According to the textbook, Labor Relations, by Arthur A. Sloane & Fred Witney, the history of labor relations in the United States, has seen the increasingly professional nature of the labor union towards the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. This phenomena has caused union and management to form a more amicable relationship between one another, by in large, in many industries. However, this positive relationship, over the course of the history of the United States history, has been a relatively recent development. Legally speaking, labor unions have gained more rights in terms of their bargaining power with management, and workers have gained the right to freely organize and join such unions. But these legal rights came only with great difficulty.
The American public's attitude towards unionization has also alternately waxed and waned. Thus, although the legal history of the union in the 20th century has largely been marked with positive developments, favoring and protecting worker's efforts to join unions and to create unions, a historian cannot state categorically that labor movements and unionization movements have not had their difficulties and setbacks in public perceptions as well as in membership rosters. Still, the protective legislation that made unions an integral part of the national fabric, remains, and continues to give workers crucial collective leverage in their negotiations with management structures.
One of the most interesting aspects of "the state of unions today," as Sloane and Whitney term their first chapter, is the fact that 'labor' in the term 'labor unions' no longer refers simply to industrialized labor, in its current negotiating relationship with management. The 'white collar' labor leader is often the current face of labor unions today, in many crucial industries and professional organizations. (42). However, even though labor organizers of both white and blue collar organizations, are not in a consistently adversarial relationship with management, this does not mean that labor leaders lack so-called 'staying power' as leaders of organizations in their role as advocates for members. (3-4).
Rather, labor organizations have had to change with the changing times, where industry and labor are no longer viewed as adversaries, but frequently as partners whom attempt to make businesses profitable and fair for employees and employers. Labor organizations also act as advocates and voices for workers within the context of particular industries, demanding rights and benefits for their workers, as well as recognition of issues specific and pertinent to different spheres of industry and organization. Thus 'labor' as a movement is no longer as unified as it once was, but has become increasingly diverse. Labor unions have themselves taken on managements and the organization of business structures, although they always attempt, at least in theory, to represent 'the people' of their membership.
Union optimism has fluctuated in recent years given what many of the older unions have viewed as the increasing power of middle management within specific spheres of industry. (15) The 1980's were a particularly dark time for traditional labor, especially with the breaking of the unions during the early part of that era, beginning with that of the air traffic controllers. Most unions remain optimistic in the present day, however, particularly in regards to the performance of such organizations as teacher's unions and other professional organizations. (15-18). The death of unionization, despite America's increasingly white-collar image, has not come into being, as was once predicted. Rather, unions have changed their character and tone.
To understand the conflicted view of unions today, however, one must understand the history of labor unionization as a movement, not simply within the United States, but a movement that stretches back to the 1700s in Europe. The first unions met with quite limited success because of government intervention in their activities, and the fact that their activities were viewed as ideologically suspect. The relationship between 'masters' and 'servants' was ideologically fraught in Europe for religious and political, as well as economic reasons, and the idea that individuals could mobilize from 'the bottom up' was frowned upon. (51-52)
The American ideology of individualism and worker autonomy also initially ran counter to unionization, although the heavy class stigma against worker's unions was not present in America, as it was in Europe. The Knights of Labor initially failed as an organization, but the American Federation of Labor, in its wake, proved to be a success, and proved to workers that unionization was possible to act as a counter to the successes of management and industry. (55-58). Many of the early conflicts between management and labor were marked by violence, and labor was, at the turn of the century and in the wake of industrialization in America, viewed with suspicion as potentially socialist in nature.
Despite this, labor continued to organize successfully over the course of the 1900's, weathering legal setbacks in times of greatest prosperity, such as the 1920's, and during the wartime era, where labor's efforts to protect workers rights were demonized as anti-American and counter to the war effort. (58) The CIO's rivalry with the AFL provided another obstacle to unity in the labor movement, fragmenting the industrial voice of labor. (64) But it was only during the 1930's that labor came into its fullest flower, as American became less quick to trust in the value of capitalism, the protections of the unregulated market, and more open to consider collective socialization and mobilization as a way of obtaining a voice as laborers. World War II provided a boon to the United States industry, in that it allowed America to recover from the economic ravages of the Great Depression. It also established some precedent for government intervention in American business, as the federal government was forced to control and ration industrial output to maximize its war effort. (64)
Government intervention in industry was an extension of the protective policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. It created the precedent, in the public's mind, that not all worker-based advocacy was socialistic in nature, and government intervention in favor of workers and in control of certain industrial excesses could be positive as well as negative to the American system of values. The merging of the AFL and the CIO towards the end of the war effort marked another great victory for the modern labor movement, as these two organizations were no longer set against one another, but could work in a state of something approaching harmony. (69)
The modern labor movement's existence in the 1930's, however, has been called an era of judicial control, in that it was marked not only by a reformation of public attitude, but in terms of the American legal system's extension of public protection to labor. The courts began to protect labor's right to organize as a part of citizen's right to assemble freely. (81) The Norris-La Guardia Act of 1932, The Wagner Act of 1935, The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, and the La Griffin Act of 1957 when viewed collectively, all provide examples of the increasingly positive legal history of labor in the nation. (82-110)
The Norris-La Guardia Act of 1932 was the first act to protect workers and to prohibit the unquestioned and far-reaching rights of employers to dictate the terms of workers by employees by fiat. Before, employers could state that no workers would be hired who did not sign a papers stating that they would not join unions. The existence of the Norris-La Guardia Act of 1932 made workers more willing to join unions even during relatively prosperous times. During the Great Depression many workers had felt driven to take any employment they could find. The passage of such an act as Norris-La Guardia Act meant that even during the difficult times of 1930's America, workers were still able to have some standing and right in the form of union advocacy.
Other pioneering acts of labor legislation were the Wagner Act of 1935, which also added to the rights of workers, and curtailed the exclusive rights of employers to dictate the terms of hiring. Officially known as the Labor Relations Act, it was enacted to protect worker's autonomous entrance into unions. The Supreme Court later upheld, in 1937, the protective terms of the action, when the National Steel Corporation attempted to violate it.
Because of the blow dealt to the economy by the Great Depression many American workers began to distrust the nature of American industrialization, even capitalism. The 1930's were thus a fairly prosperous time for the labor movement in the sense that long-standing legal prohibitions were struck down that impeded the labor movement and worker autonomy in an unfavorable economy. After World War II, however, the balance between employees and employers began to shift slightly again, in favor of management. But management never retained the same unregulated place in industry as it had before the Great Depression. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 ceded some bargaining power back to management at the expense of union…