in the construction industry, such as carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work. 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 earthmoving 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 America's 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 around 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 2000 private sector union membership had declined to less than 10 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 promanagement in outlook during the 1970s and early 1980s. This trend, however, was slowed—and in some areas reversed—during the generally union-friendly Clinton administration (1993-2001).
* 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 pro-union 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. This "revival" of organized labor, as some observers have dubbed it, is being studied closely by all sectors of American business and academia.


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 hiring hall 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 late 1990s, almost 40 percent of public employees at all levels of government—local, state, and federal—were 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 officials—usually 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.

FEDERATIONS 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.

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