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Unions are collections of workers that join together to defend their common interests as employees. In unionized workplaces, employers’ authority over the workplace is qualified by collective bargaining agreements (or contracts) which codify the terms and conditions of the labor process. Agreements specify workers’ wages, hours, benefits, seniority and grievance systems, their right to strike, and managerial prerogatives (whether or not management has the sole right to hire, fire, discipline, plan production, change production, etc.) for a specified period. Contracts also normally allow for union representatives (called stewards or committeepersons) within the workplace, who instruct workers regarding their rights and represent them in their grievances against employers. Most contemporary contracts prohibit strikes during the term of the agreement, but unions are free to call strikes when contracts expire. Alternatively, workers sometimes take matters into their own hands by conducting ”wildcat” strikes, which occur without union authorization.
US unions include two basic types: craft (vertical) unions, which organize skilled workers by crafts, and industrial (horizontal) unions, which organize all workers within particular workplaces by industries (e.g. auto, rubber, steel), but many unions have a mix of both types. National unions (like the United Farm Workers) normally belong to federations such as the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and also have subordinate bodies at the regional and local levels. Although the mainstream US labor movement considers ”dual unionism” (two unions, usually from different federations, simultaneously organizing workers within a single industry or trade) to be harmful, some scholars contend that it may enhance innovation in organizing and/or union growth.
Unionization rates vary over time, place, and industry. The proportion of workers organized in unions varies from very low in the USA and France to very high in the Scandinavian countries. Periods of increase in USA union density tend to coincide with the initiation of new and successful labor organizations, and the periods of decline have been more gradual. US union density hit its peak during the 1950s, and has declined steadily until very recently, when it stabilized.
Union organizing and collective bargaining has been associated with conflict as well as a good deal of violence, especially in the USA. Prior to the 1930s, US employers had considerable leeway in protecting their property and sometimes summoned the aid of state and federal troops. Taft and Ross (1969) indicate that troops intervened in over 160 disputes. Overall they estimate that 700 died and several thousand suffered serious injuries in US labor disputes.
Some union organizing is conducted in alliance with political parties. In Europe, unions tend to organize along industrial lines and to be affiliated with left-of-center political parties (some European countries also have (or have had) rival Christian, socialist, and/or communist unions). US unions have participated in, but seldom form formal ties with, political parties but have both reacted to and influenced legislative change. The severely anti-union legal environment of the early period was altered by pro-union legislation in the 1930s, but post-war legislation has mainly moved in an anti-union direction. Likewise, in Great Britain the Combination Acts restricted and the Trade Union Act of 1871 liberalized labor laws.
The level of internal union democracy has been an issue of heightened public concern, especially during specific periods. The main charge has been that unions are oligarchies that are unresponsive to workers’ needs, or that they are corrupt. Internal democracy movements have appeared in several non-democratic unions to work towards union responsiveness, and the Landrum-Griffin Act, passed in 1959, requires a baseline level of democracy and that unions report on their internal affairs to government agencies. But studies show that while some unions lack the fundamentals of democracy, others are highly democratic, and provide workers with important voice in the workplace.
- Freeman, R. & Medoff, J. (1984) What Do Unions Do? Basic Books, New York.
- Stepan-Norris, J. & Zeitlin, M. (2003) Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Taft, P. & Ross, P. (1969) American labor violence: its causes, character, and outcome. In: Graham, H. & Gurr, T. (eds.), Violence in America: Historical and Comparative Perspectives. New American Library, New York, pp. 270-376.