Labor Unions 320
Photo by: sellingpix

A labor union is an organization of wage earners or salary workers established for the purpose of protecting their collective interests when dealing with employers. Though unions are prevalent in most industrialized countries, and in many less developed countries, union representation of workers has generally declined in most countries over the past 30 to 40 years. For example, in the United States, unions represented about one-third of all workers in the 1950s. Today, unions represent only about 16 percent of the total labor force. There have also been significant declines in many of the Western European countries and in Japan. Countries where unions have maintained or increased strength include Canada, Germany, and some of the emerging economies of East and Southeast Asia. Although weakened in many areas, labor unions continue to be an important force in many aspects of the economy.


Unions can be categorized according to ideology and organizational forms. Ideology refers to the union's goals and objectives: what its members see as its mission. A distinction is often made between political unionism and "bread and butter unionism" (also termed business unionism). Although the goals and objectives of politically oriented unions may overlap those of business unions, political unions are primarily related to some larger working-class movement. Most political unions have some formal association with a working-class political party, usually socialist or Marxist.

Political unions range from those dedicated to revolutionary activity (rarely found today) to those seeking change through the electoral process (as in the case of labor unions associated with labor and social democratic parties in Western Europe). In most instances, politically oriented unions see fundamental conflicts between the interests of workers and the capitalist system. The more radical political unions may advocate nationalization of key industries and substantial limitations on free enterprise. In contrast, the mainstream political unions common in Western Europe advocate greater worker voice in business decision making. One example is the German codetermination system. This system requires, by law, the appointment of worker representatives to a company's board of directors. Companies in Germany must also establish works councils, which are shop-floor-level worker committees that provide input into organizational problem solving and decision making.

In contrast to Western Europe and a number of developing countries, contemporary American labor unions are best viewed as reflecting a business unionism ideology. Business unions generally support free market systems and focus their attention on protecting and enhancing the economic welfare of the workers they represent, usually through some form of collective bargaining. By law in the United States, unionized employers need only bargain with unions over wages, hours, and working conditions.

This does not mean that business unions are not involved in the political process. Most large national unions, as well as the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFLCIO)—which is an association of national unions—are involved in lobbying and electoral activities at all levels of government. Such political efforts, however, serve to supplement their principal economic goals. Political objectives are usually reformist in nature. For example, many unions campaigned against passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The labor movement feared that NAFTA would undercut jobs of union workers and weaken the ability of unions to negotiate favorable contracts with employers. Although many American unions are active in the Democratic party, they are not formally affiliated with that party. In fact, some unions regularly support Republican candidates, including presidential candidates. Consequently, the political complexion of American labor unions is varied and driven primarily by economic concerns.

There are several different organizational forms characteristic of labor unions. The earliest unions in the United States were craft unions. Craft unions represent employees in a single occupation or group of closely related occupations. The members of craft unions are generally highly skilled workers. Examples of craft unions include the various skilled trades in the construction industry. Separate unions exist for each major skill (e.g., carpenters, electricians, plumbers). Craft unions are most common in occupations in which employees frequently switch employers. A construction worker is usually hired to complete work at a specific job site and then moves on to work elsewhere (often for another employer). In addition to collective bargaining, craft unions often serve as a placement service for members. Employers contact the union's hiring hall and union members currently out of work are referred to the job.

Closely related to craft unions, though distinct in many respects, are professional unions. A professional is generally understood to be an employee with advanced and highly specialized skills, often requiring some credential, such as a college degree and/or a license. Professional unions are much more recent than craft unions and are most common in the public sector. The American Federation of Teachers is one of the oldest professional unions. Many professional unions began as professional associations, then became more union-like in character (e.g., the National Education Association).

Most unionized workers in the United States belong to industrial unions. An industrial union represents workers across a wide range of occupations within one or more industries. A good example of a typical industrial union is the United Auto Workers (UAW). It represents skilled craft workers, assemblyline workers, and unskilled workers in all of the major American automobile companies. The UAW negotiates separate contracts for workers in each of these companies. Although most industrial unions began by organizing workers in a single industry or group of related industries, most have diversified over the past 30 to 40 years. For example, the UAW represents workers in the tractor and earth-moving equipment industry (e.g., Caterpillar and John Deere) and in the aerospace industry (e.g., Boeing Corporation).

