Labor Unions and Similar Labor Organizations

SIC 8631

Industry report:

This industry includes membership organizations of workers that operate for the improvement of wages and working conditions.

Industry Snapshot

Labor unions are organized on local and national levels, usually by industry or trade. The primary function of a labor union is to partake in collective bargaining, the negotiation process over the terms of employment between a union and management. Union officials use this procedure to determine the wages for workers of a particular industry and to settle other worker-related issues such as health benefits, overtime compensation, and company policy and direction. Employee associations that use collective bargaining procedures have become a popular type of labor union among white-collar professionals and other workers who have shunned traditional unions. Additionally, new kinds of union membership have been offered to workers who would like to be affiliated with a union but do not work in a union shop. These workers can become associate union members or join workplace organizations.

After experiencing a slight resurgence in the late 1990s, labor unions continued to see their membership ranks diminish throughout the 2000s. As a whole, union vitality remains far below levels achieved earlier in their history. In terms of membership, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 11.8 percent, or 14.8 million, of U.S. wage and salary workers were union members in 2011, down from 12.4 percent in 2008 and 20.1 percent in 1983, the first year labor records were kept. Slightly more men belonged to unions than women, with respective unionization rates of 12.4 percent and 11.2 percent. Among all employed wage and salary workers in 2011, those not represented by unions had median earnings of $691 per week, whereas union members earned $729.

Unions faced a number of challenges in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Chief among these concerns was the nature of the labor union itself. The sharply diminishing ranks of unions during the second half of the twentieth century, combined with the increased global and mobile nature of business, sparked debate as to whether the organizational structures and practices of unions were applicable to the modern economy. At the other end of the spectrum, labor activists countered that while definite improvements and a focus on new strategies were indeed in order, unions were never more necessary than when faced with the constant threat of strongly leveraged management afforded by the increasing mobility of trade and investment. The challenge was thus to rethink labor practices to strengthen labor's position in the changed economic environment.

Organization and Structure

The U.S. labor movement can be divided into two types of unions: craft and industrial. Craft unions were the first unions established in the United States and are composed of workers who share a common occupation, skill, or trade. An industrial union includes all workers related to the production of a particular product, including skilled, semiskilled, and unskilled labor.

This distinction has been an important issue in the history of organized labor. The American Federation of Labor (AFL), founded by Samuel Gompers in 1886, favored craft unions. Over time and under the direction of various leaders, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was created specifically for industrial unions. The differences between these two kinds of unions are not as apparent today because rapid changes in technology have blurred many of the distinctions.

Probably the most recognizable name related to the U.S. labor movement has been the AFL-CIO. This group is a "union of unions," a federation of free and autonomous labor organizations. A voluntary membership group, in 2012 the AFL-CIO included 55 unions that represented more than 12 million workers. Membership has been limited to national unions, although a few local unions also belong to the federation directly. National unions have been the backbone of the U.S. labor movement. Membership has been concentrated in the largest national unions, such as the Teamsters, the Auto Workers, the Steelworkers, the Carpenters, and the United Mine Workers. Regardless of AFL-CIO affiliation, these groups have been responsible for collective bargaining.

In addition to setting the price of labor in a particular market, collective bargaining allows unions to share in decision-making processes with management. Collective bargaining establishes a system of checks and balances against the authority of management. With this negotiation strategy comes a new way of making and interpreting rules known as the "grievance procedure." This is essentially a judicial process that ensures that the collective bargaining agreement is being properly applied and interpreted.

Unlike the distant relationship between national unions and the AFL-CIO, local unions typically are strictly controlled by their national leadership. The status of these locals lies entirely under the administration of the national leadership, who often disband locals deemed expendable or uneconomical to maintain. Generally, locals require permission from the national administration to call a strike, though unsanctioned "wildcat" strikes are not uncommon. National representatives are usually charged with engaging in collective bargaining on behalf of local chapters. Despite this "top-down" leadership, local unions are a significant part of organized labor because they are the point of contact between the member and the union. Nonetheless, recent years have witnessed heightened demand for greater direct or more representative democracy emanating from the local chapters up to the national administration.

Employee associations, like labor unions, participate in collective bargaining, but they are less hierarchical than the unions. These groups may be the best way to organize professional and white-collar employees who are interested in collective bargaining but have reservations about being identified with a union. The largest employee association is the National Education Association (NEA). Boasting over 3 million members in 2012, the NEA easily surpassed the Teamsters' 1.4 million members as the largest union in the United States. Other employee associations with over 100,000 members include the American Nurses Association, Classified School Employees, the Fraternal Order of Police, and the California State Employees.

