Labor Issues Labor Unions: Aging Dinosaur or Sleeping Giant? The Labor Movement and Unionism Background and Brief History Higher wages! Shorter workdays! Better working conditions! These famous words echoed throughout the United States beginning in 1790 with the skilled craftsmen (Dessler, 1997, p. 544). For the last two-hundred years, workers of all trades have been fighting for their rights and seeking methods of improving their living standards, working conditions, and job security (Boone, 1996,p.287). As time went by, these individuals came to the conclusion that if they work together collectively, they would grow stronger to get responses to their demands. This inspired into what we know today as labor unions. A labor union is an organized group of workers whose purpose is to increase wages and influence other job conditions for its members (Parkin, 1998,p.344).
These labor unions can be divided into two types: craft unions and industrial unions (World, 1998). A craft union is a union whose membership is restricted to workers who possess an identifiable skill (Robinson, 1985,p. 69). These members tend to be better educated and trained, and more unified because of common interests (World, 1998). An example of a craft union is the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (World, 1998).
On the other hand, an industrialized union is a group of workers who have a variety of skills and job types but work for the same industry (Parkin, 1998, p. 344). Unions of this type include the United Steelworkers, United Auto Workers, and the United Transportation Union (Boone, 1996). History from the 1870s to 1900s. The first national union founded in Philadelphia in 1869 in the pre-Civil War period was the Knights of Labor, which intended to include all workers (Encyclopedia, 1996, p. 630).
For a decade, this organization grew at a slow pace due to operating in secrecy until the failure of railroad strikes that increased membership to over 700,000 in 1886 (Robinson, 1985). Their advance and efforts had persuaded legislation to enact the following laws: abolition of convict-made goods, establishment of bureaus of labor statistics, and prohibition of the importation of European labor under contract (Encyclopedia, 1996, p. 630). In 1890, the Knights of Labor membership had declined to only 100,000 members and the number of members continued to decline and eventually disappeared. The decline is said to have been a result of inadequate national leadership, opposition from existing craft unions, and the loss of major strikes in meat packing and railroads in 1886 and 1887 (Robinson, 1985, p. 57).
In December 1886, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was formed in Columbus, Ohio. The AFL was originally named the Federated Organization of Trades and Labor Union back in 1881. The AFL was a national union made up of affiliated, individual craft unions (Boone, 1996, p. 288). The first president of the AFL was Samuel Gompers.
On the contrary to the Knights of Labor, Gompers focus was to raise day-to-day wages, and continue to improve the working conditions (Dessler, 1997). After the formation of the AFL, the period included significant developments. In the early 1890s, the United Mine Workers was formed, becoming the first major United States industrialized union (Robinson, 1985). In addition, a significant defeat occurred in organized labor. The defeat is known as the strike at Homestead, Pennsylvania. The Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers was eliminated from the steel industry (Robinson, 1985, p.
58). History from 1905 to 1920. In 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) challenged the AFL, prior to the depression of the 1930s. The IWW invited the unskilled and semiskilled workers that the AFL had denied and was a success from 1910 to 1915 (Encyclopedia, 1996). The results of this had decreased the AFL membership for a short period of time, but they fought back by bringing unskilled workers into the craft unions (Encyclopedia, 1996).
The IWW had disappeared by the middle of World War I. During World War I, membership of unions had increased– particularly those industries involved in war production (Robinson, 1985, p. 60). This success was due to the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. While being president, Wilson made sure that government contractors favored unions and collective bargaining, and he made sure that railroads were operated by the executive federal branch (Robinson, 1985).
In addition, President Woodrow Wilson is responsible for the labor-management conference of 1918 which resulted in the National War Labor Board (Robinson, 1985). The significance was a decrease in strike activity that was a result to labor reaction to rising inflation of 1917 (Robinson, 1985, p. 60). The 1920s and post war was a time of continuous improvement. History from 1929 to 1940.
In 1929, the Great Depression began leaving millions jobless (World, 1998). Prior to 1929, business executives were seen as leaders and union members were referred to as dangerous radicals (World, 1998, p.12). However, this changed when Americans saw that these businesses could not beat out the depression and they started to favor the union (World, 1998). Then in 1932, the Norris-LaGuardia Act was passed in favor of labor unions. This act protected unions by decreasing managements ability to obtain a court injunction to stop union activities (Boone, 1996). Before the passing of this act, employers could easily get an injunction to stop strikes, picketing, and membership drives (Boone, 1996). In addition, the Norris-LaGuardia Act also guaranteed each employee the right to bargain collectively free from interference, restraint, or coercion (Dessler, 1997, p.549).
Also in 1935, the Committee for Industrialized Organization (CIO) was formed. This organization is made up of individual industrial unions and focused on industries as a whole (Boone, 1996). The CIO became successful and challenged the AFL. History from 1941 to 1950. In 1941, the United States entered World War II and union membership increased.
Even though the government did not allow wage increases during this time, it did grant benefits. These benefits included paid vacations and holidays, company-financed hospital insurance, and retirement pensions (World, 1998). At the end of World War II in 1945, the United States experienced the most economic growth in history that it had seen(World, 1998). Also during this period, the employment of blacks and their union membership in the CIO increased. The result of this increase in membership of the CIO caused greater friction between them and the AFL because of the CIOs open policy (Robinson, 1985). In the years after the war, wartime regulations were lifted and unions started to fight for lack of wages during the war (Encyclopedia, 1996).