Another organizational form is the general union. General unions organize workers across all occupations and industries. Although some highly diversified unions, such as the Teamsters, appear to be general unions, this form of organization does not really exist in the United States. Because they are typically politically oriented, general unions are more common in Europe and developing countries. There were some general unions in the United States in earlier times (such as the Knights of Labor in the late 1800s), but none of these continue to exist.


Union membership in the United States has varied considerably throughout the country's history. Although American unions have, at times, exerted considerable economic and political power, the level of unionization has generally been considerably lower than in many other advanced industrialized countries (e.g., Britain, Germany, Japan, and Scandinavia). Although there have been unions in the United States for nearly 200 years, prior to the 1930s unions represented, at most, 10 to 12 percent of the labor force. Union membership prior to the Great Depression era rose and fell often, generally corresponding to fluctuations in the business cycle.

The period from about 1935 to the mid-1950s was one of sustained economic growth. The unionization rate went from about 12 percent of the labor force in 1935 to between 32 percent and 35 percent in the mid-1950s. A number of factors were responsible for this unprecedented growth. By the 1930s the American economy had shifted from an agricultural to an industrial base. Industrial workers were concentrated in urban areas and most were native born and English-speaking. Consequently, there was a common culture among workers absent in earlier generations. The depression created a backlash against big business, which was largely viewed as the cause of the country's economic difficulties. Another very important factor was the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. Active support for organized labor was an integral part of Roosevelt's New Deal. The most important change was the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 (see below). The NLRA provided a means for official recognition of labor unions. Once recognized, an employer was legally bound to bargain with the union, enforceable by government action. Economic growth during World War II and in the postwar era also facilitated union growth.

By the mid-1950s, the most union-prone sectors of the American economy had largely been organized. Unions maintained their strength at around one-third of the labor force until about 1960. Union membership declined gradually, decreasing to about 25 percent of the labor force in the mid-1970s. In the period 1970 to 1996 there was clearly a very strong downward trend in unionization in the private sector. Interestingly, there has been a corresponding increase in the unionization rate in the public sector, though this has not compensated for the substantial private sector decline. The overall unionization rate for the economy as a whole was about 14 percent in 1998.

Why has union membership and its corresponding economic and political power declined so much in recent years? There have undoubtedly been many factors. The changing nature of the global economy has been a leading cause. Over the past 20 to 30 years, American companies were increasingly exposed to foreign competition. This especially affected many sectors of the economy that were heavily unionized (e.g., automobiles, steel, and textiles). As these industries became more competitive globally, employer resistance to unions often increased. In addition, it became feasible for employers to relocate production facilities to areas of the country that have traditionally been less supportive of unionism (such as the southern and mountain states) or overseas to less developed countries that have low wages and few unions.

Another important factor has been the shifting nature of the labor force. In the 1930s, blue-collar workers represented a large proportion of the labor force. Now white-collar workers (i.e., managers, professionals, and clericals) are a very large component of the labor force. In general, white-collar workers have been difficult to organize (except in the public sector). There are also more service employees working in industries that are highly competitive (e.g., fast food) and thus less easily organized (since employers that recognize unions and make concessions to them are apt to be driven out of business because of higher costs).

The role of the government in relation to unions has changed considerably since the New Deal era. As early as 1947, amendments were added to the NLRA that significantly expanded employer rights and limited the rights of unions. This law, called the Taft-Hartley Act, is considered by many scholars to weaken the position of organized labor. Individuals appointed to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB; the agency that enforces the NLRA) by the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush administrations often took positions unfavorable to labor unions in board rulings. This, coupled with a substantial increase in management opposition to unions in the 1980s, made it increasingly difficult for unions to organize new members. In addition, many unionized employers, confronting increasing competitive pressures, began to take especially hard bargaining positions in dealing with unions. Such an approach was not seen as a violation of NLRA standards by the new generation of NLRB appointees. Consequently, unions often lost ground in established areas. A number of consulting firms specializing in union avoidance activities became highly visible in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Termed "union busters" by a scornful labor movement, there is considerable evidence that these consultants have played a substantial role in the decline of the contemporary labor movement.

Unions have traditionally been strong in four sectors of the American economy: manufacturing, mining, construction, and transportation. They have lost substantial ground in all four of these sectors in the last 20 years. In the transportation sector, an important factor has been deregulation, particularly in the trucking and airline industries. Substantial increases in competition in those industries have made it difficult for unions to negotiate favorable contracts or organize new units. In construction, the growth of nonunion contractors, able to hire qualified workers outside of the union hiring hall system, undercut union contractors. At one time, more than 80 percent of all commercial construction in the United States had been unionized; today, that figure is no more than 25 percent of commercial construction. Foreign competition and technological change have weakened mining unions. In manufacturing, the whole range of factors previously discussed has been responsible for union decline.

