More FAQs


  • Question 1: What are labor unions?

  • Question 2: What do labor unions do?

  • Question 3: What is the value of labor unions?

  • Question 4: When did unions begin and why?

  • Question 5: What have labor unions accomplished for workers?

  • Question 6: Who joins unions and why?

  • Question 7: Are unions still important to working people today?

  • Question 8: Do unions act independently or as an association?

  • Question 9: Is there an umbrella organization for Unions?

  • Question 10: What does AFL-CIO do?  What is its mission?

  • Question 11: What are the AFL-CIO’s legislative or policy priorities?

  • Question 12: What is the AFL-CIO’s political program?

  • Question 13: How is union political action paid for?

  • Question 14: Do unions tell their members how to vote?

  • Question 15: Who regulates unions?

  • Question 16: How are labor unions structured and organized?

  • Question 17: What are the functions of the General Membership?

  • Question 18: What is the role of Executive Board?

  • Question 19: Who are the Executive Officers?

  • Question 20: What kinds of committees do Unions generally have?

  • Question 21: What are the basic principles that govern labor union administration?

  • Question 22: Are there different models of unionism?

  • Question 23: What is the Taft-Hartley Act and what impact did it have on labor unions?

  • Question 24: What are right-to-work laws?

  • Question 25: Which states have right-to-work laws in effect?

  • Question 26: What is a “closed” shop?

  • Question 27: What is a “free rider?”

  • Question 28: What is “fair share” or “union” security agreement?

  • Question 29: What is an “open” shop?

  • Question 30: What is the Employee Free Choice Act and why do Unions think it is important?

  • Question 31: How many members do labor unions have today?

  • Question 32: What is the status of Union membership today?

  • Question 33: What is Union density and has it been increasing or decreasing in recent years?

  • Question 34: Why has union density been decreasing over the past 50 years?

  • Question 35: Are labor unions affiliated with organized crime?

  • Question 36: How would you describe the state of the economy today?

  • Question 37: So, what can I do about the economy and labor unions?

Question 1: What are labor unions?

Labor unions are made up of working people working together to solve problems, build stronger workplaces and give working families a real voice.  Labor unions are the exclusive legal representative of the bargaining unit in their respective workplace.  Once elected as the exclusive legal representative, unions have the right to negotiate with the employer and to represent employees in all matters affecting or involving working conditions.

Question 2: What do labor unions do?

Unions give workers a voice on the job about safety, security, pay, benefits—and about the best ways to get the work done. Union workers earn 30 percent more each week than nonunion workers and are much more likely to have health and pension benefits.  Unions give working people a voice in government.  They represent working families before lawmakers, and make sure politicians never forget that working families voted them into office.  Typically, that falls into four categories: (1) organize; (2) lobby; (3) represent; and (4) communicate.

  • Organize – Internally and Externally.  Internally in terms of issues of importance to existing members, and externally by attracting new members and new “units” to the local or union.  The why is easy – there is strength in numbers.
  •  Lobby – Presents the views of its members to the appropriate legislative bodies, e.g., Congress and the Administration, State Capital, etc.  Lobbies via telephone, e-mail, letters and personal visits on issues of importance to its Union members.
  • Represent – Ensures employees are treated fairly.  Lets management know how its policies and practices can be revised to improve working conditions.  Represents bargaining unit employees through local and national negotiations, as well as mediations, grievances, and unfair labor practices.  Strives to ensure a fair and equitable workplace for all employees. Members may volunteer to become active in negotiations and representational matters and have direct input into the process, whereas nonmembers do not have such opportunity.
  • Communicate – With its own members, other locals within its national union, Central Labor Bodies such as the Chicago Federation of Labor, and the State AFL-CIO.  In addition, one of the key parties to communicate with is the press.

Question 3: What is the value of labor unions?

The unions value to American society lie in the following:

