Organizations of hourly or salaried employees intent on improving both the at-work and off-work lives of actual and prospective members, labor unions often make up the largest social movement in a country. Able often to successfully bargain for better wages, hours, and working conditions than those afforded their matched counterparts in nonunion workplaces, labor unions raise the bar and show the way. Critics, not surprisingly, rush to charge this wage differential comes at a high cost to other stakeholders in a unionized firm, such as investors, nonunion jobholders, managers and executives, and possibly even consumers. Pro-union academics, however, contend that the higher morale, and thereby possibly the higher productivity of unionized employees, compensates for the union’s “tax” on company profits; this is one of many such endless economic arguments concerning unions.
Labor unions can trace their origins back to medieval or even Roman guilds, though nowadays they no longer produce products or services or attempt to control prices and product standards. Found in almost every country, especially since the mid-20th century, labor unions’ existence fundamentally hinges on their acceptance, or at least countenance, by government. Totalitarian countries either outlaw them or subvert them and turn them into ersatz meaningless puppets of the regime (as may be true at present in Mainland China and several Middle Eastern countries). Generally, the more democratic the political scene is, the greater is the union density (the percentage of eligible members who have joined a union).
A union consists of many worksite-based operations, known in the United States as locals. A local is the smallest unit and the one in which most members actually “experience” unionism, warts and all. It generally operates out of an office (or union hall), complete with a meeting room and the equipment necessary to house an election phone bank program, large rallies, celebrations, holiday parties, and the like. In large measure, whatever union members think and feel about unionism is derivative from the strengths and weaknesses of their local rather than from any other aspect of the union apparatus or the labor movement per se.
Locals connect to one another in a union’s city-wide, statewide, and region-wide organizations. Their union may also enroll them in a sector organization (as when the locals whose employers make this product or that one are grouped together in a niche organization by this or that product line). A local may be also a member of citywide, statewide, and regional organizations along with locals of other unions. These bodies that mix locals of different unions are especially strategic for making consequential endorsements, for getting out the vote, and in many other ways, for boosting labor’s political clout.
Contrary to misleading stereotypes as predominantly blue-collar domains, labor unions, especially in advanced industrial nations, attract a wide range of members: Actors, artists, clergy, dancers, engineers, musicians, nurses, pilots, prison guards, professors, secretaries, and social workers are unionized, as are auto, factory, mine, and steel workers. This diversity helps explain the preoccupation of unions with legislative matters, as almost every proposed piece of legislation can touch on some aspect of the life of this or that union member. Likewise, the diversity of dues payers prompts unions to vigorously participate in electoral contests, commonly on the side of populist candidates.
Despite the occupational diversity of unions, critics have long charged that unions employ racist and sexist practices to control membership on behalf of their white heterosexual male members. Much evidence supports this charge, though all such barriers are lower today than ever. Thanks to federal anti-discrimination laws, and in large part to the direct efforts of protestors (especially women, civil rights, and gay activists, many of whom operate openly inside the labor movement), progress continues to be made, albeit never as fast as advocates would prefer.
Union democracy, while dismissed by some hostile critics as an oxymoron, is hailed by labor supporters as a valuable prop of a nation’s overarching democracy. The very nature of a union complicates the matter: It is at one and the same time an army capable of either highly disciplined defensive or aggressive moves and yet also a town hall culture that welcomes debate, controversy, and the uncertainties of a popular democratic style, one where leaders can swiftly be voted out of office, almost regardless of circumstances. (Union leaders, not surprisingly, want above all to continue to hold office and not “return to the tools.”) A union also endlessly recruits new members, socializing them into a culture foreign to them, one that expects loyalty and a degree of conformity. Also, it can function as a church of sorts for a small number of ideological devotees for whom the leadership can do no wrong (or, if in opposition, no right). Plainly, then, varied definitions of democracy endlessly joust with one another, a winner at one time readily replaced by another as circumstances change.
Employers vary greatly in their reaction to unions, with most initially hostile and some even rabidly so when an organizer first shows up (a move that generally reflects a call to the union for help from some aggrieved members of the workplace). Much hinges on the national climate: When the people support egalitarian values and frown on class conflict, as in postwar Scandinavia and also in the wishful high-minded doctrine of the 25-nation European Union, employers and unions try to get along. They compromise in bargaining new labor contracts, let the government sit in to help make the deal, and agree to treat each other with mutual respect. On the contrary, when people accept ever-greater income disparities and shrug at outbreaks of fierce class conflict, as in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and the United States, labor-management relations are testy at best, and mean-spirited, unrestrained, and ugly at worst.
When the parties lack parity in bargaining or political power, relations typically worsen. The temptation to take advantage of the weaker side is often too great to resist, even though those individuals on the (temporarily) stronger side generally recognize how shortsighted such a course of action is. The dynamic here, for example, might have employers exploit a seeming power dominance, only to have employees soon grow angry and bitter at supervisory excesses. Labor is soon the beneficiary in that new members flock to it, demanding it strike back and help restore at work a semblance of equity in power, a cessation of abuse, and a modicum of mutual respect.
At present, unions worldwide are either barely holding their own or declining in membership as a percentage of the workforce, a trend for about 3 decades. For example, U.S. unions in the mid-1970s had about 35 percent of the eligible, while in 2006 the number was only 12 percent. Explanations focus on five matters: First, federal and state labor laws, while allegedly neutral between labor and management, are damned by U.S. unions as stark hindrances to organizing and winning a first contract after a successful campaign. Second, many jobs in traditional union sectors, such as manufacturing, have been lost to automation and outsourcing. Third, employer opposition, aided by union-avoidance consultants, can be formidable. Fourth, the mass media seldom take labor’s side. Fifth, unionism has been besmirched by the presence of organized crime in a few unions and locals. Sixth, union leaders operate defensively and rarely innovate: Young workers may therefore dismiss unions as behind the times, more a relic than a contemporary aid.
Union advocates look for gains from four sources: First, younger leaders, including more women and people of color, are ascending to power. Second, after 50 years of only one labor federation there are now two rival groups: Change to Win, an upstart made up of seven large unions, and the older body, the 45-member AFL-CIO. This rivalry may spur labor’s renewal. Third, computers are enabling global boycotts and e-mail campaigns, and other novel tools are beginning to pay off. Fourth, pathbreaking unions are busy experimenting with creative uses of computer power, and this tool could help weld an “electronic community” of strategic aid to labor’s reinvention of itself.
Programmatically, in the foreseeable future more mergers are likely, as small unions accept membership into a few very large ones. Closer cooperation with community groups is likely, including a turn toward support for “green” efforts. Services may expand beyond conventional offerings (such as health and welfare benefits, pensions, retirement homes, etc.), with some unions possibly even soon becoming providers of jobs outsourced to a union by employers open to having the unions employ labor. Although all of these are problematic, this much seems assured: As long as employees feel the need for a countervailing power at work, there will be unions. They will be only as meritorious, however, as required by the surrounding culture and their membership. A nation and a workforce get the unions they deserve.
- Benson, Herman. 2005. Rebels, Reformers, and Racketeers: How Insurgents Transformed the Labor Movement. New York: 1st Books.
- Clawson, Dan. 2003. The Next Upsurge: Labor and the New Social Movements. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press.
- Hannigan, Thomas A. 1998. Managing Tomorrow’s High-Performance Unions. Westport, CT: Quorum.
- Parker, Mike and Martha Gruelle. 1999. Democracy Is Power: Rebuilding Unions from the Bottom Up. Detroit, MI: Labor Notes Press.
- Shostak, Arthur. 1991. Robust Unionism: Innovations in the Labor Movement. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press.
- Shostak, Arthur. 1999. CyberUnion: Empowering Labor through Computer Technology. Armonk, NY: Sharpe.
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