The only sector of the economy where unions have gained strength in recent years has been public employment. Financial stringency in the public sector has severely impacted public employees. Although public sector unions engage in collective bargaining with employers, they play an even more important role in lobbying legislative bodies regarding the financing of government agencies. Consequently, the relative success of public sector unions is most likely attributable to their role as a lobbying force rather than because of success at the bargaining table. Currently, more than one-third of public employees at all levels of government—local, state, and federal—are unionized.


Labor unions are complex and vary considerably with respect to internal structure and administrative processes. It is easiest to differentiate among three distinct levels within the labor movement: local unions, national and international unions, and federations.


Local unions are the building blocks of the labor movement and represent the interface between the union and its rank-and-file members. Although there are some free-standing local unions, the vast majority of locals are in some way affiliated with a national or international union. Most craft unions began as local unions, which then joined together to form national (or international) organizations. Some major industrial unions also began as amalgamations of local unions, though it was generally more common for national organizations to be formed first, with locals to be established later. At present, there are around 71,000 local unions in the United States.

The duties of a local union almost always include the administration of a union contract, which means assuring that the employer is honoring all of the provisions of the contract at the local level. In some instances, local unions might also negotiate contracts, although unions vary considerably in terms of the degree to which the parent national or international union is involved in the negotiation process.

Another important function of the local union is servicing the needs of those represented by the union. If a worker represented by the union believes his or her rights under the union contract have been violated, then the union may intervene on that person's behalf. Examples of such situations include the discharge of an employee, failure to promote an employee according to a contract seniority clause, or failure to pay an employee for overtime. Virtually any provision of a contract can become a source of contention. The local union may try to settle the issue informally. If that effort is not successful, the union may file what is known as a grievance. This is a formal statement of the dispute with the employer and most contracts set forth a grievance procedure. In general, grievance procedures involve several different steps, with higher levels of management entering at each step. If the grievance cannot be settled through this mechanism, then the union may, if the contract allows, request a hearing before a neutral arbitrator, whose decision is final and binding.

Most craft unions have apprenticeship programs to train new workers in the craft. The local union, usually in cooperation with an employers' association, will be responsible for managing the apprenticeship program. In addition, local unions with hiring halls are responsible for making job referrals.

The jurisdiction of a local union depends to a large extent on the organizational form of the parent organization. Locals of industrial unions most often represent workers within a single plant or facility of a company (and thus are termed plant locals). For example, in the case of the UAW, each factory or production facility of each automobile manufacturer has a separate local union. In some instances, a factory may be so big that it requires more than a single local, but this is not usually the case.

In contrast to plant locals, local craft unions (as well as some industrial unions) are best described as area locals. An area local represents all of a union's members in a particular geographical region and may deal with many different employers. Area locals are typically formed for one of two reasons. First, members may in the course of a year work for a number of different employers, as in the case of craft unions. Consequently, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to establish and maintain a separate local in each work location. Second, members may work continuously for a single employer, but each employer or location may be too small to justify a separate local union. The latter case is more typical of some industrial unions. An example is the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents, among others, clerks in retail outlets. Although an industrial union, the UFCW may have only a few members in each store, so a single local is established to serve an entire region. The size of the region served by a local union depends on the number of members available. In large metropolitan areas, an area local might serve only members in a particular city. In less densely populated regions, an area local may have a jurisdiction that covers an entire state (in a few cases, more than one state).

Internal structures and administrative procedures differ between plant and area locals. In almost all local unions, the membership meeting represents the apex of power, as the officers of the union are accountable to the members much as the officers of a corporation are accountable to stockholders. In practice, however, membership participation in union affairs is usually quite limited, so local union officers often enjoy considerable power.

Plant locals have a number of elected officials, usually a president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer . In almost all cases, the officers are fulltime employees of the company the union represents, and the contract generally allows some release time for union affairs. In addition to the principal officers of the local, there are also a number of stewards. Stewards may be elected or appointed, depending upon the union. The steward serves as the everyday contact between the union and its rank-and-file members. If members have concerns about the affairs of the union, these may be voiced to the steward. The steward's most important responsibility is handling grievances. Should a worker represented by the union have a dispute with the employer over his or her rights under the contract, the steward has the initial responsibility of representing the worker. Usually the steward will discuss the matter with the employee's supervisor to see if the dispute can be resolved. If not, then a formal grievance may be filed and it then proceeds through the grievance system. At higher levels in the grievance system the employee may be represented by a chief steward or union officers.