  • Unions serve as a countervailing force against employers — whether those employers are corporations, government agencies or not-for-profits organizations;
  • Unions participate in decisions regarding compensation and benefits, working conditions and job security through collective bargaining;
  • Unions ensure greater benefits for workers  — shorter work weeks, health and life insurance, paid vacations, retirement pensions, short and long-term disability benefits and sick leave came about because unions fought hard for them and won;
  • Unions protect children, the elderly and workers — it was the labor movement that pushed the proposals through for bans on child labor, the establishment of the eight-hour day, Social Security, minimum wage laws, occupational safety and health protection, overtime and workers’ compensation statutes;
  • Unions are the only roadblock to Local, State and Federal government’s determined goal of destroying unions and the hard-fought for benefits and gains in the workplace.  Today, it is  the labor movement that fights employer and government led efforts to weaken or undo these benefits, won through decades of struggle by workers and their unions;
  • Unions improve pay and working conditions — for everyone, even and especially for non-unionized workers;
  • Unionized federal workers have performed heroically — guarding the nation=s borders, performing rescue and relief operations, protecting the security of our transportation system, and enforcing our laws;
  • Union members are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and other crisis points across the globe; and
  • Remember B Union membership has never and will never jeopardize homeland security. It was unionized firefighters and police officers who served and tragically died in New York City on September 11th.

Question 4: When did unions begin and why?

Unions were formed to give workers a voice at the workplace and to keep management from taking advantage of employees.   Without unions, the employees have little say about their wages, benefits. Many laws in place that benefit all working people, whether union or not, were heavily supported by labor unions. OSHA, minimum wage and the 40 hour work week to name a few.

Unions began forming in the mid-19th century. The 1870s and 1880s saw large-scale consolidation, with the Knights of Labor mushrooming overnight into a major force in the late 1880s; it then collapsed because of poor organization.

  • The American Federation  of Labor, led until his death in 1924 by Samuel Gompers, proved much more durable. It was a coalition of many national unions, and helped resolve jurisdictional disputes, created citywide coalitions that helped coordinate strikes, and after 1907 became a player in national politics, usually on the side of the Democrats.
  • The Railroad Brotherhoods, while separate from the AFL, formed national networks in the late 19th century. Rapid growth came in 1900-1919, but was followed by a long decline until the Wagner Act of 1935 led to an invigoration of the labor movement, which finally became a permanent factor in heavy industry.
  • The Congress of Industrial Organizations or “CIO”  under John L. Lewis split off and competed aggressively for membership.  The American Federation of Labor or “AFL” was always larger and both federations grew enormously during World War II.
  •  After the Communists in the CIO were purged in 1946-1948, a merger into the AFL-CIO became possible in 1955. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 was a conservative measure that weakened the unions, and highly publicized reports of corruption in the Teamsters  and other unions hurt the image of the labor movement during the 1950s.  Union membership and power crested around 1970.

Question 5: What have labor unions accomplished for workers?

Labor unions have provided the following benefits we now enjoy but take for granted:

  • Eight-Hour Day;
  • Workers’ Compensation;
  • Overtime Pay;
  • Pensions;
  • Health and Safety Laws;
  • Social Security;
  • Medicare;
  • Vacation Days;
  • Unemployment Compensation;
  • Family Medical Leave;
  • Restrictions on Child Labor;
  • Minimum Wage; and
  • Right to Organize for Collective Bargaining.

These benefits have helped to humanize the workplace and to provide a safety net for millions.

Question 6: Who joins unions and why?

Every kind of worker! Today’s unions include manufacturing and construction workers, teachers, technicians and doctors—and every type of worker in between. No matter what you do for a living, there’s a union that has members who do the same thing.  People join unions so they can work together and bargain together with their employer. On average, union workers’ wages are 30 percent higher than their nonunion counterparts and union members also enjoy the union advantage of better benefits, working conditions and a voice on the job about how the work gets done.

Question 7: Are unions still important to working people today?

Workers need unions as much as ever—because most corporations focus on profit at the expense of employees.  The nature of work in America is changing. Employers are trying to shed responsibilities—for providing health insurance, good pension coverage, reasonable work hours and job safety protections, for example—while making workers’ jobs and incomes less secure through downsizing, part-timing and contracting out.  Working people need a voice at work to keep employers from making our jobs look like they did 100 years ago, with sweatshop conditions, unlivable wages and 70-hour workweeks.

Question 8: Do unions act independently or as an association?

Both.  Labor unions focus on collective bargaining over wages, benefits, and working conditions for their membership and on representing their members if management attempts to violate contract provisions.   However, unions also remain an important political factor, both through mobilization of their own memberships and through coalitions with like-minded activist organizations around issues such as immigrant rights, trade policy, health care, and living wage campaigns.  Today most unions are aligned with one of two larger umbrella organizations: the AFL-CIO created in 1955 and the Change to Win Federation, which split from the AFL-CIO in 2005. Both advocate policies and legislation on behalf of workers in the United States and Canada, and take an active role in politics. The AFL-CIO is especially concerned with global trade issues.

Question 9: Is there an umbrella organization for Unions?

Yes, today most labor unions in the United States are members of one of two larger umbrella organizations: the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) or the Change to Win Federation, which split from the AFL-CIO in 2005.  Both organizations advocate policies and legislation favorable to workers in the United States and Canada, and take an active role in politics favoring the Democratic party but not exclusively so. The AFL-CIO is especially concerned with global trade issues.

Question 10: What does AFL-CIO do?  What is its mission?

The AFL-CIO’s mission is to bring social and economic justice to our nation by enabling working people to have a voice on the job, in government, in their communities and in a changing global economy.  The AFL-CIO is governed by a quadrennial convention at which all AFL-CIO members are represented by delegates elected by their fellow union members. These delegates set broad policies and goals for the union movement and every four years elect officers, who govern the day-to-day work of the AFL-CIO.

The AFL-CIO President (currently Rich Trumka), Secretary-Treasurer (Currently Liz Shuler) and Executive Vice President (Arlen Holt Baker), along with 54 vice presidents from the major participating unions, make up the AFL-CIO Executive Council.

Question 11: What are the AFL-CIO’s legislative or policy priorities?

The AFL-CIO educates union members about issues that affect the daily lives of working families, and encourages them to make their voice heard for a government that works for working families. We make sure members have the latest union facts and news on workers’ rights.  Priorities for unions in general include creating family-supporting jobs by investing tax dollars in schools, roads, bridges and airports; improving the lives of workers through education, job training and raising the minimum wage; keeping good jobs at home by reforming trade rules, reindustrializing the U.S. economy and redoubling efforts at worker protections in the global economy; strengthening Social Security and private pensions; making high-quality, affordable health care available to everyone; and holding corporations more accountable for their actions.

Question 12: What is the AFL-CIO’s political program?

The AFL-CIO and affiliate unions mobilize union members at the grassroots level.  Unions encourage their members to register to vote.  Unions also research working families’ concerns about current issues, and put together information showing where candidates for all levels of elected office stand on those issues. Through networks of volunteers and activists, we get the word out to union members across the country about the political and union facts they need to make informed decisions in the voting booth. The AFL-CIO also offers training for union members who want to become more involved in political life by running for office themselves.

Question 13: How is union political action paid for?

Partisan political activities are paid for by voluntary donations from union members to Political Action Committees.  Membership dues cannot be used to fund political campaigns.

Question 14: Do unions tell their members how to vote?

Many national unions, central labor councils and state federations—as well as the AFL-CIO—endorse candidates for office and let their members know why they believe the endorsed candidates would do the best job for working families. But no one can tell union members how to vote—that’s up to each individual.

Question 15: Who regulates unions?

Private sector unions are regulated by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), passed in 1935, also referred to as the Wagner Act. after its sponsor, New York Senator Robert F. Wagner.  It is codified as amended at 29 U.S.C. § 151–169 (Pub.L. 74-198, 49 Stat. 449).

The Wagner Act limits the means with which employers may react to workers in the private sector who create labor unions, engage in collective bargaining, and take part in strikes and other forms of concerted activity in support of their demands.  The Act does not apply to workers who are covered by the Railway Labor Act, agricultural employees, domestic employees, supervisors, federal, state or local government workers, independent contractors and some close relatives of individual employers.The law is overseen by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Public sector worker unions are governed by labor laws and labor boards in each of the 50 states. Northern states typically model their laws and boards after the NLRA and the NLRB. In other states, public workers have no right to establish a union as a legal entity. (About 40% of public employees in the USA do not have the right to organize a legally established union.) Unions in the Federal sector are governed by the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute (5 U.S.C. § 7101 et seq.).

In addition, both private and public sector unions are regulated by the United States Department of Labor, which administers and enforces more than 180 federal laws. These mandates and the regulations that implement them cover many workplace activities for about 10 million employers and 125 million workers.

Question 16: How are labor unions structured and organized?

Unions are generally structured similar to nongovernmental organizations (IRS 501 (c) (3) organizations) , which a definitive organizational set-up that defines key positions and their respective functions in the organization.   The key to the union’s organizational structure is embodied in its Constitution and By-laws.  The organizational set-up of a union is composed of four branches: the General membership, the Executive Board, the Executive Officers, and the Committees.

 Question 17: What are the functions of the General Membership?

The members, comprise the highest decision-making body of the union. The main function of the General Membership is to formulate major policies for the general administration of the union.  Also, it is from this branch that the members of the Executive Board and the Executive Officers are elected.

Members are entitled access to educational and training opportunities, grievance machinery, employee welfare, legal assistance, socio-civic enhancement and other similar privileges provided by the union to its members.

It is the members duty to know their Constitution and by-laws including their rights and duties; to attend and participate in union meetings, elections and other union activities; and to pay their membership and other dues that may be asked from them by the union.

 Question 18: What is the role of Executive Board?

The Executive Board (or Board of Directors) ranks next to General Membership in the organizational structure. It is the immediate representative of the highest decision-making body and its main function is to organize, review and echo the policies formulated by the General Membership. The Executive Board also runs the affairs of the union in between sessions of the General Membership.

 Question 19: Who are the Executive Officers?

Most unions have a President who acts as Administrator of the union, supervising all the day-to-day activities of each officer and committee, presiding over general membership, Executive Board meetings, and approving and signing important documents of the union.  In addition, there may be one or more Vice Presidents who act in place of the President in the absence of the latter and performs other functions as may be assigned to him by the President. (Usually, he acts as Chairperson of Grievance Committee). Finally, there will be a Secretary who prepares the minutes of meetings and keeps the records of the union, and a Treasurer who collects dues and other assessments from members, conducts regular accounting of union funds, and maintains all records of financial transactions of the union.

Question 20: What kinds of committees do Unions generally have?

  • The Education and Training Committee – educates union members on their rights and responsibilities and subjects relating to trade unionism and society.
  •  The Research and Information Committee – provides the union with necessary data, particularly those that are used in collective bargaining negotiation.
  • The Negotiations Committee – organizes union demands and represents the union in the negotiation of these demands with the management.
  • The Grievance Committee – settles conflicts between the workers and the management. It prevents and handles grievances of the union.
  • The Finance Committee – takes charge of the fund generation, safekeeping and wise management of union funds.
  • The Legal Committee – handles all legal matters and transactions of the union.
  • The Employee Welfare Committee – negotiates for the provision of social services like death benefits, loan benefits, educational benefits, etc. to the members.

 Question 21: What are the basic principles that govern labor union administration?

  •  The Constitution and By-laws of the union embodies the basic principles of good labor union administration.
  • Membership Sovereignty – The union is reflection of the quality of its members. Good unionism depends on the assertiveness of members of their rights and responsibilities and their devotion to carry out the tasks set forth by the union. Thus, members are held supreme because they determine the strength and effectiveness of the union.
  • Representation – Members elect representatives who reflect the interest of the majority. These representatives voice the ideas and sentiments of the members.
  • Delegation – Delegation means the prudent distribution of authority, power, and responsibilities among union members. The president alone cannot attend to all the technicalities necessary for the smooth administration of the union.
  • Service – Labor unionism is service to workers. Its success lies on the service and dedication of members and leaders. It is a venue where workers toil hand in hand for a common goal.   Selfish interests have no place in unionism where workers think in terms of “we” not “I”, and where sacrifice, dedication, commitment, discipline and service are called for in a meaningful struggle for liberation and progress.

Question 22: Are there different models of unionism?

Yes.  The classic forms of unionism are:

  • Community unionism describes the spectrum of ways in which trade unions work collaboratively with community organisations over issues of common importance to both. Developed as a term to describe grass-roots union-community alliances in the US which vary widely in their goals and capacity for creating durable links.”
  • Organising model, as the term refers to trade unions, is a broad conception of how those organisations should recruit, operate and advance the interests of their members. It typically involves many full-time organisers, who work by building up confidence and strong networks and leaders within the workforce, and by confrontational campaigns involving large numbers of union members.  It is often contrasted with the service model, and sometimes to a ‘rank-and-file’ model. The organising model is strongly linked to social movement unionism and community unionism.
  • Service model (or rank and file model) generally describes an approach whereby labor unions aim to satisfy members’ demands for resolving grievances and securing benefits through methods other than direct grassroots-oriented pressure on employers. It is often contrasted to the organising model.
  • Social Movement Unionism is a trend of theory and practice in contemporary trade unionism.  Strongly associated with the organising model of trade unionism, it also overlaps with Community Unionism. Social Movement Unionism attempts to integrate workers, trade unions and the labour movement into broader coalitions for social and economic justice. Thus, in principle, unions and other organisations support each other in what are seen as mutually beneficial goals.  The campus living wage work of unions, which have frequently worked with chapters of United Students Against Sweatshops, are an example of the principle in practice. Similarly, the ‘Teamsters for Turtles’ (as their t-shirts had it) at Seattle signalled a willingness of sections of the labour movement to engage with environmental concerns.

Question 23: What is the Taft-Hartley Act and what impact did it have on labor unions?

Prior to the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act by Congress over President Harry S Truman’s veto in 1947, unions and employers covered by the National Labor Relations Act could lawfully agree to a closed shop, in which employees at unionized workplaces must be members of the union as a condition of employment.  Under the law in effect before the Taft-Hartley amendments, an employee who ceased being a member of the union for whatever reason, from failure to pay dues to expulsion from the union as an internal disciplinary punishment, could also be fired even if the employee did not violate any of the employer’s rules.

  • The Taft-Hartley Act outlawed the closed shop. The union shop rule, which required all new employees to join the union after a minimum period after their hire, is now illegal.  As such, it is illegal for any employer to force an employee to join a union.
  • Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act goes further and authorizes individual states (but not local governments, such as cities or counties) to outlaw the union shop and agency shop for employees working in their jurisdictions.  Under the open shop rule, an employee cannot be compelled to join or pay the equivalent of dues to a union, nor can the employee be fired if he joins the union. In other words, the employee has the right to work, regardless of whether or not he is a member or financial contributor to such a union.

 Question 24: What are right-to-work laws?

Right-to-work (for less) laws are statutes enforced in twenty-two U.S. states, mostly in the southern or western U.S., allowed under provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act, which prohibit agreements between labor unions and employers that make membership, payment of union dues, or fees a condition of employment, either before or after hiring, thus requiring the workplace to be an closed shop.

Question 25: Which states have right-to-work laws in effect?

The following 22 states are right-to-work states: Alabama; Arizona ; Arkansas ; Florida; Georgia; Idaho; Iowa; Kansas; Louisiana; Mississippi; Nebraska; Nevada; North Carolina; North Dakota; Oklahoma; South Carolina; South Dakota; Tennessee; Texas; Utah; Virginia; and Wyoming.

Question 26: What is a “closed” shop?

A closed shop is a form of union security agreement under which the employer agrees to only hire union members, and employees must remain members of the union at all times in order to remain employed.  The closed shop system ceded great power to union representatives over an organisation’s workforce. In many workplaces that were closed shops, personal connections with union decision makers by dint of friends or family were required by an outsider to gain employment.

The Taft-Hartley Act outlawed the closed shop in the United States in 1947, but permits the union shop, except in those states that have passed right-to-work laws, in which case even the union shop is illegal. An employer may not lawfully agree with a union to hire only union members; it may, on the other hand, agree to require employees to join the union or pay the equivalent of union dues to it after a set period of time. Similarly, while a union could require an employer that had agreed to a closed shop contract prior to 1947 to fire an employee who had been expelled from the union for any reason, it cannot demand that an employer fire an employee under a union shop contract for any reason other than failure to pay those dues that are uniformly required of all employees.

Question 27: What is a “free rider?”

A “free rider” is a non-member who enjoys all the priviledges of union membership without paying any union dues or even “fair share” of the union dues.  The free rider problem exists because the costs of organizing a union and negotiating a contract with the employer can be very high, while it is almost impossible to prevent non-union members from enjoying the benefits of the contract because employers will find it too costly to adopt multiple wage and benefit scales.  Thus, the incentive is for each individual worker to “ride for free” by not paying the costs, which leads to the collapse of the union and no collective bargaining agreement.  Management likes “free riders” because if the union collapses, each worker is worse off than if the union had negotiated the agreement.   The “free rider” problem is often cited as the rationale for union security agreements.

Question 28: What is “fair share” or “union” security agreement?

A union security agreement agreement is a contractual agreement, usually part of a union collective bargaining agreement, in which an employer and a trade or labor union agree on the extent to which the union may compel employees to join the union, and/or whether the employer will collect dues, fees, and assessments on behalf of the union.  Often called an “agency shop” under which employees must pay the equivalent of union dues, but need not formally join such union.  The employer agrees to hire either labor union members or nonmembers but all non-union employees must become union members within a specified period of time or lose their jobs.  Since union shops are illegal in the United States under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), as amended by the Taft-Hartley Act, a union may require that employees either join the union or pay the equivalent of union dues (fair share).

Question 29: What is an “open” shop?

