Living Theory Term Paper

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LABOR UNIONS IN THE U.S.: Evaluation of Social Theory as Applied to the Concept of Organized Labor

CHAPTER IN BRIEF INTRODUCTION history of labor unions, their composition and development in the U.S. over time, discussion of the "building blocks" of such organizations

RELEVANCE OF LABOR UNIONS ACCORDING TO SOCIAL THEORISTS discussion of the relevance of labor unions according to the following social theorists: Durkheim, Simmel, Weber and Marx. Why labor unions are formed according to each of the social theorists; the idea of labor unions as a positive or negative force; labor unions as collective representatives of society; labor unions as reflective of society's need to collectively gather; who is represented by labor unions; economic factors in labor gatherings (Marx, on the idea that labor unions are created to promote the economic interests of employees within organizations)


Labor unions were created for a variety of reasons, in part to represent the needs of employees and rights to mediation, organization, health benefits and promote collective bargaining rights. People gather in a social context for many reasons according to social theorists, some on the assumption that the division of labor promotes individuality and interdependence (Durkheim); others as a result of positive and negative forces (Simmel); some because of the increasing rationalization of society (Weber) and still others as a result of the promotion of economic welfare (Marx).


In the United States alone exist over 80,000 labor unions, the majority of which are recognized locally and nationally (Schuster, 344). Most of the union members belong to unions that are affiliated with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO), including the largest unions, the United Auto Workers and the United Steelworkers of America. (Schuster). Labor Unions were created to provide a large array of services to members, including mediation, assistance organizing activities, training services for leaders, legal and economic assistance and political support to employees and union leaders (Schuster, 344).

The "basic building block" of the labor union is the local union, which has direct control over the rank -- and file worker, and functions through officials that are elected by members (Schuster, 345). Labor Union management is government largely by the Wagner Act as amended by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which guarantees workers the right to bargain collectively "over wages, hours, and working conditions, and it regulates the union-management relationship by prohibiting unfair labor practices" (Schuster, 346). How does the concept of Labor Unions relate to the ideas of social theorists Durkheim, Simmel, Weber and Marx? Are Labor Unions effective and logical practices according to theorists? Close examination of each of the social theorists mentioned above is necessary to answer this question.



Durkheim took the standpoint of being concerned with the effects of social constraints, which he call "social fact" on behavior, which can be applied to employees in unions (Hurst, 13). Among the most important subjects studied by this theorist, was the impact of the importance of the division of labor in society on the morality of social life (Hurst, 13). Durkheim felt that through a distinct division of labor, individualism would develop which is important. Hand in hand with individuality however, is interdependency, which would cause all individuals to realize that they rely on coworkers and peers, which in turn would lead society to develop rules governing our relationships with others (Hurst, 13). How does the idea of a division of labor apply to unions? Certainly within labor unions employees develop a clear division of labor, which in turn causes employees and managers to become interdependent and forces the creation of rules and regulations to govern a smooth working entity, the labor union leaders being representative of the employees and responsible for preventing chaos and maintaining an organized and cohesive as well as productive unit. Labor Unions promote Durkheim's concept that "institutions must work to develop rules and socialization procedures that ensure that individuals will be truly social in their natures" (Hurst, 13).


Taking the standpoint that "conflict in a variety of forms is built into all societies, and has positives and negatives," Simmel would likely argue that a labor union naturally would inherently have positives and negatives that would balance each other out in the process of governing. According to Simmel, the following is true which may be applied to organized labor:

Conflict unites groups as it separates them from others, and destroys as it creates relationships, (b) "Domination oppresses and keeps people apart at the same time that individuals seek to be dominated:, - "money frees individuals to purchase a wide variety of goods, but it also degrades the value those goods have for individuals" (Hurst, 15).

Simmel's ideas on conflict would support the idea that labor unions are as much beneficial and positive groups as much as they are negative governing bodies. Labor unions by nature promote the rights of individuals in employer groups to collectively gather, to question their payment and have their rights asserted. On a less positive note however, labor unions also encourage or at least allow for a uniform striking workforce, which will obviously have a negative effect on the productivity of the organization involved.


What of Weber? Weber did not believe in a universal governing set of law to apply to society, rather felt that the "increasing rationalization of society would result in a disenchantment with life" (Hurst, 17). Weber's view has been characterized as wholly negative, describing a society dominated by "rational and hierarchichal authority of large bureaucracies and states, industrial technology, profit-oriented capitalism and money exchange" which ultimately lead to a de-personalized body of people (Hurst, 18). Weber would most assuredly view labor unions from a negative perspective, claiming that the large organized structure of unions encouraged decidedly increasing rationalization of work ethic, and ultimately result in the overriding of valuable moral and emotional elements critical to motivating and uplifting workers. Labor unions according to Weber's social theory would likely result in a results oriented practical assessing and pragmatic instead of caring and personally motivated, unique workforce.

Lastly, Marx must be considered. Marx's argument in reference to labor unions sums up simply in the idea that "people will often organize to protect or advance their own economic interests" (Hurst, 11). Marx would conclude that labor unions were created in part to promote the economic interests of workers, not to benefit the agenda's or the organizations for which they are working, which may be considered true, as labor union leaders certainly promote and encourage, even fight for the economic well being of employees. According to Marx, "keys to individual behavior, social stability, community and change are to be found in the economic relationships that structure U.S. society" (Hurst, 11). Given that bit of information, again Marx would view a labor union as a social structure representative of an employee community, established to maintain the economic relationship between employees and employers. Each would be ultimately out to serve the interests of protecting their pocketbooks.

Naturally, according to Marx, people would organize under the premise of a labor union to do so, at it is inherent in their nature.


Labor unions may be considered as complex entities formed as representatives of employer groups for a variety of reasons. Historically, labor unions were formed to promote of the rights of employees to collectively gather and bargain for their adequate economic status, benefits and freedoms. Labor unions support the causes of employees, and are responsible for delegation of authority and mediation in organization. Social theorists would apply different ideas as to the efficacy and purpose of labor unions. Durkheim for example, takes the standpoint that labor unions are formed because of the interdependence that is created when division of labor becomes established. Labor unions develop out of a need to establish rules to govern a society, in this case an employee group representative of an organization. Simmel would argue the pros and cons of labor unions, stating that organized bodies represent the general good and benefit of employee groups, but may also in all probability result in disruption of work schedules and conflict if bargaining measures do not work out, if labor unions and employer leaders are in disagreement about the rights of employees. Weber would most certainly take a negative perspective of labor unions, arguing that they are the result of an increased rationalization of the workforce, reflective of societies values. As labor unions force a more cohesive and pragmatic reality for workers, a resulting less motivated workforce will ultimately result, one that thinks merely in respect to the consequences of their actions, and one not led by emotional and feeling thinkers. Some employers may argue that this in whole is not a bad thing! Lastly, Marx would certainly take the standpoint that labor unions are the result of societies natural tendency to organize and form groups to promote their economic interests. Labor union leaders represent the needs of employees to secure economic stability and…[continue]

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