The Labor Movement

Today, just over 16 million US workers belong to unions – around 13.2% of total number of men and women working in this country. Many are still traditional blue-collar workers, but unions increasingly appeal to while collar workers too. For instance workers including doctors, psychologists, graduate teaching assistants, and even fashion models are forming or joining unions. Federal state, and local governments employ about seven million union members, who account for almost 40% of total government employees. And in some industries – including transportation and public utilities, where over 26% of employees are union members it’s still hard to get a job without joining a union. Union membership in other countries is declining, but is still very high: 37% of employed workers in Canada, 43% in Mexico, 44% in Brazil, 44% in Italy, and 24% in Japan. Why are unions important? How did they get that way? Why do workers join them? Howe do employers and unions hammer out agreements?

A brief History of the American Union Movement:

To understand what unions are and what they want, it is useful to understand ‘where they’ve been’. The History of the union movement in the United States has been one of alternate expansion and contraction. As early as 1790, skilled craftsmen (shoemakers, tailors, printers, and so on) organized themselves into trade unions. They posted their minimum wage demands and had ‘tramping committees’ go from shop to shop to ensure that no member accepted a lesser wage. Union membership grew until a major depression around 1837 resulted in a membership decline. Membership then began increasing as the United States entered its industrial revolution. In 1869, a group of tailors met and formed the Knights of labor. The Knights were interested in political reforms. By 1885, they had 100,000 members, which (as a result of winning a major strike against a railroad) exploded to 700,000 the following year. Partly because of their focus on social reform, and partly due to a series of unsuccessful strikes, the Knights’ membership dwindled rapidly thereafter, and the group dissolved n 1893.

In 1886, Samuel Gompers formed the American Federation of Labor. It consisted mostly of skilled workers and, unlike the Knights, focused on practical, bread-and-butter gains for its members. The Knights of Labor had engaged in a class struggle to alter the form of society and thereby get a bigger chunk of benefits for its members. Gompers aimed to reach the same goal by arising day-to-day wages and improving working conditions the AFL grew rapidly until after World War I, at which point its membership exceeded 5.5 million people.

The 1920s was a period of stagnation and decline for the US union movement. This was a result of several events, including a postwar depression, manufacturers’ renewed resistance to unions. Samuel Gompers’s death and the apparent prosperity of the 1920s. By late 1929 due to the Great Depression, millions of workers (including any Union members) had lost their jobs, and by 1933 union membership was down to under three million workers.

Membership began to rise again in the mid-1930s. As part of his New Deal programs, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed the National Industrial Recovery Act, which made it easier for labor to organize. Other federal laws as well as prosperity and World War II also contributed to the rapid increase in members, which topped out at about 21 million workers in the 1970s. Union membership has consistently fallen since then, due to factors such as the shift from manufacturing to service jobs, and new legislation (such as occupational safety laws) that provide the sorts of protections that workers could once only obtain for their Unions. Indeed, hundreds of local, state, and federal laws and regulations now address the sorts of concerns that helped drive the early union movement.