The Union Movement in US

The 1980s and 1990s were hard times for unions. About 35% of the non-farm US workforce belonged to unions by the 1960s. By 2002 that figure had dropped to about 13.2%.

Several things contributed to this decline. Laws like OSHA and Title VII of the Civil rights Act reduced the need for the traditional protective role union plays. Increased global competition and new technologies like the Internet and Just-In-Time inventory systems forced manufacturers to reduce inefficiencies and cut costs often by reducing payrolls by automating or by sending jobs abroad. New foreign owned southern auto plants from Toyota, Nissan, BMW, and DaimlerChrysler largely stayed union free. The number of US manufacturing jobs has declined, while service jobs have increased. The shift from manufacturing to services is exemplified by “new economy” high tech firms like Amazon and Cisco, whose white collar workers have largely stayed union free. Some union leaders also believe that the new attempts at labor-management cooperation such as employee participation teams undermine unions’ traditional prerogatives, by giving employees more say over how they do their jobs. The union movement’s share of the US workforce has thus dwindled, as noted, to about 13.2%.

Yet that 13.2% figure underestimates that impact that unions have on the US economy. For one thing (as noted above), union membership varies widely by state, so unions are still quite influential in some states (such as Michigan and New York). And, fully 35% of the nation’s blue-collar workers in particular those in manufacturing and construction jobs belong to unions.

The problem is that only about 15% of US workers are now employed in manufacturing and construction a figure that’s down from about 25%, 20 years ago. So, unions’ traditional membership sources are shrinking. As two experts put it, “[The Union movement’s] inability to recruit white-collar workers on any significant scale has been primarily responsible for its slipping from representing 35% of the labor force in 1959, and 20% of US workers in 1983 to its current position of representing only 13.5% [several years ago].

Yet there are some bright spots for labor unions. For example, about 40% of all college faculty members, 45,000 physicians, 50,000 engineers, and almost 100,000 nurses belong to unions (as do most major league baseball, football, basketball, and hockey players). Furthermore, about 40% of all federal, state, and local government employees belong to unions.

Public Employees and Unions:

If there is a notable bright spot for the union movement, it’s their success in organizing federal, state, and municipal workers. With at least 7 million public-sector union members, the public sector represents at least 44% of total US union membership, and perhaps the union movement’s biggest potential growth area. Three public unions – the National Education Association, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the American Federation of teachers are among the largest nine US unions.

The unions’ success in organizing public employees reflects, in part, years of changes in public sector bargaining and labor relations legislation. Public employees are not covered by the National Labor relations Act. However other laws do extend to public employees much the same rights. In 1871, Congress passed the Pendleton Act. This provided for the first Civil Commission, which, among other things, protected federal employees from certain arbitrary dismissals and administered competitive examinations to determine who would get federal jobs.

Public-sector union membership increased dramatically starting in 1960, due to several presidential executive orders and new legislation. This recognized federal employees’ rights to join or refrain from joining labor organizations ad granted recognition to those organizations. In 1978, Congress passed the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.Title VII of this act (known as the Federal Labor Relations Act) is similar to the National Labor Relations Act. It gave the new Federal Labor Relations Authority new authority to oversee federal public-sector labor relations. Among other things, this Title VII prohibits the government from restraining or coercing employees in the exercise of their organizational rights, or from encouraging or discouraging union membership. Similarly labor, organization may interfere with the employees’ rights to unionize or to refrain from organizing.