Area locals typically have more complex internal structures than plant locals. This is usually because of the large geographical region under the local's jurisdiction, along with the greater dispersion of members within the region. As in the case of plant locals, area locals hold periodic meetings in which the officials of the union are accountable to members. There are also elected officers in area locals, as well as stewards for the various work sites in the local's jurisdiction. The principal difference between a plant local and an area local is that the latter typically employs one or more full-time staff members to handle the affairs of the union on a daily basis. These staff members are usually called business agents. Given the dispersion of members over a large geographical area and the possibility that the local may be responsible for administering many different contracts, it is the business agent's responsibility to visit work sites regularly and deal with problems that may arise. The business agent may also be responsible for managing any apprenticeship programs and the union's hiring hall. Contracts are often negotiated directly by local unions and the business agents are usually responsible for these negotiations. In some unions, elected officers may serve as business agents, but normally business agents are separate staff members. Depending on the size of the local union, there may be a number of assistant business agents.


There are approximately 150 national unions in the United States, along with about 30 professional associations that carry on union activities. National unions are composed of the various local unions that they have chartered. Some unions have locals in Canada and therefore call themselves international unions. The terms "international union" and "national union," however, are generally used interchangeably.

As with local unions, the administrative structures of national unions vary considerably in complexity. One important factor is the size of the union: larger unions are structurally more complex. Structural complexity also differs between craft and industrial unions. Not only do craft unions tend to be smaller, but decision making tends to be decentralized. Contracts usually have a limited geographical scope and are negotiated by local unions. The national union pools the resources of local unions, thus helping out with things such as strike funds. The national union may also provide research services and be involved politically at the national and state levels. In general, there are few intermediate units between the national office and the local craft unions. National officers, elected periodically, generally work on a full-time basis for the union. Such unions also hold national conventions, most often every couple of years. The officers of the national union are accountable to the convention, much as the officers of a local are accountable to membership meetings.

National industrial unions are typically more complex. They tend to be larger and have a more heterogeneous membership than craft unions (both in terms of skills and demographic traits). Although there are exceptions, contracts in industrial unions tend to be negotiated primarily by staff members from the national office. In many cases, the bargaining unit will include all locals from a particular company (across the entire country). Even if contracts are negotiated by locals, representatives from the national union will often participate in talks to assure that the contract conforms to patterns established by the national organization.

As with craft unions, national unions have periodic conventions and national officers. Depending upon the union, the national officers may be elected directly by rank-and-file members or by some other body (such as convention delegates). National unions generally have a substantial paid staff who provide a variety of different services (e.g., research, legal representation, organizing new members, negotiating contracts, and servicing locals). National unions may also have one or more layers of hierarchy between the local unions and the national offices. For example, in the case of the UAW, there are different divisions responsible for the major industries in which that union represents workers (see above). Within the automobile industry, there are divisions that correspond to each of the major producers. There are other divisions that deal with the needs of special groups within the union (such as minority workers and skilled craft workers). Consequently, the structures of large industrial unions are often as complex as the companies with which they deal.

With the decline in union activity in the United States, the number of national and international unions has also decreased. Some unions have simply ceased to exist, while others have merged with different labor organizations. More than 50 such mergers occurred between 1985 and 1997.With the decline in union activity in the US, the number of national and an international unions has also decreased. Some unions have simply ceased to exist, while others have merged with different labor organizations. More than fifty such mergers occurred between 1985 and 1997 (Gifford 1998, 6-7).


A federation is an association of unions. It is not a union in the usual sense of the term. Rather, it provides a range of services to affiliated unions, much as an organization such as the National Association of Manufacturers provides services to its member firms. The AFL-CIO is currently the only national federation in the United States. The AFL-CIO formed in the mid-1950s as the result of the merger of what were then two competing federations: the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The AFL was established in the 1880s and consisted almost exclusively of craft unions. Craft unionists feared that industrial unions might undercut their position, thus they generally opposed formation of industrial unions. The most famous of the AFL's early leaders was Samuel Gompers (1850-1924), who is generally viewed as the "father" of the American labor movement.

