The internal split amongst major union movements, however, has not helped. Both major groups have essentially the same goals, but clearly differ on the best ways to achieve those goals. Critics contend, however, that the movement needs solidarity in the face of declining relevance. The split, despite the ideological differences, also had a personal component to it, and this weakness at the top levels of union leadership inhibits their ability to enact change.
Another issue for the future of the union movement is that of globalization. In response to the globalization of economies, the notion of globalizing labor has gained currency. Traditionally, labor movements have been national, due to strong differences in national legislative environments. The only two nations with any serious degree of cross-border union integration were the U.S. And Canada. Recently, the United Steel Workers joined forces with the United Kingdom's largest union, Unite, to former a union spanning for major industrialized nations. This marks a significant shift in strategy for the union movement, which has historically addressed all issues on a local or national level.
One source of strength for the union movement of late has been the service sector. While the manufacturing sector has been a traditional source of strength for the movement, the service sector is now moving into a position of prominence. This sector represents opportunity as a source of growth for two key reasons. First, wage and benefit levels are generally low, and the workforce less educated. These are two traditional antecedents to labor organization. The decline in real wages that has occurred since the early 70s affects service sector workers more than any other group so whereas non-unionized manufacturing workers tend to make comfortable livings, non-unionized service sector workers tend to be near or below the poverty line.
The second reason is that the service sector has a higher percentage of minority employment than other sectors. In recent years, minorities have shown to be more apt to joining unions than have whites, and they receive more benefit from organization. Unionized blacks, for example, earn $8,000 more per year on average than their non-union counterparts. For Hispanics, this figure is $11,650. The traditional workplace inequities that drove the union movement during its heyday still exist in many sectors, and in places where those sectors are strong, for example the Los Angeles area, the union movement has been able to maintain its relevance.
The union movement has entered a new era. It has faced a steady erosion in both membership and relevance over the past several decades, owing to several key factors. The movement saw a major split in 2005 that has heralded a new era, in much the same way that the original AFL/CIO split in 1935 represented several key shifts in the movement.
Though unionism faces several challenges, including a hostile legislative environment, there remain reasons for optimism. There are still many pockets of the American workforce for whom unionism has relevance, key among them being the service sector, and jobs with a high percentage of minorities or new immigrants. While the movement repositions itself and re-evaluates its strategies over the coming years, it may yet return to prominence.
Parks, James. (2008). Trumka: Don't Let Opponents Divide Us by Race in 2008 Elections. AFL-CIO. Retrieved July 4, 2008 at http://blog.aflcio.org/2008/07/03/trumka-dont-let-opponents-divide-us-by-race-in-2008-election
Sewell, Dan. (2007). Labor Unions Fight for Relevance as U.S. Industry Restructures. USA Today. Retrieved July 4, 2008 at http://www.usatoday.com/money/workplace/2007-03-24-unions_N.htm
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Union vs. Non-union wage figures for minorities from CTWF, retrieved July 4, 2008 at http://www.changetowin.org/why-organize/the-union-advantage.html
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