An open shop is a place of employment at which one is not required to join or financially support a union as a condition of hiring or continued employment.  Open shop is also known as a Merit Shop.  Open shop is where a factory, office, or other business establishment in which a union, chosen by a majority of the employees, acts as representative of all the employees in making agreements with the employer, but in which union membership is not a condition of employment.  The open shop was the slogan adopted by United States employers in the first decade of the twentieth century in their attempt to drive unions out of the construction industry. Construction craft unions have always relied on controlling the supply of labor in particular trades and geographical areas as a means of maintaining union standards and establishing collective bargaining relations with the employers in that field.

Question 30: What is the Employee Free Choice Act and why do Unions think it is important?

The Employee Free Choice Act was a legislative bill that was introduced into both chambers of the U.S. Congress on March 10, 2009. The bill’s purpose was to amend the National Labor Relations Act to establish an efficient system to enable employees to form, join, or assist labor organizations [unions], to provide for mandatory injunctions for unfair labor practices during organizing efforts, and for other purposes.  The would have:

  • Allowed a union to be certified as the official union to bargain with an employer if union officials collected signatures of a majority of workers.
  • Removed the present right of the employer to demand an additional, separate ballot where over half of employees have already given their signature supporting the union.
  • Required employers and unions to enter binding arbitration to produce a collective agreement at latest 120 days after a union is recognized.
  • Increased penalties on employers who discriminate against workers for union involvement.

Question 31: How many members do labor unions have today?

There are 14.7 million union members in the U.S. today: 7.1 million private sector members; and 7.6 million public sector members.  A total of 11.9 percent of the total workforce is unionized: 36.2 percent of the public; and 6.9 percent of the private sector.

Question 32: What is the status of Union membership today?

Union membership had been steadily declining in the US since 1983. In 2007, the labor department reported the first increase in union memberships in 25 years and the largest increase since 1979. Most of the recent gains in union membership have been in the service sector while the number of unionized employees in the manufacturing sector has declined. Most of the gains in the service sector have come in West Coast states like California where union membership is now at 16.7% compared with a national average of about 11.9%.

Question 33: What is Union density and has it been increasing or decreasing in recent years?

Union density is the percentage of workers belonging to unions.  It has been declining since the late 1940s.  Almost 36% of American workers were represented by unions in 1945.  At the apex of union density in the 1940s, only about 9.8% of public employees were represented by unions, while 33.9% of private, non-agricultural workers had such representation.  In this decade, those proportions have essentially reversed, with 36% of public workers being represented by unions while private sector union density had plummeted to around 7%.

Question 34: Why has union density been decreasing over the past 50 years?

Although most industrialized countries have seen a drop in unionization rates, the drop in union density has been more significant in the United States than elsewhere.  A broad range of forces have been identified as potential contributors to the drop in union density across countries.

  • Some like to say that labor union membership is an outdated concept for most working Americans, and that it is a relic of Depression-era labor-management relations.
  • Popular explanations that pin this decline to a reduced popularity of unionization among workers and the general public appear to be misguided.  Public approval of unions climbed between 1981 and 1988, with 61% of Americans approving of unions in 1988.  The rate of public confidence in the United States during this same time differed little from the analogous rate in other industrialized nations.
  • Dropping unionization rates cannot be attributed entirely to changing market structures.
  • The first relevant set of factors relate to the receptiveness of unions’ institutional environments.  Unions have enjoyed higher rates of success in locations where they have greater access to the workplace as an organizing space (as determined both by law and by employer acceptance), and where they benefit from a corporatist relationship to the state and are thus allowed to participate more directly in the official governance structure.
  • The fluctuations of business cycles, particularly the rise and fall of unemployment rates and inflation, are also closely linked to changes in union density.
  • Labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan attributes the drop to the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which greatly reduced the power of unions, to support each other in strikes, made it harder to form new unions, and eventually encouraged employers to attack existing unions.
  • Studies done by Kate Bronfenbrenner at Cornell University show the adverse effects of globalization towards unions due to illegal threats of firing.
  • ]Some state that the decline in union membership was caused by large-scale layoffs and buyouts in the auto industry and other manufacturing industries, together with the labor movement’s difficulties in organizing nonunion workers fast enough to offset those losses.  For example, in manufacturing, which had long been the heart of organized labor, the percentage of workers in unions sank to 11.7 percent, from 13 percent.
  • AFL-CIO has stated that sixty million Americans say they would join a union tomorrow if they could — that’s far more than the 15.4 million now in unions, and that what’s stopping them is employer resistance.  That is why labor unions pinned their hopes on the Democratically controlled Congress in 2010 in the hopes they could reverse the decline by persuading Congress to enact the Employee Free Choice Act, which would give workers the right to unionize through an easier, less antagonistic method — signing pro-union cards.
  • But many business groups favor the current system in which employers can insist on using secret-ballot elections to determine whether a majority of workers want to join a union.
  • Business groups assert that elections are fairer, while labor unions assert that elections often involve employer intimidation of workers and the firing of union supporters.
  • The changing conditions of the 1980s and 1990s undermined the position of organized labor, which now represented a shrinking share of the work force.  While more than one-third of employed people belonged to unions in 1945, union membership fell to 24.1 percent of the U.S. work force in 1979 and to 13.9 percent in 1998.
  • Court decisions and National Labor Relations Board rulings allowing workers to withhold the portion of their union dues used to back, or oppose, political candidates, undercut unions’ influence.
  • Management, feeling the heat of foreign and domestic competition, is today less willing to accede to union demands for higher wages and benefits than in earlier decades. It also is much more aggressive about fighting unions’ attempts to organize workers.
  • Strikes were infrequent in the 1980s and 1990s, as employers became more willing to hire strikebreakers when unions walk out and to keep them on the job when the strike was over. (They were emboldened in that stance when President Ronald Reagan in 1981 fired illegally striking air traffic controllers employed by the Federal Aviation Administration.)
  • Automation is a continuing challenge for union members. Many older factories have introduced labor-saving automated machinery to perform tasks previously handled by workers. Unions have sought, with limited success, a variety of measures to protect jobs and incomes: free retraining, shorter workweeks to share the available work among employees, and guaranteed annual incomes.
  • The shift to service industry employment, where unions traditionally have been weaker, also has been a serious problem for labor unions. Women, young people, temporary and part-time workers — all less receptive to union membership — hold a large proportion of the new jobs created in recent years.  And much American industry has migrated to the southern and western parts of the United States, regions that have a weaker union tradition than do the northern or the eastern regions.
  • As if these difficulties were not enough, years of negative publicity about corruption in the big Teamsters Union and other unions have hurt the labor movement. Even unions’ past successes in boosting wages and benefits and improving the work environment have worked against further gains by making newer, younger workers conclude they no longer need unions to press their causes. Union arguments that they give workers a voice in almost all aspects of their jobs, including work-site safety and work grievances, are often ignored. The kind of independent-minded young workers who sparked the dramatic rise of high-technology computer firms have little interest in belonging to organizations that they believe quash independence.
  • Perhaps the biggest reason unions faced trouble in recruiting new members in the late 1990s, however, was the surprising strength of the economy.  In October and November 1999, the unemployment rate had fallen to 4.1 percent. Economists said only people who were between jobs or chronically unemployed were out of work. For all the uncertainties economic changes had produced, the abundance of jobs restored confidence that America was still a land of opportunity.
  • Global competition and deregulation in traditionally unionized industries. In recent years, the federal government has deregulated heavily unionized industries including the trucking, railroad, and airline industries.
  • Deregulation has brought greater competition in this industries not only domestically but also from abroad. No longer is the U. S. free from global competitive pressures, as many argue it was in the years following World War II. Economic globalization has resulted in large-scale layoffs and growing economic insecurity for workers, particularly in these historically unionized industries. This in turn has limited union efforts to raise their members’ wages and benefits. For example, trucking deregulation hit the Teamsters union hard because competition meant that trucking firms could no longer keep their prices high enough to support the Teamsters’ wage premiums.
  • The new competitive labor market freed nonunion truckers from the roadblocks they faced in getting jobs. In the seven years since trucking deregulation began in earnest, the share of truckers who belonged to unions fell by more than half, to 28 percent.
  • Changes in the American economy and workforce demographics. The rising number of illegal immigrant workers who, fearing deportation, are disinclined to protest substandard employment conditions, much less become involved in a union organizing campaign.
  • The rapidly expanding contingent workforcecomposed of mostly women, temporary workers, and part-time employeeshas also proven to be difficult for unions to organize.
  • Additionally, shifts in the American job market from the stagnant manufacturing sector to an expanding service sector and the creation of many new largely white collar and technical occupations have also presented organizing challenges to unions.
  • Federal employment law supplanting traditional union roles. Over the past several decades, Congress has passed a number of new laws and mandates designed to combat employment discrimination of various types, establish safe and healthy workplaces, provide family and medical leave, give workers notice for plant closings, and much more. The trend has been for government to assume responsibility for more and more of the things traditionally advocated and protected by unions. Unions have thus become less necessary for many workers, and the cultural movement toward legislative protections has to a great extent replaced collective action in the workplace.
  • Today’s workers are less interested in unionization. The declining numbers of union members over the past 20 years has spawned another problem for unions—the current generation of workers comes largely from households where there are no union workers to serve as models. Hence, these younger workers have little knowledge of, and do not particularly care about, unions.
  • More than 70 percent of the current civilian labor force is under the age of 45.
  • Today’s workers also tend to be highly mobile, better educated, and often in white-collar or new-collar (computer, technical, etc.) careers.
  • They care about wages, but many care more about such issues as career advancement, day care, quality of life on the job, developing new skills, and having some say in how their jobs are done.
  • Workers of today also tend to be more sympathetic to business.
  • Many came of age during the oil-shocks of the mid-1970s, the back-to-back recessions that followed, and the trade wars.
  • This has led them to appreciate the importance of business in creating jobs and has made them desire unions that are willing to cooperate with management rather than confront it.

