Ebb and Flow in America's Trade Unions: The Present Prospect

By Gitlow, Abraham L. | Labor Law Journal, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Ebb and Flow in America's Trade Unions: The Present Prospect


Gitlow, Abraham L., Labor Law Journal


I. Introduction

American trade unionism came of age in the Great Depression of the 1930s, reached its apex in the postWorld War II years, and then ebbed, most markedly in the private sector of the economy. Behind that broad sweep, other, and often conflicting, trends, contributed their own turbulent impact on events. For example, note the term trade union. It implies labor organizations related to specific trades, and that was true of its origins, i.e., labor organizations that were based on specific trades or crafts (e.g. electricians, carpenters, bricklayers, typographers, and so on). Perhaps there was even a nostalgic tie to the medieval guilds, with their apprentices, journeymen, and master craftsmen. These trade unions were horizontal organizations, crossing industry lines; the craft organizations that were the heart of the original American Federation of Labor (AFL).

As manufacturing came to dominate the American economy, the age of the industrial union was born. Its emergence, most notably during and after World War II, was associated with the dramatic growth and dominance of the vertical structural form of labor organization. That organizational structure fractured the AF of L, and was concentrated in the newly founded Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO.) This was the era of the primacy of the Auto Workers, the Steel Workers, the Mine Workers, and the Rubber Workers. In time, as both trade and industrial unions were buffeted by adverse pressures, their mutual economic and political interests outweighed the structural conflicts that had caused their separation, and they merged to form the AFL-CIO.

We are now experiencing a post-industrial era, dominated by the rise of services, both private and public. Once again, labor organizations have grown to serve workers in those activities, most notably The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), as well as public employee unions (police, firemen, etc.) As before, some of them became restive in the AFL-CIO, and broke away to form a new federation, Change to Win. But, this one does not show strength comparable to the nascent CIO.

It seems clear that the organizational structure of labor organizations reflected broad underlying developments in the growth of the American economy, as it evolved from an agricultural society to a manufacturing and then a service (or post-industrial) one. Although labor organizations are multi-dimensional in nature, embracing both political and economic goals, from the viewpoint of economic analysis they are seen as seeking control over the supply of labor, whether to a trade or industry, or type of service. Given favorable economic conditions in the markets being supplied by their output, control over the supply of labor enabled the unions to win collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) that brought millions of America's workers into the middle class. This happy outcome was not due solely to the political influence and economic muscle of the union movement. It reflected also the creation of massive social welfare programs by government (Social Security, Unemployment Compensation, Medicare and Medicaid). While the future development of welfare capitalism in America is a central issue before the body politic, the union movement now appears weakened. The movement's potency ultimately depended upon both market and political power, and, in both areas, weakness is now perceptible. The Great Recession that began in 2008 has undermined consumer markets. It has also launched waves of taxpayer frustration and resistance to the hitherto generous pension, health, and wage gains of public service employees. The result has been give-backs, as well as efforts to curb the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions. In short, America's labor movement today faces grave challenges. Is the outcome of this great history to be an inexorable diminution of vitality, ending in irrelevance, or some further organizational transformation that will revive its influence and its ability to win gains for its members? …

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