Background and Development

The beginnings of organized labor in the United States can be traced to the establishment of craft unions in the eighteenth century. Shoemakers organized in Philadelphia in 1792, carpenters in Boston in 1793, and printers in New York in 1794. In the early nineteenth century, these groups tried to expand into other cities, with many crafts even boasting national organizations in the 1830s before being decimated by a depression later that decade. Shortly before the Civil War, many national craft unions were reestablished and, more importantly, survived.

By the end of the 1860s, approximately 30 national craft unions had been founded. In 1866, the National Labor Union, a national federation embracing both craft unionists and reform groups, was organized. The group lasted only six years before converting into a political party, which subsequently collapsed in 1872. The next national labor group was the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor. Founded in 1871 as a secret society, the Knights became a national organization in 1878. Its goal was to bring together in one organization all "real" producers, such as farmers, lower middle-class workers, and wage earners. The Knights were a centralized organization, which tried to prohibit national trade associations. The crafts membership of the Knights soon became disgruntled with this policy because the combination of skilled and unskilled workers weakened the craftsmen's ability to bargain effectively. Five years into its existence, the Knights had 50,000 members. At its peak year in 1886, the group had nearly 700,000 members. Four years later, the group had dwindled to 100,000, as the majority of the craftsmen became aligned with a new federation.

The AFL was the first union to achieve a lasting existence. Through various economic conditions, the AFL maintained a continuous presence from its inception until its merger with the CIO in 1955. Samuel Gompers, founder of the AFL, enforced two basic policies. National unions that belonged to the AFL were guaranteed "trade autonomy" and were to be afforded "exclusive jurisdiction" over their particular craft or other occupation.

Trade autonomy allowed decision making to be decentralized, with national unions retaining power. This was particularly important to the union's main function of collective bargaining. With exclusive jurisdiction, the AFL recognized the sole authority of its craft union members and protected them against possible competition from other unions. The AFL assured its member groups that no other unions would be given overlapping jurisdiction, and no competitors would be recognized by the federation. These two policies proved to be extremely successful in attracting unions to the AFL. Between 1897 and 1904, the AFL issued 92 charters, doubling the number of affiliated unions to 120. By 1904, 85 percent of all national unions in the United States were affiliated with the AFL. By 1914, AFL membership exceeded 2 million. It rose briefly to 4 million before gradually declining throughout the 1920s. During the 1930s, membership fell below 2.5 million.

The first two decades of the twentieth century were the period of labor radicalism, and unions' influence registered in U.S. political life as they have not since. Labor leader and socialist Eugene Debs made strong third-party showings in successive U.S. presidential elections, whereas militant unions, such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), sought to organize all workers, including those unskilled and minority workers shunned by the AFL, into "one big union" with the aim of ending the capitalist system in favor of a socialist federation of syndicated labor organizations. After World War I and the Bolshevik overthrow of the czar in Russia, the "Red Scare" in the United States produced a swift and harsh crackdown on labor militancy, and such radical unions were quickly dismantled.

In 1935, the dominance of craft unions was challenged by the establishment of a new organization that advocated a different kind of union. On November 9, 1935, John Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers, along with the presidents of seven other unions in the industrial block of the AFL, met and established the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). This group promoted the collection of unorganized workers in mass production industries on a per-industry basis. When the group was instructed by the AFL to disband the CIO or be suspended, the leaders ignored the order, broke away from the AFL, and became an independent federation.

The central legislation of U.S. labor-management relations is the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, usually referred to as the Wagner Act, which guaranteed the right of employees to join unions and to engage in collective bargaining. Immediately a thorn in the side of businesses, the act prohibited employers from firing workers for joining or trying to organize a union and from refusing to negotiate with a union that represented a majority of workers. The act further established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to enforce the law's provisions and mediate, at the federal level, broad legal disputes between labor and management. While business organizations quickly began working to amend the Wagner Act, union membership soared from 4 million in 1935 to 12 million in 1947.

Within a three-week period in early 1937, the CIO had penetrated the largest corporations in both the auto and steel industries, which were the core of mass production. The first success of the CIO came when General Motors, the largest automaker at that time, recognized the United Auto Workers (UAW) as the bargaining agent for its members. The CIO also made its mark on other major industries in 1937, including electrical and radio manufacturing, rubber, men's and women's clothing, textiles, meat packing, petroleum, and the maritime industry. By the end of that year, 33 national unions had become affiliated with the CIO. Moreover, its total membership reached nearly 2 million, and it claimed 5 of the 10 largest unions.