Question 35: Are labor unions affiliated with organized crime?

No.  However, in the 1940s and 1950s, links to organized crime were discovered in U.S. unions, hurting their image.

Since the 1970s, union membership has been steadily declining in the private sector while growing in the public sector.  Right to work for less statutes forbid unions from negotiating agency shops.  Thus, while unions do exist in “right-to-work-for-less” states, they are typically weaker.

Members of labor unions enjoy “Weingarten Rights.”  If management questions the union member on a matter that may lead to discipline or other changes in working conditions, union members can request representation by a union representative.  Weingarten Rights are named for the first Supreme Court decision to recognize those rights.

Question 36: How would you describe the state of the economy today?

Today America is undergoing a rare economic transformation, shedding jobs and testing safety nets as the nation searches for new ways to govern and grow our economy. The economic facts are stark – we see a workplace and an economy that is broken in fundamental ways:

  • 14 million workers are unemployed – many more have given up looking for work;
  • Over 15 million children and their families are living in poverty;
  • Educated young workers graduate with substantial debt and few or no job prospects;
  • Unsustainable deficits and debts will burden our children for decades to come;
  • The middle-class is rapidly disappearing; and
  • We’ve heard it before, but how true it is – The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.

Question 37: So, what can I do about the economy and labor unions?

Too often, the loudest voices often get the most attention and a predictable and unproductive cycle of blame and evasion takes place (think TV/Cable talk shows). However, the moral measure of this budget debate is not which party wins or which powerful interests prevail, but rather “Have the poor and most vulnerable people been put first?” So, here are some simple things we can all do to get our country through this crisis:

  • First of all, pray about it.
  • Secondly, tell our Congressional Representative and United States Senators by e-mail, letter, phone call and personal visit, that we expect:
  • Everyone to respect the legitimacy and roles of others in economic life: business and labor, private enterprise and public institutions, for profit and nonprofit, academic and religious, government and community;
  • Everyone to look for common ground and seek the common good so together we can reduce joblessness, promote economic growth, overcome poverty, increase prosperity, and make the shared sacrifices and–even compromises–necessary to begin to heal our broken economy; and
  • Workers to get a living wage, not just the minimum wage. For example, in Cook County, the minimum wage for a single mom with one child is $8.00 per hour or $16,640 per year, whereas the poverty threshold for a family of two is $14,676. However, a living wage for a family of two would be $18.13 per hour or $37,710.40 per year. You can see that the minimum wage just keeps people either in poverty or slightly above it, and reliant on government programs such as food stamps, housing allowances, etc. Remember that a “living wage” is a wage sufficient to provide minimally satisfactory living conditions.

Unions believe that:

  • The economy must serve the people, not the other way around.

  • Workers need to have a real voice and effective protections in economic life.

  • Unions defend the interests of workers in all sectors in which their rights are concerned, and are an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies.

  • The right of workers to choose to join a union is based not only on the United States Constitution, but on a natural right, and it is the government’s obligation to protect that right – not undermine it.

  • The market, the state, civil society, unions and employers all have roles to play and they must be exercised in creative and fruitful interrelationships. Private action and public policies that strengthen families and reduce poverty are needed. New jobs with living wages and benefits must be created so that all workers can express their dignity through work.  A new social contract, which begins by honoring work and workers, must be forged that ultimately focuses on the common good of the entire human family.  Unions must be part of that discussion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: