© 2016 Shmoop University, Inc. All rights reserved.

History of Labor Unions Introduction

In A Nutshell

  • A union is an organization established by and for workers to pursue collective workplace goals: wages, benefits, work rules, power
  • Unions arose after the Civil War as one response to modern industrial economy
  • Unions grew rapidly from 1930s-50s, shrank from 1960s-present
  • Workers have always disagreed amongst themselves over whether to have unions and what kinds of unions they should have
  • Changes to federal labor law have largely determined whether unions grew or shrank

Over the course of more than a century, the labor movement has played a profound role—for better or worse—in shaping how Americans live and work. The influence of unions has waxed and waned during a long and sometimes bloody struggle for power in the workplace. The labor movement's status has always been precarious due to Americans' love-hate attitude toward organized labor. Today, just like a century ago, some citizens passionately believe that unions are crucial bulwarks of freedom, while others feel just as strongly that they are at best an anachronism and at worst an obstacle to progress.


Why Should I Care?

  • Unions have been growing smaller and less powerful for 40 years
  • But unions are still very important in certain areas: the auto industry, public education, print journalism, politics
  • Unions hope that proposed changes to labor law to allow card-check voting will lead to resurgence; many businesses hope it doesn't
Do unions still matter? Unions have now been shrinking, in terms of both membership and power, more or less steadily for some fifty years. Today, only about one out of every eight American workers belongs to a union—and if you don't count government employees, that figure drops even lower, to about one in twelve. Unions in the twenty-first century arguably have less influence on American society than they have at any time since the 1920s. So are unions now irrelevant? Are they simply fading away? Are they just anachronistic relics of the distant past, about as important to shaping our future as the telegraph or the horse-drawn buggy? Not quite. Unions still matter at General Motors. The Detroit automotive giant—which was, for much of the twentieth century, the world's largest corporation—now stands on the brink of bankruptcy. And at GM, if not throughout society in general, unions remain strong; indeed, that's a big part of GM's problem. The company's workers are nearly all members of the United Auto Workers union and the contracts negotiated between GM and the UAW—especially those, often negotiated decades ago, in which GM promised to pay healthy pensions and health-care benefits to hundreds of thousands of retirees—are now imposing massive costs that the company cannot afford to pay. GM, operating on much the same union-labor model as it did back in the 1950s, simply can't compete with other auto companies that don't have to bear the costs of paying union wages and (especially) benefits. GM's unionized workers (and retirees) are reluctant to give up what they won at the bargaining table in the past, but also recognize that they must make some concessions or GM will simply cease to exist—likely taking the union down along with it. Can the UAW and GM forge some kind of productive new partnership, allowing the company to become competitive again in the twenty-first century? Or will the UAW insist on full enforcement of its existing contracts, ensuring that GM will crash into oblivion? The future of the American auto industry largely depends on how the union chooses to play its cards. In Detroit, unions still matter. Similarly, unions still matter in classrooms all across the country. While unionization of workers in the private sector has long been in decline, the opposite is true for public employees. In recent decades, unionization of government workers—including schoolteachers—has actually increased. Today the teachers' unions wield great power—for good or ill—over the American educational system. Nearly everyone agrees that American public schools need improvement; whether meaningful reforms will take place depends largely upon how the teachers' unions choose to react. Will they use their power to push for much-needed improvement in American education, making it easier for good teachers to succeed? Or will they focus narrowly on enforcing sometimes-onerous work rules and tenure hierarchies, fighting potentially beneficial changes in order to protect their own self-interest? The future of our education system depends on how the unions choose to use their power. In our schools, unions still matter. And unions still matter, too, in the country's newsrooms. The rise of the internet a decade ago wrecked the business model that had long sustained American newspapers. Today print journalism in this country is in deep crisis, with most newspapers sustaining horrific financial losses. Just this year, major dailies such as Denver's 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News have ceased to exist, with dozens of others—the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Christian Science Monitor—teetering on the brink. The American newspaper as we know it may soon go out of business. Most newspapers have highly unionized work forces—from reporters to printers to delivery truck drivers. The papers simply no longer have the revenues needed to sustain their large, well-paid unionized labor forces. As cutbacks become inevitable, the papers' viability hinges, in part, upon how the unions respond. Will they insist upon rigid adherence to the work rules stipulated in their contracts—work rules which often stifle managers' efforts to become more flexible and efficient—or will they adjust to the difficult new circumstances to help the newspapers survive? In our newsrooms and printing plants, unions still matter. And, finally, unions still matter in our nation's politics. Unions provide the backbone—in terms of both financial contributions and volunteer manpower—for the Democratic Party. In 2008, they played a major role in electing Barack Obama to the White House and enlarging Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Now they hope that their Democratic allies will deliver labor-friendly policies. First and foremost on the unions' wishlist: the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would allow so-called "card-check voting" in workplace union elections. The current system requires employees who wish to join a union to go through a rather lengthy process of certification, culminating (after several months) with a secret-ballot election. In practice, the process makes it relatively hard for workers to unionize. A switch to card-check would make it much easier for unions to organize workers. Instead of the current slow process, card-check voting would allow workers to join a union just as soon as a majority of them sign cards saying they want to organize. There are compelling arguments on both sides as to whether card-check or the secret-ballot system is fairer, more democratic, or more vulnerable to abuse of workers—by either unions or managers. But the effect of a switch to card-check would be clear: it would tilt the balance of workplace power toward unions. If card-check passes Congress and President Obama signs it into law, it is quite likely that unions would stop their decades-long shrinkage and begin growing—possibly growing quite quickly—once again. Thus it's obvious why unions are so desperate for the Employee Free Choice Act to pass (and why many businesses are equally anxious that it not). Whether a re-unionization of the American workforce would be a good thing or a bad thing in the twenty-first century is highly debatable; there is no question, though, that it would represent a dramatic change from recent decades. Thus, in American politics, unions still matter—maybe more than most of us yet realize. The United States stands today on the precipice of a major financial and economic crisis. What role will unions play in getting us out of this mess (or in making us fall farther into it)? Will they be part of the solution to our troubles, or part of the problem? What does the history of unions in America tell us about labor's role in the current downturn? Read on and let the past be your guide.

People who Shmooped this also Shmooped...