Wartime activities stimulated the growth of both the CIO and the AFL. In 1953, during the Korean War, CIO membership reached its all-time high of nearly 5 million workers from the auto and steel, clothing, textiles, communications, and electrical industries. The AFL also increased its membership from 3 million in 1937 to 6.8 million in 1944. Although CIO expansion leveled off in 1947, the AFL continued to grow from 8.5 million in 1947 to 10.5 million in 1955.

As strike activity skyrocketed following World War II, the U.S. business community, which had recovered from the Depression, stepped up efforts to undo the Wagner Act, which was amended after President Truman intervened to settle disputes in the coal mining, railroad, and steel industries. The National Labor Relations Act of 1947, also called the Taft-Hartley Act, followed shortly thereafter, amending the controversial Section 8 by clarifying what were considered unfair labor practices by unions and employees: the Wagner Act had covered only unfair practices by employers and allowed management greater opportunity to interfere with unions' choice of representatives for collective bargaining than had been allowed by the Wagner Act.

After a 20-year separation, the AFL and the CIO merged into a single organization, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), on December 5, 1955. The new federation consisted of 138 unions, 108 from the AFL and 30 from the CIO, and a combined membership of 16.1 million. Two major union movements occurred after the 1955 merger. The first was the expulsion of the Teamsters. Embarrassed by the alleged connection of Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa with organized crime, the AFL told Teamsters leaders to remove Hoffa from office. The Teamsters refused, and in December 1957, they were suspended from the federation, which resulted in the loss of 1.5 million members and $900,000 in annual dues for the AFL-CIO. Ten years later, the United Auto Workers left the federation due to disagreements between then UAW president Walter Reuther and the leadership of the AFL-CIO under George Meany. However, both groups were reinstated into the AFL-CIO, the UAW in 1981 and the Teamsters in 1987.

Union membership expanded steadily in the post-World War II years until the recession of the late 1950s, when it declined from just over 17.5 million to 16.5 million members by the early 1960s. The period from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s saw a steady and substantial growth in the number of union members, peaking at about 24 million workers in 1977. From 1978 through the mid-1990s, however, union membership plummeted, reaching lower levels than in the worst years of the early 1960s. Looking at union membership as a percentage of the private sector labor force yields less of a roller coaster, because this ratio declined in almost all years after 1955, but at an accelerated rate after the mid-1970s. In 1997, only 14.1 percent of full-time wage and salaried employees were unionized.

The decline in union membership was associated with a number of factors that led to a substantial transformation of labor-management relations in the United States. Among these factors were intensified global competition, substantially slower average growth rates for the economy as a whole, declining real wages, the deregulation of key industries, the shift in employment from the industrial to the service sector and from the union strongholds of the Midwest and Northeast to the Sunbelt states, greatly increased antiunion efforts on the part of employers, and reduced resources devoted to organizing on the part of unions.

Membership Trends.
In 1999, labor unions claimed 13.9 percent of the U.S. workforce, or 16.48 million members, an increase of 265,000 over 1998 and the largest annual membership growth in more than 20 years. Moreover, 112,000 of the new members in 1999 were in the private sector, which was also a 20-year high. These numbers reflected the success of an aggressive campaign waged by organized labor, particularly the AFL-CIO, to boost union membership. After John Sweeney assumed the presidency of the AFL-CIO in 1996, the union refocused its efforts and financial resources away from lobbying and electing politicians through political action committees and toward the active recruitment of new members and building grass-roots commitments to labor.

These efforts were reflected in membership and union elections. Union representative elections totaled 3,229 in 1998, up 2.2 percent from 1997. Of those, unions won 51.2 percent, compared with 50.3 percent in 1997. More notably, however, the number of workers participating in such elections escalated 8 percent in 1998, while in elections won by unions, that figure was 26.2 percent, demonstrating the heightened viability of participatory democracy in organizing activities. Unionization rates are highest among African Americans, at 17.2 percent. In comparison, 13.5 percent of whites and 11.9 percent of Hispanics are unionized.

Unions also created programs to focus recruitment efforts on industries with traditionally low union representation. In addition to agricultural workers, the occupations with the lowest unionization rates were in financial, insurance, and real estate sectors, where only 2.1 percent of the workforce was unionized. Another challenge was to make unionization more attractive to the booming high-tech sector.

Although increasing union membership numbers constituted good news for labor leaders, the growing membership ranks in the late 1990s were commensurate with the expanding job market in the United States. The inability of new union membership to outpace job growth was generally attributed to mergers and acquisitions, which result in layoffs and increased leverage on the part of management and to the closing of factories as companies shift production facilities overseas.

The impact of NAFTA in the mid- and late 1990s had a tremendous influence on the number of union members, with many workers losing their jobs due to foreign competition and downsizing as well as closing of U.S. plants. Consequently, unions no longer dominate entire industries, such as automobile, steel, and rubber, as they once did. The United Steelworkers even filed suit to have NAFTA declared unconstitutional, noting that the treaty failed to receive the two-thirds majority vote in the Senate necessary to ratify a treaty. Although NAFTA is indeed a treaty, Congress had previously stipulated that trade pacts could be passed by a mere majority in both houses. The petition was rejected, but a federal judge ruled that the union did have the standing to bring such a suit to court. While only a marginal victory, the action was indicative of labor's emboldened stance in rejecting the particular form of corporate globalization that has characterized the national and international economy in recent years.

Public vs. Private Sector.
Although union membership has declined in the private sector, it has grown in the public sector. In 1958, only 12 percent of the public sector was unionized, but by 1999, approximately 37.3 percent of the public sector work force was unionized. In contrast, 35 percent of the private sector workforce belonged to a union in 1958, whereas only 9.4 percent belonged in 1999. By 1999, approximately 42 percent of all union members worked in the public sector.

Merging Unions.
Technological advances made certain trades obsolete and led many unions to merge with others in order to boost membership and power in the 1990s. For example, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union was combined with the United Food and Commercial Workers. The Allied Industrial Workers joined the United Paper Workers. Additionally, Communication Workers of America (CWA) merged with the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, which absorbed the International Typographical Union early in 1993. The CWA spent the rest of the 1990s on a merger and organizational tear, incorporating small machine shops, newspaper guilds, and a host of other organizations into its ranks. The United Auto Workers, meanwhile, scooped up occupations as diverse as writers, clerical employees, and farm equipment manufacturers. As technological developments continue to squeeze out occupations and force workers to retrain, unions are likely to find it more economical to broaden their membership criteria and pool resources to cast a net over a wider area and keep pace with rapidly altering workplace conditions.

Emerging Unions.
By the late 1990s, professions that traditionally found little use for unionization were beginning to see advantages in organizing. Health care workers, for example, greatly expanded their unionized ranks in 1999. The nation's largest union representing these occupations, the Service Employees International Union, doubled its rate of representation for this sector in the late 1990s, reaching 105,000 nurses, 20,000 physicians, and about 545,000 workers in health care related positions. Moreover, the American Medical Association, along with various associations representing nurses, doctors, and other health care workers, made moves toward unionizing in order to gain leverage against health care managers and insurance companies that they felt were exerting excessive influence over the health care system, thus compromising patient care. Meanwhile, unionization was being explored in the high-technology industry at such firms as AT&T and Microsoft.

The Clinton Administration.
Organized labor played an important role in electing Bill Clinton as president in 1992 as well as in his reelection in 1996. After 12 years of strained relations with Republican administrations, initiated by President Reagan's firing of the striking air traffic controllers in 1981 and encompassing relaxed enforcement of laws against firing of organizing workers, labor unions hoped that the Democratic Clinton administration would be more sympathetic to their interests. The administration convened the Dunlop Commission to study labor-management issues in the United States. The Commission's findings revealed extraordinary anti-union bias in the U.S. economy. Among its findings, the Commission reported that illegal firings occurred in one out of four union election campaigns, compared to 1 in every 20 elections in the 1950s. In addition, only two-thirds of union-certified elections were recognized by employers agreeing to negotiate contracts, whereas employers incurred no monetary penalty for refusing to engage in good faith bargaining. In general, recourse to legal relief through the courts was not an option for a majority of employees, whose low income levels precluded them from paying the high costs and contingency fees required by private lawyers. In response to such reports, President Clinton issued an Executive Order in 1995 banning the hiring of permanent strike replacements by certain federal contractors, later called the Workplace Fairness Act.

Although unions were generally pleased with such federal action, trade remained a sticking point between organized labor and the administration throughout the latter's terms. Clinton's strong endorsement of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 infuriated many union leaders, who worried about the dramatic shift of U.S. production facilities to neighboring Mexico. Likewise, the administration's strong support of furthering the U.S. commitment to and reach of the World Trade Organization (WTO) alarmed unions, who saw in the WTO a vehicle through which businesses could force wages downward and jeopardize job security by seeking out the cheapest market worldwide in which to conduct their operations. Nonetheless, the AFL-CIO exhibited its desire for a continuation of Clinton-style policies with regard to labor, registering an early endorsement of Vice-President Gore in his presidential election campaign.

Associate Membership.
In an attempt to expand its member base, the AFL-CIO created a new category of worker, called an "associate member." This type of membership was created for people who did not work in a union shop but wanted to be affiliated with a union and participate in its benefits program. Moreover, the AFL-CIO became more like a social service organization, offering credit cards, legal advice, life insurance, travel services, health benefits, and high interest-yielding saving accounts. This associate status program was particularly designed to help attract white-collar workers who had been wary of unions because of their blue-collar, industrial image. The unions also hoped to attract former members who had taken non-union jobs as well as other union loyalists.

Labor leaders also created worker associations as a strategy for attracting new union members. These are union-backed organizations that refrained from collective bargaining and confrontation. Instead, they offered assistance with a variety of workplace issues, such as pay equity, health care, job training, and family leave. These groups also provided legal advice, language tutoring, and skills training. Unions hoped that such associations would reach unorganized segments of the workforce and give them a foot in the door at workplaces that had shut them out. By the late 1990s, these grassroots organizations had nearly 1 million members. Analysts believed that unions would have to continue with these alternative forms of membership and services if they wanted to keep pace with the expanding workforce.

Workers' Centers.
Another form of labor organization that achieved growing popularity through the 1980s and 1990s was workers' centers. These organizations were centered on communities, rather than specific industries, and effectively bypassed unions altogether to incorporate workers in trades without much established union presence. Further, these centers were especially vibrant among immigrant and ethnic-minority laborers who faced particular forms of discrimination in the workplace and were often turned away from the larger unions. In the early 1980s, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Filipino women in San Francisco established the Asian Immigrant Women Advocates to conduct educational workshops on labor laws and rights for Asian women working in a variety of occupations, particularly in hotels. In New York, the Latino Workers Center conducted similar operations for workers in garment factories, groceries, health care institutions, and other occupations within the Latino community. The center also helped organize a series of protests against abusive labor practices, filed suit against employers with the Department of Labor, and established radio and television networks to educate their community on labor and immigration issues.

The growing tendency among U.S. businesses to replace regular employees with lower-paid temporary workers has created a growing demand for organization of contingent employees. In Massachusetts, unions and community groups combined to form a Campaign on Contingent Work, establishing a workers center known as the Temporary Employees Meeting Place (TEMP) in 1996 to promote education for and solidarity among contingent workers, who had found it exceedingly difficult to organize in the past due to the unstable nature of their employment patterns.

Strikes.
Strike activity generally paralleled the decline in union membership during the 1980s and 1990s. In 1997, for example, there were 29 strikes involving 1,000 or more workers, drawing a total of 339,000 workers. By way of comparison, 255 strikes of similar scale took place in 1979, involving a total of approximately 1 million workers.

The late 1990s, however, witnessed a resurgence of union militancy along with heightened emphasis on recruitment. In 1998, some 5.1 million working days were lost for workers involved in all strikes, representing the first time that figure had increased since 1994. Moreover, the 34 major strikes involved an expanded 387,000 workers. Although these numbers remain low by historical standards, a series of high-profile work stoppages through the mid- and late 1990s helped garner labor unions renewed public acknowledgement as an influential force in the U.S. economy.

In the mid-1990s, amidst continued deflation of union membership and a general sense of decline in the significance of unions in general, situations emerged signaling that rumors of organized labor's demise had been premature. From 1995 to 1996, the Bridgestone/Firestone Company squared off against the United Rubber Workers (URW) union in a strike that assumed symbolic import for the state of labor in the United States. The URW went on strike to maintain "pattern bargaining," whereby Bridgestone workers were to receive compensation and conditions on a par with workers at Goodyear, Bridgestone's more profitable competitor. Bridgestone rejected any such agreement, and the dispute evolved into a 27-month quagmire that saw the URW, by turns, nearly epitomize the death of organized labor and then symbolize its resurgence.

When Bridgestone mobilized several thousand strikebreakers in 1995, some union locals voted to return to work without any concessions, though few workers were actually rehired initially. When Bridgestone registered a significant recovery through 1995 and more strikers were called back to work, the URW regrouped and allied with the sympathetic United Steel Workers. Subsequent pressure on the company threatened contagion and proved embarrassing to the thriving Bridgestone. Soon all workers were rehired by the company with massive concessions.

Following this display of union vitality, the Teamsters called a strike against United Parcel Service (UPS) in 1997. After accepting a two-tier wage system at the company in the early 1980s, whereby part-time workers received significantly lower wages than full-timers, UPS drastically reorganized its workforce, boosting its reliance on part-time employees from 42 percent of all workers in 1986 to more than 60 percent in 1997. Furthermore, over 10,000 workers classified as part-time actually worked at least a full work week. When UPS failed to sign a new contract creating more full-time jobs and subsequently proposed to assume control of the union's pension plan, the Teamsters initiated the largest U.S. strike in 20 years. The move proved extraordinarily successful for the union. Although only 5 percent of all Teamsters crossed picket lines, UPS lost about $30 million daily, and public support for those on strike was markedly high at 55 percent, compared with only 27 percent in favor of UPS, according to a USA Today-CNN-Gallup poll. After two weeks, UPS bowed to almost all the union's demands. The strike initiated dramatically heightened public concern over the trend toward contingent labor.

After the UPS victory, strikes proliferated throughout the nation. Only a small handful achieved the kind of spotlight generated at UPS, such as the 54-day strike at General Motors in the summer of 1998. However, it was clear that strikes returned as a popular and, in the eyes of labor unions, effective strategy for winning concessions and demands from management.

Labor-Management Relations.
One factor encouraging the abundance of strikes was the tight labor market of the late 1990s. With unemployment at the lowest point since the early 1960s, businesses found it difficult to hire replacement workers as the pool of available employees was fairly shallow. Companies thus reacted with greater reliance on networked production, whereby in-house operations are streamlined and downsized in favor of contracting work out to other companies, both in the United States and abroad. General Motors, for example, spun off its Delphi Parts unit shortly after the 1998 strike, establishing it as a separate firm and replacing the factories with new models designed to make greater use of subcontractors, thus sidestepping its unions. Overall, companies trying to remain competitive in an ever-opening market in which few restrictions are placed on investment and relocation of operations sought the greatest cost-benefit efficiency and thus were relying more heavily on cheaper foreign labor or contingent domestic labor.

Indeed, competitive pressures weighing on businesses nearly guaranteed more drastic measures taken by unions. Constantly looking for the cheapest labor markets around the world, firms that fail to exploit available cost-savings opportunities risk losing market share to more shrewd competitors. Recognizing the potential confrontations this situation could force with labor, corporate lockouts--management-initiated work stoppages--became almost as numerous as employee strikes by the late 1990s, as companies wielded the power afforded by the ability to transport work elsewhere in order to stave off pressure from unions. This tactic carried the further advantage of denying unions the ability to strategize a strike in accordance with their resources.

According to HR Focus, information from the National Labor Relations Board and Washington, D.C.-based BNA PLUS, a Bloomberg News service, reveals that there were 1,215 union representation elections in the first half of 2002. This was virtually unchanged from the same period in 2001. However, in the 2002 period, unions won a higher number of elections (697) than in 2001 (664). This was achieved in spite of a decrease in the number of eligible voters, which fell to 79,433, representing a decrease of 10,250 voters from 2001. BNA PLUS also indicated that, based on previously negotiated union contracts, the average union wage increase was expected to be 3.5 percent in 2003, up from 3.4 percent the previous year, excluding bonus payments and cost of living increases.

Despite their declining membership ranks, unions were still a powerful economic force. This was especially true in states like Alaska, Hawaii, Michigan, and New York, where anywhere from 20 to 25 percent of workers belonged to unions. Unions continued to have considerable leverage in the transportation and automotive sectors in the early twenty-first century. For example, when the International Longshore and Warehouse Union failed to come to terms with the Pacific Maritime Association in 2002, dockworkers at 29 coastal ports staged a lockout that lasted 10 days. The lockout created a number of significant problems, such as stranded ships and undelivered food. Even smaller unions have the ability to wreak economic havoc when disagreements lead to work stoppages. In 2003, Broadway musicians walked off the job following squabbles with theater owners about decreasing orchestra sizes. When stagehands and actors failed to cross picket lines, some 18 musicals were cancelled for four days, resulting in an estimated loss of $10 million for New York theaters. When related business at area restaurants and shops was factored in, some estimated that the strike could have cost the city as much as $50 million per week.