Their first approach to acquire these lost wages were nationwide strikes. The effort of these employees led to the Taft-Hartley Act (Labor Management Relations Act) in 1947 (Encyclopedia, 1996). According to Dessler (1997), this act prohibited union unfair labor practices and lists the rights of employees as union members and rights of employers. History from 1951 to 1960. Several years later Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president and the Republican party began taking control over congress (Encyclopedia, 1996).
At this point in time, the AFL and CIO were seen as enemies but had moved closer together. Their first move in coming together was in the promotion of the Marshall Plan to assist the rebuilding of Europe (Robinson, 1985, p.64). Secondly, they began to cooperate in favor of forming the United Labor Policy during the Korean War (Robinson, 1985). Then, in February 1955, the American Federation of Labor and the Committee of Industrialized Organization merged together and became the AFL-CIO (Encyclopedia, 1996). In 1957, there was suspicion that there was something going on among our labor leaders (World, 1985).
After an investigation was completed by a committed led by Senator John L. McClellan of Arkansas, they found that the officials of the Teamster Union took union funds for their own use and had also be linked to organized crime (World, 1985). This particular incident led to the passing of the Landrum-Griffin Act (Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act) of 1959 (World, 1985). The Landrum-Griffin Act was aimed at protecting union members from possible wrongdoing on the part of their unions and is also considered an amendment to the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act (Dessler, 1997, p.552). This act required all unions to hold regular and scheduled elections of the union officers all by secret ballot and also must set a bill of rights for its members (Boone, 1996).
This bill of rights was in response to Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Its main purpose was guaranteed freedom of speech, control over union dues, and other rights (World, 1998, p.13). In addition, all unions must report and submit financial information to the United States Secretary of Labor (Boone, 1996). History from 1960 to 1980.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, we experienced trends that are contrary to what the United States had previously undergone. These trends involved federal, state, and local government employees; healthcare employees; and employees in higher education (Robinson, 1985). The rapid growth of these public employees resulted from the following. The sources of rapid growth were an increase in willingness to join unions, transformation of unions to types of organizations with more of a traditional focus on collective bargaining, and lastly, an overall increase in public employees (Robinson, 1985). This trend of public employees joining unions is an upward trend in total union membership. Although collective bargaining in healthcare dates back to the 1920s, there was no significance until the 1970s. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 included healthcare employees and then the National Labor Relations Board withdrew the idea to include these employees (Robinson, 1985). Then in 1947, the Labor-Management Relations Act of 1935 removed healthcare workers from coverage and provided special procedures (Robinson, 1985) to resolve labor disputes.
In respect to higher education, union organization reached four-year college and university level in the 1960s (Robinson, 1985). By the late 1970s, thirty percent of all four-year public institutions had some type of collected bargaining agreement (Robinson, 1985). Up to this point we have discussed, in brief, the history of labor unions; how they originated, and laws and acts that have passed. As a result, we have seen American labor membership increase up until the 1950s, and it has decreased ever since (attachment 1). Now, the timeline leads us to the present1980s to today. The next section will discuss the current status of labor unions; causes of the membership decline that began in the mid- 1950s; defensive strategies against the decline; and the predicted fate of labor unions in the future.
Status of Unionism 1980 to Presentand Why the Decline? With Lane Kirkland taking over the role of AFL-CIO president in 1979, union supporters were hopeful that the decline in membership would cease. However, the rate of member loss only increased. Catalyst to this may have occurred in 1981 when President Reagan fired federal air traffic control workers who had gone on strike. This decision made it more difficult for union leaders to gain leverage since their striking tool lost some of its effectiveness. Furthermore, it was perceived that the labor movement became divided between union leaders striving for cooperation with employers against outsourcing while others were aggressive in defending their union members (Bernstein, 1995).
The eighties were marked as a growing period of white-collar representation in unions since the number of blue-collar workers was decreasing. Loss of blue collar workers threatened a reduction in bargaining power so leaders realized that they needed to expand unionism by targeting white-collar workers, whose numbers were on the rise in the workforce (Robinson, 1985). Also indicative of this time period was a rapid growth of government unions. As laws were being passed that allowed organization, elementary, and secondary education teachers, college professors, and federal employees joined unions. Many large, public unions were started, such as the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the American federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association (Robinson, 1985). To organized labor, the future of the labor movement still looked bleak at the start of the nineties.
In 1995, Kirkland insisted he would run for re-election regardless of urges not to. Ultimately, he resigned in August. In October, John J. Sweeney, president of the Service Employees International Union, was elected as AFL-CIO president (Gray, 1996). The Decline in Union MembershipTrends and Statistics. As previously discussed, since the beginning of organized labor, unionism has experienced fluctuations over the years.
A general tendency toward increased union membership occurred up until the middle 1950s after which time a steady decrease was seen (attachment 1). Zooming in on the past two decades, the drop continued at a slightly faster rate, decreasing 6.2 percent which brought enrollment to its lowest level since the 1930s (Gamboa, 1999). The U.S. Department of Labor reported that 13.9% of American workers were unionized in 1998 as compared to the 35% high of the 1950s (Gamboa, 1999). Recent data suggest that union density has been trying to plateau during the late 1990s (Whitford, 1998).
American Attitudes Toward Unionism. With the consistent decrease in union membership, what are Americans thoughts on todays role of unions in the labor force? Data compiled by the Labor Research Association (LRA) in January of 1999 shows that 56.1% of voters feel that unions still benefit the U.S. while less than one third felt that unions are now a detriment (Majority Thinks, 1999). In 1995, this same pole showed a 49% preference for unions; therefore, over the last four years, union popularity has increased by seven percent, according to this report. Another survey found that attitudes are not split as optimistically. Data from a 1998 study found that about half (48%) of th …