Unionism in the US Was it Needed Term Paper

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Unionism in the United States

Union Overview

Unions of yesteryear are not what they are in modern society. In fact there are those that have stated that the unions of today are "committing suicide" (Hassett, 1998). The organized labor moment in its prime commanded considerable attention and weight. Unions of old worked diligently to protect members from appalling and unsafe working conditions, many of which included 12-hour work days in hot and hazardous conditions.

In modern times the presence of unionization at least within the private sector has declined drastically. Economists suggest that this is because the strict working rules under which unions operate and the higher wages demanded often put an unmanageable burden on privatized firms, where labor costs are generally a high percentage of overall costs (Hasset, 1998). Unionization in a traditional American firm might increase labor costs "by as much as 15%" thus reducing profit margins substantially (Hasset, 1998).

In an environment where a firm establishes a monopoly, the rising costs of paying increased wages to workers are not an issue because the expense can be passed along to the consumer; however very rarely in society today does a company have a monopoly, thus there is no where for the firm to re-compensate for increasing labor costs.

Employers in the private industry have also noted that unions generally make it difficult for firms to "adapt to changing technologies" and global market conditions, reducing competitive advantage in today's marketplace (Hasset, 1998).

In the early days the union was considered a moral establishment, ensuring that workers worked in safe and equitable environments. In today's society however, where capitalist endeavors dominate, wages and working conditions are already reasonable for the most part, thus unions are flailing. If one examines critically the purpose of unions, many may find their modus of operation outdated, and their strategies unreasonable for the modern marketplace. More and more American workers and employers are recognizing that the benefits of a union do not outweigh the hassle associated with membership.

The primary impact of unions historically has been to "raise member's wages at the expense of unorganized labor" and "of the efficient functioning of the economy" (Freeman & Medoff, 1984). In recent years the view of unions has become negative. Many corporations and workers alike doubt the "social relevance and value of America's organized labor movement" in modern society (Freeman & Medoff, 1984). In fact many have even expressed the notion that unions are more adept at advances their own interests at the public's expense rather than accomplishing any worthwhile task.

History of Unions

The history of the labor union is complex. In times of old the labor union has been defined as "a continuous association of wage earners for the purpose of maintaining and improving the conditions of their employment" (Peterson, 1945:1). Unions were created out of a desire for protection and advancement of the interests of human kind. In most society there tend to be gatherings of individuals that are interested in promoting common interests and the needs or desires of members. Unions are no exception.

The central motivating force that influenced the shape of unions in America in the early years was a desire to improve the status and working conditions of American wage earners.

The earliest forms of labor unions were groups of skilled "handicraft trade" including carpenters, shoemakers and tailors in the early 1800s (Peterson, 1945). Often labeled "craft societies" these groups worked to bargain over wages, shop conditions and hours (Peterson, 1945). Generally these groups and organizations had local influence only.

At the turn of the 19th century the working conditions in the United States were less than acceptable. 12 to 14-hour workdays seven days per week were not uncommon. Children and adults alike worked side by side often in unsafe working conditions. The industrial revolution resulted in a widespread abuse of labor within this country.

Unions emerged in early times particularly in the early 1800s to provide legal protection to workers who were being exploited by their employers. The first efforts at organization generally focused around specific trades. These 'trade' unions often involved groups of craftsmen, guilders, carpenters and similar tradesmen who were struggling for among other things their independence and improved working conditions.

Since their formal inception in the mid 1800s unions have been through many ups and downs. After the civil war in the U.S. many unions came about to combat rising pricings and deficits in pay. Many soldiers also found their jobs had been usurped via machine productions and thus were looking for representations. Craft unions were common in the ten years following the civil war.

As mentioned, unions began to be more formalized during the middle of the 19th century when various tradesmen started joining together to form larger unionized establishments, until the mid 1800s when the Nation Labor Union was formed. Among the first tasks of the union was to reduce the work day to an eight hour workday for government workers. "Trade unions" as they were called supported workers during strikes and worked to provide common support for workers in a more broad ranging respect.

This was followed by other organized groups including the "Knights of Labor" and "American Federation of Labor." Broad ranging concerns of these unions also included many social reforms including "free public schools, abolition of imprisonment for debt and elimination of property qualifications for voting" (Peterson, 1945:8).

The National Labor Union did not last long however, and eventually disbanded a little over a decade after it had started. The American Federation of Labor however remained a dominant force on the union front for half a century, resulting in sweeping changes and maintaining a constant support of employees and wage earners. The AFL was known for making great strides during the depression era. Membership in the early 1900s exceeded one million people.

During World War I the influence of the American Federation of Labor continued. Labor union representatives at this time demanded that the government recognize unions as "representative of all wage earners including those who have not yet organized" and suggested that organized labor should be given "representation in all agencies determining administering policies of national defense" (Freeman, 1945:16).

Thus labor representation in government committee's came about. In the early 1900s the National War Labor Board was developed to support the right of workers to organized and bargain. Collective bargaining became an influential aspect of labor unions power during this time.

Unions did not have much influence during the 1920s when mass production dominated the economic forefront, in part because machines were often replacing skilled workers in many manufacturing organizations. Just before World War II membership in union organizations again increased however, with a membership of more than 10 million wage earners.

A peak of more than 17 million members was realized just after World War II. In addition many laws were passed in support of unions, among the laws that influenced labor unions were the Norris-LaGuardia Act passed in 1932. During the New Deal laws were passed that reasonably "secured labor legislation from judicial invalidation" (Freeman, 1945:28). The national Industrial Recover Act of 1933 established codes that outlined fair competition and established criteria for setting the minimum acceptable working standards.

Part of the act also assured employees of the right to organize and bargain collectively via representation of their choosing. After passage of this act unions enjoyed a period of relative prosperity with membership increasing drastically.

The National Labor Relations Act passed in the mid-1930 also guaranteed employees the right to self-organize and join labor unions or bargain collectively as they pleased for the purpose of protection or aid.

Even more influential was the creation of the Committee for Industrial Organization which was established with the intent of "encouraging and promoting the organized of the unorganized workers in mass-production and other industries upon an industrial basis" (Freeman, 1945:33). Later the committee joined forces and established the Congress of the Industrial Organization. The influence of unions in the United States far exceeded its early influence. Jurisdiction included all manner of workers in the U.S. including skilled and unskilled.

Among the areas that unions became popular in included the steel, automotive and other mass production plants, aircraft, shipping and maritime plants (Peterson, 1945). Labor unions actively participated in the WWII production program. Unions were actually used to strengthen employee moral and improve efficiency. Navy and War departments even employed labor relations experts to help with war efforts and to help plan and direct labor policies (Peterson, 1945). These collaborative efforts improved the influence of unions and expanded their membership even further.

Wage disputes quickly emerged after the war however. Workers became increasingly discontent insisting higher wages and price stabilizations. Worker efficiency also seemed to decline, and post war jobs were scarcer than jobs that had been available during the war. Many employees felt that unions were not representing them as efficiently as they had in the pre-war period. Nonetheless unions still maintained a credible influence in many industries. Over…[continue]

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