Union membership has been steadily decreasing since the 1970's. But since the history of union membership has been filled with short, fervent periods of rapid increases in membership, followed by long periods of stagnation and decrease in membership, this may not seem to be cause of worry. However, while the current decrease in the number of union workers may seem to be just another slump, the fact that it has lasted more than thirty years, is disturbing. In that time, the world and it's economy has dramatically changed, and one must ask the question "could this be the twilight of the American labor movement?" If unions are going to, not only survive, but flourish and expand their influence, the entire labor movement must change it's very nature; expanding it's scope of interest, membership, and international relationships. This essay will examine the history of the union movement in America (discovering what has made unions successful in the past), the present state of unions in America (discovering why unions are on the decline), and what, if anything, unions can do to reverse this trend.
The history of labor unions can trace it's way back hundreds of years to the medieval guilds. These were groups of tradesmen who formed close knit organizations which regulated all aspects of the trade involved. A person would start become an apprentice, in order to learn the trade, then become a journeyman and work under the instruction of a master. Only when a person acquired master status did they enjoy the real benefits of wealth and position. This system lasted for hundreds of years until "By the early 1800's, few could anticipate moving up to becoming a master artisan or owning their own establishment." (Freidman)
The onset of industrialization in the 1800's brought about the destruction of the old system and the creation of a new industrialized one. One group of workers who adapted to this new environment were the craftsmen. This group was not based on any class lines or such, they was strictly based on uniting workers with the same skills against the industrialists. "By using their monopoly of knowledge of the work process to restrict access to the trade, craft unions could have a strong bargaining position." (Friedman) But while these organizations only benefited those who were part of the trade and not to workers in general, they would lay the foundation for the rise of unions representing the masses of other workers.
The first organization which attempted to organize workers in general, without regard for a specific trade, came in the Untied States in the 1880's. Beginning with a group of Philadelphia garment cutters in 1869, the "Knights of Labor" expanded their membership to include non-craftsmen. ("The Labor Union Movement") By 1881, membership in the Knight had reached 20,000 and grew, by 1885, to more than 100,000 members. (Friedman) Unfortunately the Knights of Labor became involved in a May Day strike in 1886, in which there was a bombing at Haymaker Square in Chicago. The resulting "red scare" which followed ultimately resulted in the rapid decline of membership.
The history of unions in America is a history of surges and declines. There are times in which the general populace becomes very supportive of organized labor. These periods often coincide with the rapid increase in union membership, which are then often followed by long periods of union stagnation and decline. This cycle has occurred several times in the course of American history, most particularly in the 20th century.
The American Federation of Labor (AFL) originally began as a group of craft workers who wanted to protect themselves from the masses of workers associated with the Knights of Labor. (Labor Union Movement) After the fall of the Knights of Labor, the AFL was the only major organization for workers in America, unfortunately they only represented a small percentage of skilled craft workers, a situation that remained in place until after the First World War.
Another boost for the unions came with the American entry into World War I. "The Wilson administration endorsed unionization and collective bargaining in exchange for union support for the war effort." (Friedman) During this time the AFL used this support to organize industrialized workers involved in shipbuilding, metal work, meatpacking, and steel production. As a result, membership in the AFL doubled in the four-year period between 1915 and 1919. However, the end of the war brought about the loss of government support, and combined with a concerted effort on the part of business owners, which caused a collapse in union membership in the post-war period.
As with other periods of economic expansion, the period after the Great War, known as the Roaring 20's, was a time of both economic expansion and union decline. Opponents of organized labor used the rise of the communism in Russia, and it's association with organized labor, to create a new "red scare" throughout the United States. At the same time employers began to compete for the loyalty of their workers by offering better wages, conditions, and other concessions as a way to undermine the influence of unions. As a result the membership and influence of labor unions saw a remarkable decline in the 1920's.
Another big increase in union power and membership came during the Great Depression and the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Between 1929 and 1933 unemployment in the United States rose from 2 million to more than 13 million. With so many Americans out of work, union membership declined in the same period, but with the election of the liberal Democrat Roosevelt, and his New Deal programs, union membership would rise by more than 150% in the five years between 1933 to 1938.
If there was one piece of legislation that exemplified Roosevelt's support for the labor movement in the United States, it was the "National Industrial Recovery Act." While the act covered many different aspects of industry, workers were given "the right to organize and bargain collectively and could not be required, as a condition of employment, to join or refrain from joining a labor organization." ("National Industrial Recovery Act") But a few years later the U.S. Supreme Court struck down this law as unconstitutional, and Roosevelt was forced to try again. The result was the Wagner Act, or the National Labor Relations Act, which not only restricted the actions employers could take against organized workers, but it also set up the National Labor Relations Board, which would police the employer-employee relationship and make certain that the rights of workers were respected.
However, the inability of the AFL to capitalize on the New Deal union surge cause a rift in the leadership of the organization. In 1935, John Lewis, leader of the United Mine Workers Union, became so embroiled in the dispute that he actually assaulted another union leader and formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). Three years later, in 1938, the CIO held a constitutional convention and officially became the independent Congress of Industrial Organizations. The CIO, which included many open communists, then embarked on a surge of growth for the new labor organization. Between the years 1935 and 1941, the number of union members grew from 3.5 million to more than 10 million. ("The Labor Union Movement") The late 1930's saw another upswing in union membership, but the onset of World War II put internal conflicts on hold as the entire nation mobilized for war.
While the total number of union workers increased during the war, adding 4 million workers to the ranks of the union, the influence of the unions was beginning to wane. After the war, a CIO strategy to expand union membership in the southern part of the United States met with dismal failure. The election of a Republican majority in Congress in 1946, ironically set the stage for what would become the "Golden Age" of unions in America. This congress was strongly anti-union, amending the Wagner Act and passing the Taft-Hartley Act of 1847; which "outlawed union practices like closed shops and secondary boycotts, allowed states to pass 'right to work' laws, and gave the federal government the power to block or end strikes." (Hirsch, 2008) The law also required union leaders to sign a non-communist oath which stated that they were not associated with the communist party. The CIO, which had begun with an alliance of laborers and communists, in 1949, expelled all communists in their ranks. In 1955, the CIO merged with the more traditional AFL, becoming the AFL-CIO.
Once the AFL and CIO merged, they began a policy which bargained with management over issues like wages, conditions, and retirement, but left the decisions over prices, production, and investment up to the management. The workers and their conditions once again became the focus of the union, not the larger economic and business policies of the companies. And by concentrating on the workers and avoiding interference in the running of the companies, the unions created what is commonly…