Labor Unions in US

Last Updated: 13 Apr 2020
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Labor Unions must be understood in the context of the economic structures that occurred within the United States and included the agrarian, industrial, and post industrial period (Cohen 27). In the year 1700, there were approximately 220,000 people living in the United States and approximately 95% were farmers (94 Almanac 53). The farmers comprised small communities and at that time there was no need for Unions as we know them today.

Some of the earliest Unions were created in the 1700's when the shoemakers in Philadelphia formed a Trade Union for the purpose of regulating the wages that they would pay an apprentice and establish the length of time that apprenticeship would be necessary (Leap 29). In the mid-1700's small cities began to grow along the east coast of the United States. Although the cities began to grow, the society was still agrarian in nature (Cohen 28). As the country entered he industrial revolution, the population began to migrate to the cities (Cohen 28).

The industrial revolution experienced a need for coal, oil, and food production, especially the meat packing industry (Cohen 29). The needs centered around the railroads which expanded greatly during the 1850's (Rogers 7). During this period the railroads became dependent upon massive amounts of information and organization to effectively run their operations. It is during this time period that the railroads developed management practices that included formalized accounting procedures and management techniques for supervisors dealing with the many people employed by the railroad (Rogers 7).

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In addition, the railroads began to establish their own codes, rules and regulations for operating the railroads (Yates 153). In 1910, the population of the United States had grown to 92. 2 million people (Census Bureau 26). Industry was expanding at a rapid rate and the companies that controlled them pushed for greater profits and efficiency. Industries also published their own magazine, such as "Factory Magazine" that was aimed at reaching a higher level of production (Yates 105).

Also include for the first time were magazine articles written to improve the morale of the factory worker in an attempt to humanize the workforce through articles and illustrations (Yates 74). However, these article were also an attempt to educate the work force in the policies and procedures of the company. Many of these companies also had constructed "company towns" where the factory workers were employed, resided in company owned buildings in which they paid rent, bought food and clothing in company owned stores and also company provided recreation (Leap 32).

Many of the factory workers, almost one-third, were uneducated immigrants that could not speak the American language and were frequently taken advantage of economically (Leap 30). The early 1900's also brought mass manufacturing and the interchangeable parts for equipment and machinery to the industries, based on the efforts of Henry Ford (Cohen 28). The United States had become the industrial leader of the world. The industrial giants in the United States gained so much control over their employees that the workers conformed to the organizational culture of that company (Gibson 29).

Management theories and social theories during the early 1900's concentrated on managements side and the more effective production methods. In 1911, Frederick Taylor wrote "The Principles of Scientific Management" that emphasized time and motion studies, breaking large jobs into smaller ones and analyzing repetitive tasks in an attempt to find a more efficient way of doing the job. An employees pay quickly became dependent upon how many pieces could be produced in an hour or a day (French 69).

Working conditions in factories were deplorable, with long hours, child labor and numerous industrial accidents that claimed many lives The issues that surrounded the early labor movement were centered around the redistribution of wealth of the companies that employees worked for. The labor movement in the United States began very slowly due to the oppressive actions taken by the large companies against the labor activists, which included firing employees, beatings, and killings.

During the late 1860's to the 1930's, government actions supported big business believing that Unions would only interfere with private ownership (Cohen 113). Between 1876 and 1896, there were more injuries and deaths due to strikes in the United States than in any other nation in the world (Cohen 114). Companies hired private guards and security specialists to break up any strikers and protect company property (Cohen 114). Violence often was the result of result of early attempts at organizing labor movements. A riot in Baltimore lasted three days and claimed 13 lives.

In Pittsburgh 20 people died as federal troops fired upon rioting workers and fires destroyed millions of dollars of railroad equipment (Leap 32). Violence also was occurring at the coal-mining companies when and secret societies such as the Molly Maguires that would threaten, beat or kill strike breaker at coal mines. Additionally the Molly Maguires, who often concealed their identity by dressing as as women, beat, killed and set fires to the homes of the supervisors and coal-mine superintendents who were not in agreement with the union cause.

The Molly Maquires were broken up when the Pinkereton Detective Agency infiltrated the organization and exposed them which resulted in 14 Molly Maguires being tried and hanged (Leap 34). The public viewed much of this violence with an anti-union response, making it more difficult for the employees to unionize (Leap 33). With the population at over 92 million people in 1914, many who were now working in factories, the government began to recognize labor and created the Department of Labor in 1914 (Cohen 115). However, it was not until 1934 and the passage of the Wagner Act did labor really begin to unionize (Cohen 115).

In addition, the government created the National Labor Relations Board to oversee union elections (Cohen 115). The Wagner Act allowed for employees to unionize and also allowed for the "closed shop" that required all employees of that factory or company to belong to the union once the union was voted in by the employees (Cohen 116). The Wagner Act legally permitted unions to organize and provide the much needed benefits for their employees. The goals of the unions during this time were to protect the jobs of their members and fight for increased wages and benefits (Leap 37).

The benefits included safer working conditions, health care, sick leave, and vacation time (Leap 37). During these years the American Federation of Labor (AFL) became the largest single federation that began to organize craft unions. In 1938 the industrial unions were dissatisfied with the AFL federation and split off to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which sought to organize more unskilled labor (Leap 46). After World War II, the United States had approximately fifteen million workers that belonged to unions.

In 1946, the United States experienced more labor strikes than ever before in history and the labor unions finally had a firm hold on large industrial and manufacturing companies (Leap 47). The Wager Act had provided the unions with a great deal of leverage and some unions quickly became corrupt and had very little accountability within their organization (Leap 48). The Taft-Hartley Act was passed in 1947 which was designed to curb some of the activities of unions and provide for unfair labor laws against the union that would be enforced by the National Labor Relations Board (Leap 48).

The Taft-Hartley Act was successful in re-balancing the Wagner Act that gave the unions an unfair advantage of management (Leap 73). The Act also gave the President of the United States the authority to impose an 80-day injunction on any strike that may result in damage to the national economy or national interests (Infoplease 1). The injunctions have been used frequently in the transportation industry, where a strike against the railroads or the shipping industry could effect the distribution of food, clothing, or fuel, that could impact the economic structure of the country (Infoplease 1-2).

In addition the Taft-Hartley act prohibited jurisdictional strikes involving two unions attempting to gain control over company employees for the right to represent them in collective bargaining (Infoplease 1-2). The Taft-Hartley Act prohibited the use of coercion by union officials to force employees to join the union, set the guide lines for bargaining in good faith with management, prohibited secondary boycotts that involved unions striking or boycotting products and materials of other companies that management held an interest, and prohibited excessive union dues from its membership.

The unions reached their highest membership in 1954 reaching approximately 32% of all non-agricultural workers in America (Cohen 119). The following year the AFL and CIO Federations merged to make one large federation called the AFL-CIO (Cohen 119). What made the Unions so popular up to 1954 and what caused their decline? Early unions attempted to seek higher wages, less working hours, better and safer working conditions (Leap 51). Early unions also recognized the working conditions of the employees were critical to the production effort and experiments like the Hawthorne Experiment proved this to be true.

In 1927 a team of Harvard researchers conducted experiments at Western Electric"s Hawthorne Electric Plant near Chicago, Illinois (Stillman 157). The tests were designed to discover the most effective way to motivate workers and these tests began the human relations era in organizational theory and development (Stillman 157). What was discovered after a five year study was that the interaction between the workers themselves and the with their supervisors, had more impact on the production levels than did wages or type of physical plant that they worked in (Stillman 158).

Most of what was need by the workers was the social acceptance and feeling of worth among co-workers and bosses (Stillman 158). In every work area the individuals formed themselves into groups that have their own customs, duties, and localities to each other and management (Stillman 167). The attention given to the workers by management created a team effort that produced exceptional results on the assembly lines (Stillman 167). The Hawthorne experiment developed the human relations model of management for dealing with workers that existed from the 1930's to the 1960's, and in some variation still exists today (French 70).

Training for interpersonal skills to "humanize" the workplace Unions continued to initially prosper as they also followed the developments of social researchers as Abraham Maslow, who in 1954 presented his view in human motivation (French 71). What resulted is called "Maslow"s Theory of Self-Actualization" where Maslow outlines the basic human needs for survival, then the need of safety and security, followed by the need for social acceptance and belonging, to the forth level of self-esteem, and the fifth level of self-actualization or self-fulfillment in doing one"s work (Halloran 104-108).

The unions quickly adapted to the needs and desires of its membership and sought for issues such as respect in the workplace, health and safety issues, sexual harassment policies, equal pay for equal work, and generous leave time allowing for recreational activities. The Unions also became a culture within themselves, sponsoring community events for its members such as bazaars, summer picnics, Christmas parties, and scholarships programs for eligible dependent children of its members.

The Unions provided community structure and support for its membership when those needs were necessary (Leap 49). The humanist approach to negotiating worked well for the unions in their negotiations with management. The more progressive companies such as IBM provided benefits that could out perform the best of unions and therefore IBM never experienced a serious threat to unionize because the work force needs were met under Maslow"s Theory (Halloran 315).

Other large organizations such as the Japanese automobile maker Nissan, has also met the workers needs and therefore has built cars in the United States without the being unionized by the United Auto Workers Union, which is one of the largest and strongest unions remaining in North America (Halloran 315). The decline of labor unions began in the mid-1950's as many of the needs of the workers were being met, either through the company"s individual effort or the passage of federal and state laws that enhanced the workers position in life.

Some of the laws passed were the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) in 1970 that provides for safe and healthy work environments for employees (Leap 90). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) function is to make sure that the environment is regulated concerning emissions from cars and factories, which directly effects the workers that must work in those factories (Kuennan 4). The Fair Labor Standards Act brought into existence the minimum wage rate, established a 40 hour work week for hourly wage employee wages and also provided overtime at a one-and-one-half the normal hourly rate.

The Act defined the number of hours that a child could work each week and restricted the type of employment that a child could engage in (Leap 89). Additional acts such as the Equal Pay Act was aimed at women in the work force as required equal pay for equal work. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act required that an employer treat the pregnancy as a temporary disability and to provide appropriate benefits (Kuennen 5). The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) also covered other disabilities and declared that discrimination against the disabled is illegal.

The ADA also required that public buildings and private buildings that are open to the public, be handicap accessible, giving them unrestricted access (Leap 88). Discrimination laws, including sex, age, and disability discrimination, were issues that the unions previously fought to get for their membership are now being provided by federal and state law (Kuennan 5). The decline of the unions can also be attributed to the post-industrial age in the United States. Since the mid-1970's manufacturing has been leaving the United States and relocating in foreign countries where labor costs are much cheaper.

Manufacturing such as steel production, clothing and textiles, and ship building have relocated to foreign countries over the past two decades (Cohen 110). The unions lobbied heavily against such trade agreements as the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) that created a free trading zone with the United States, Canada, and Mexico to avoid tariffs (Cohen 119). Many of the industrial jobs that were once in the United States are now in Mexico and even oversees (Cohen 119). While the unions have lost membership in the industrial and manufacturing areas, they have had some success in unionizing government workers (Cohen 120).

The unions have targeted teachers, college and university professors, police, fire and other government workers such as the postal workers (Cohen 120). The latest groups to attempt unionization are the nurses, doctors and dentists within the health fields (Guadagnino 1). The public perception of unions was favorable during the mid-60's with approximately 70% of the people showing positive attitudes toward the unions. However, the public has lost a great deal of trust in the unions as corruption and a general feeling of not needing unions has evolved.

By 1988 the confidence level or approval rate that was once 70% had dropped to 13% (Cohen 121). The public also blamed the unions for the high inflation in the 1970's and early 1980's in which the public believes that the unions drove up the prices of goods and services by their demands during contract negotiations. The non-union worker however suffered from this inflation while the unions upper level executives were getting paid salaries over $100,000 (Cohen 121). Governments also began to become more conservative in their treatment of unions.

An example of this was in the early 1980's when the federal Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) when out on strike and crippled the airline industry. PATCO went on strike to seek better working hours and to force the federal government to hire additional air traffic controllers to help reduce the stress levels of the current air traffic controllers. The Reagan administration took quick action and fired all the air traffic controllers and immediately used military personnel until new employees could be trained (Cohen 122).

The population of the United States is over 270 million people as of March of 1999 and only 14% of the work force is unionized. This work force includes government employees of which 44% are union members (Dine 1). The culture of the population has changed dramatically and a great deal of the people are younger, better educated than the classes that were previously sought by unions (Cohen 123). The new class of American society is more professional and white collar in nature that mirrors the service industry that has evolved in the United States (Cohen 124).

To add to the union decline was the fact that the corporations that once held the edge over unions, only to loose that edge in the 1940's through the 1960's, have again regained that edge decisively by attending to the public"s needs and social attitudes (Cohen 124). Company"s like McDonald"s have well developed publications departments that donate millions of dollars to charities such as the Ronald McDonald half-way house for the parents of terminally ill children in distant hospitals (Ronald 1-4).

Corporations also donate and participate in attempting to keep the environment clean. The corporations realize that reaching the social conscience of the public is good business and worth the investment. In the last two decades the corporations identified with the social issues in America much more than did the unions (Cohen 124). Quality of life issues have become major considerations of this post-industrial class of Americans (Cohen 124).

Even though companies have made the worker feel more important and accepted, there is still a need for unions. Companies are doing everything they can to save money. By focusing on the worker, they are making labor less dependant apon unions. They are fighting a war with the unions, and the battleground is the American worker. If the companies win then they are sure to underpay and abuse their employees. It is critical that unions recruit more agressively, or a lot the progresss they have made will be lost.

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Labor Unions in US. (2018, Jun 03). Retrieved from

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