Union membership continued to decline in the 2000s, extending an overall trend that had begun several decades previously. In the 1950s, 35 percent of employees were union members. In the early 1980s, the percentage had dropped to 20 percent. By 2006, only 12 percent of employees in all industry sectors combined were union members, the lowest percentage reported in more than 60 years. New York had the highest percentage, with 26 percent, while South Carolina had the lowest, with 2 percent. Half of the 15.4 million union members were concentrated in just six states: California, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.

In fact, many debated the necessity of labor unions. Some experts argued that unions were a negative economic force. Researchers at The Ohio State University conducted a study in the early 2000s, indicating that, over the past 60 years, unions cost the U.S. economy $50 trillion. The study argued that the monopolistic hold of organized labor in a number of industry sectors, including transportation, manufacturing, construction, and mining, "decimated employment in those industries, increased the supply of employment in less unionized fields, and lowered their wage growth," according to Manufacturing News. On the other hand, Work & Family Newsbrief cited more favorable results from a World Bank review of 1,000 studies regarding the impact of collective bargaining and unions. Entitled Unions and Collective Bargaining: Economic Effects in a Global Environment, the review found that under the right conditions, "high unionization rates can lead to lower unemployment and inflation rates, higher productivity and faster adjustment to economic shocks." However, the study argued that unions also could have negative implications in certain circumstances.

According to reports issued in 2005, the decline in union membership mirrored a decline in the manufacturing sector, which lost 3 million jobs over the course of four and a half years. In light of this trend, many unions targeted the service industry in hopes of maintaining or increasing their ranks. Government workers claimed a large percentage of union membership, with 36 percent, while in the private sector, just 8.5 percent of workers were union members. Some analysts argued that overall membership would be much higher if employees did not feel pressure from employers not to join a union. Younger workers were less likely to want the strict expectations and requirements that come with a union.

In the mid-2000s, disagreements within the AFL-CIO threatened to fracture the most powerful coalition in the country. The Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, Service Employees International Union, Laborers' International Union of North America, and UNITE HERE announced their desire to leave the AFL-CIO, possibly stripping the federation of one-third of its members. Their complaint was that the federation had not done enough to organize non-union workers. More specifically, the five unions wanted to unseat John J. Sweeney as president of the AFL-CIO. However, even by mid-2005, the dissidents had trouble finding a viable candidate to oppose him.

The number of unionized workers in the United States saw a slight increase during the latter years of the 2000s, with a rise in numbers seen in both 2008 and the first half of 2009. Buoyed by the 2008 election of Barack Obama, who was seen as much more labor friendly than his predecessor George W. Bush, unions looked to the future with a glimmer of optimism for the first time in several decades. Although the overall improvement in the protection of the rights of individual workers had lessened the power of unions to some extent, a sagging economy, widespread layoffs, and an unemployment rate over 9 percent during the late 2000s gave unions a new opportunity to prove their relevance.

In 2009, unions were actively involved in lobbying on a number of issues of importance to their members as well as to their continued efforts to increase membership. A particular priority was the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, a proposed federal law to make union organizing efforts easier by creating "card check" unionization. That is, a company would be unionized if over 50 percent of its employees signed union authorization cards. This process would eliminate the secret-ballot voting process currently required by federal labor law. The bill died in Congress in 2009.

Current Conditions

In the early 2010s, union membership was concentrated within particular segments of the U.S. workforce. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011, 51 percent of union members worked in the public sector and 49 percent in the private sector. Within the public sector, local government workers were most likely to be unionized; 43.2 percent of those working for the local government were unionized. Within this group, 36.8 percent were teachers and 34.5 percent were in protective service occupations such as firefighting. In the private sector, the industries with the highest number of unionized workers were transportation and utilities (21.1 percent) and construction (14.0 percent); the lowest unionization rates were in agriculture and related industries (1.4 percent) and financial activities (1.6 percent).

According to age, the highest percentages of unionized workers were between 55 and 64 years old (15.7 percent); the lowest were among the youngest workers, ages 16 to 24 years old (4.4 percent). By race, blacks were most likely to be union members (13.5 percent), followed by whites (11.6 percent), Asian (10.1 percent), and Hispanic (9.7 percent)

States with the highest number of unionized workers included California (2.4 million), New York (1.9 million), Illinois (900,000), Pennsylvania (800,000), and Michigan (700,000). Only three states had union membership rates over 20 percent in 2011; these included New York (24.1 percent), Alaska (22.1 percent), and Hawaii (21.5 percent). States with the lowest percentage of unionized workers were North Carolina (2.9 percent), South Carolina (3.4 percent), and Georgia (3.9 percent).

Industry Leaders

Since it was founded by Samuel Gompers in 1886, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) has been the leading voice of American organized labor. The organization's influence was expanded when it merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1955. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the AFL-CIO had a staff of 380 employees and was affiliated with 55 unions throughout the United States. Membership numbered approximately 12 million in 2012, below the 1991 total of 13.9 million.

The AFL-CIO reorganized extensively in the mid- and late 1990s following John J. Sweeney's election as president. Abandoning its Cold War era anti-communism efforts, the union began to actively promote international solidarity. In 2005, Andy Stern, head of the Service Employees International Union, broke from the AFL-CIO, taking some 2.1 million members (mostly health care workers) with him. However, by the late 2000s, rumors suggested that the two may be headed for a reconciliation. In 2009, the AFL-CIO represented more than 71 percent of the nation's 16.1 million union workers. In September 2009, the union elected Rich Trumka to replace longtime president John Sweeney.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, more commonly known as "the Teamsters," was founded in 1903 and is headquartered in Washington, D.C. In 1991, the federal government forced the Teamsters' first democratic election, in which Ronald Carey emerged as president of the organization. The Teamsters organization has been notorious for its corruption. Four of the six predecessors to Carey were indicted for embezzling union funds, and three leaders, including Jimmy Hoffa, were jailed. Jackie Presser was the fourth Teamsters leader to be indicted in 1986, but he died before his trial. In 1989, the union settled a racketeering suit, and to avoid government-imposed trusteeship, the Teamsters agreed to open elections.

In the late 1990s, a series of presidential election disputes refocused attention on Teamsters controversy. Eventually, James P. Hoffa, son of the former notorious Teamsters leader, emerged as president, and after several years was able to regalvanize the union somewhat. However, the Teamsters continued to generate controversy during the late 1990s. The union was sued for damages caused by its strike of the Overnite Transportation Company, which the Teamsters waged for alleged illegal harassment and termination of workers. Northwest Airlines likewise sued the Teamsters for its "sick-out" strike over the 1999 holiday season, though Teamsters officials countered that the lack of passengers, not the sick-out, was the primary cause of flight cancellations. The union had 1.4 million members in 2011, down from 1.6 million in late 1999. Still, with 475 locals, the Teamsters remained one of the largest unions in North America.

The National Education Association (NEA) has become the largest professional organization and labor union in the United States, more than doubling its membership from 766,000 in 1961 to 3.2 million in 2011. Approximately 80 percent of NEA members are elementary or secondary schoolteachers. Other members include faculty members in institutions of higher education and support workers, such as teacher assistants, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and school custodians.

Founded as a professional association in 1857, the NEA became a labor union during the 1960s. The organization divides authority between rotating elected teachers, school employees, and permanent professional staff. The NEA also has 1,500 "UniServ" professionals to assist locals with collective bargaining. NEA dues were set at a fixed proportion of the average teacher's salary.

America and the World

For years, the sagging membership of unions seemed to be a distinctly U.S. phenomenon. However, unions in all countries have been under increased pressure due to slowing productivity and economic growth, rapid technical change, and a shift to a free-market ideology. The United Kingdom, for example, shed its longstanding strike-prone image as its unions became among the least militant in the industrialized world.

Labor unions in the United States generally have been more successful than their foreign counterparts in winning wage increases for their members. This has provided enormous incentive for U.S. employers to oppose trade unions and set up non-union shops. Foreign groups have been less focused on wage increases and more concerned with worker council and plant-level decision making, a direction that some U.S. unions have begun to take.

Many countries have a much higher rate of unionization than the United States. For example, in the mid- to late 2000s, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland had unionization rates of 80 percent, 78 percent, and 75 percent, respectively. Canada, the United Kingdom, and Japan had rates of 30 percent, 28 percent, and 19 percent. China continued to have one labor union, All-China Federation of Trade Unions; approximately 38 percent of its workers were members. Although new laws passed in 2008 improved some workers' rights, Chinese workers do not have the right to form independent unions or to strike.

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