Pressures during the Great Depression seemed to favor industrial unionism, so several unions within the AFL broke away to form the rival CIO. Most influential in formation of this federation was John L. Lewis (1880-1969), long-time president of the United Mine Workers (UMW). Initially, the competition between the two federations, which chartered competing unions, probably helped the labor movement to grow in the United States. As it became apparent, however, that further competition was only self-defeating, the merger was ultimately negotiated.

There are about 70 national unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO; these unions represent about 13 million workers, or about 81 percent of the 16 million American union members. In addition, there are about 60 independent local unions that are also directly affiliated with the federation. A guiding principle of the AFL-CIO is "national union autonomy." That is, the federation does not control the affiliates nor dictate their internal policies (though it often tries to influence affiliates).

The federation serves a range of functions. It acts as a lobbying body in the political arena and uses its financial resources in election campaigns. It works to resolve conflicts between affiliated unions, such as disputes between construction craft unions over jurisdiction of different areas of work and disputes between affiliated unions that may be competing in efforts to organize new members. It provides research services to affiliated unions and also helps unions organize new members. The diversity of AFL-CIO standing committees reflects the range of federation functions. These include the Legislative Committee, the Organization and Field Services Committee, the Civil Rights Committee, and the Community Services Committee.

The structure of the AFL-CIO is quite complex and also reflects the federation's multiple functions. The federation holds a convention every two years. Each affiliated union sends delegates to the convention. The day-to-day business of the federation is handled by its principal officers (president and secretary-treasurer), who confer regularly with an executive council consisting of more than 30 vice presidents, virtually all of whom are drawn from the ranks of the affiliated unions. In addition to the standing committees, the federation has several staff units. There are also several different departments within the federation that serve the specialized needs of different affiliates. An affiliate can choose to associate with those departments relevant to its particular needs, such as the Building Trades Department, the Industrial Union Department, the Metal Trades Department, and the Public Employees Department.

The national AFL-CIO offices are in Washington, D.C. There are state-level bodies of the AFLCIO, however, in all 50 states. These bodies duplicate the federation's national activities at the state level (e.g., lobbying state legislatures and supporting prolabor candidates in state elections). There are also AFL-CIO central bodies in more than 700 communities. Local unions are affiliated with the city centrals and these organizations provide services at the community level.

The influence of the AFL-CIO has varied over time. George Meany (1894-1980), the first president of the federation, exerted considerable power and influence within the labor movement. Many feel, however, that Meany worked to maintain an old guard within the labor movement that prevented organized labor from fully appreciating the implications of the many political, economic, and social changes that have taken place over the past 30 years. Lane Kirkland (1922-), the president of the federation from 1979 until 1995, had worked hard, along with many staff members, to introduce innovative policies and programs. The leadership of Kirkland's group, however, was challenged by an insurgent slate of younger and more militant leaders in the AFL-CIO's 1995 election. John Sweeney, president of the Service Employee's International Union (SEIU), became the federation's president. The SEIU has been one of the few U.S. unions to be quite successful in expanding its membership in recent years and Sweeney's platform promised new efforts to facilitate organizing by affiliates. Linda Chavez-Thompson (1944-), elected AFL-CIO executive vice president, is the first woman to hold one the federation's top leadership posts. Yet despite change and a recommitment to the organizing process, union membership in general, and membership in AFL-CIO unions in particular, continues to decline. Policy initiatives undertaken by the Sweeney administration would appear to have had little impact in reversing years of union decline.

[ John J. Lawler ]


Elkouri, F., and E. Elkouri. How Arbitration Works. Washington: Bureau of National Affairs, 1997.

Freeman, R., and J. Medoff. What Do Unions Do? New York: Basic Books, 1984.

Gifford, C. D. Directory of U.S. Labor Organizations. 1998 ed. Washington: Bureau of National Affairs, 1998.

Hirsch, Barry T., and David Macpherson. Union Membership and Earnings Data Book: Compilations from the Current Populations Survey. 1998 ed. Washington: Bureau of National Affairs, 1998.

Kochan, T. A., H. C. Katz, and R. B. McKersie. The Transformation of American Industrial Relations. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Lawler, John. J. Unionization and Deunionization: Strategy, Tactics, and Outcomes. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

Lipsky, D. B., and C. B. Donn. Collective Bargaining in American Industry. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1987.

Mills, Daniel Quinn. Labor-Management Relations. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994.

Sayles, Leonard, and George Strauss. The Local Union. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1967.

Taylor, B. J., and F. Witney. Labor Relations Law. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1987.

Wallihan, J. Union Government and Organization. Washington: Bureau of National Affairs, 1985.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: