Do Unions Matter? an Examination of the Historical and Contemporary Role of Labor Unions in the Social Work Profession

Article excerpt

The labor movement in the United States is in a state of crisis. Union membership continues to drop. The union membership rate has steadily declined from a high of 20.1 percent in 1983 (the first year for which comparable union data are available) to 12.5 percent in 2005 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2006). Labor scholars are in general agreement that gradual trends in the economy and the world of work, the global context of industry and the practice of outsourcing jobs to non-union workers and other countries, the decline of manufacturing, and growing political and ideological opposition to unions all contribute to diminished union membership (Aronowitz, 2005). In light of the overall decline in union membership, labor leaders are challenged to consider new models for labor organizations (Bai, 2005). In this context, the unionization of professionals, a historically neglected target for union membership, has become an area of increasing importance (Bronfenbrenner, Freidman, Hurd, Oswald, & Seeber, 1998). Unions can no longer afford to ignore professionals in organizing strategies and need to understand what professionals want from their union (Rosenberg, 2003).

The unionization of the social work profession appears more robust than many other occupations; membership is estimated at 125,000, representing approximately 25 percent of 468,000 social workers in the labor force (Barth, 2003; Tambor, 1995). The accuracy of this statistic is debatable because it is derived from population surveys that lack a precise definition of "social worker." Nonetheless, the fact that many social workers are employed in the public sector, where workers are unionized at a rate more than four times that of private-sector employees, explains the relatively high number of unionized social workers. However, social worker representation in unions cannot be taken for granted, particularly as union membership in the public sector is dropping as well (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2006). The extent to which unions can play a protective function for the social work profession, in light of contemporary constraints on social services resulting from funding restrictions and managed care policy, merits serious consideration. The question is twofold: (1) Do unions matter to social workers? (2) Can unions represent the interests of professional social workers? This article examines these questions in a historical context and provides an analysis of contemporary attitudes among social workers toward unions. Insights about social workers' current attitudes toward unions are informed through a critical analysis of a recent research study that examined attitudes toward unions among social work union members (Rosenberg, 2003).


The contemporary stance of social work to labor unions can best be understood in a larger historical context that reveals ambivalence, with alternating periods of cooperation and conflict.

In the late 1880s, the settlement house movement ushered in a new era of social reform. The settlement house movement sought to alleviate distress by addressing underlying social ills: poverty, unemployment, and economic inequality. The settlement house movement advocated for policy initiatives to protect working women and orphans and to improve working conditions for wage workers (Ehrenreich, 1985; Karger, 1988; Trattner, 1999; Wagner, 1990). In this context of egalitarianism, an alliance with organized labor was formed. During the 1890s, Jane Addams and Lillian Wald were instrumental in the development of the National Women's Trade Union League. Hull House provided support for female workers by assisting in organizing workers into unions and by providing supplies and funds during strikes. These efforts helped create the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (Axinn & Stern, 2001; Kolko-Phillips & Straussner, 1988; Reisch & Andrews, 2001). Hull House workers, including "Fighting Mary" McDowell, assisted in the organization of three unions: (1) the Women's Shirt Makers, (2) the Dorcas Federal Labor Union, and (3) the Chicago Women's Trade Union League (Reisch & Andrews). …