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Union Busted

Updated on April 24, 2016

Emergence of Unions in the U.S.

The idea of skilled labor unions manifested itself as guilds back in the Renaissance Era, where apprentices developed into skilled artisans by gaining knowledge in several crafts in vocational schools. In America, unions did not emerge until after the Civil War. Private societies and guilds were in existence compiled mostly of skilled laborers such as shoemakers, printers and carpenter. During these times, union activity was frowned upon and criminalized (1).

For example, in the 1806 case of Commonwealth vs Pullis, eight shoemakers in Philadelphia that had unionized were convicted of criminal conspiracy to fix prices, and were fined eight dollars each, or one week’s pay. In 1842, unions were legally granted the right to organize and collectively withhold labor, or the “right to strike”. Still, for the following quarter – century, public sentiment continued to look down upon unionists and labor – threatening activity. They were viewed as socialists, and tales of their tactics were documented, with their vicious methods to either coerce fellow shop workers to join the union, or their propensity of violence when attempting to disrupt production. Once the Civil War ended, though, the pendulum of common sentiment swung the opposite direction(1).

Union Support buoyed after the Civil War.
Union Support buoyed after the Civil War. | Source

Post - War Boom

Why the change in mindset? During the post – war era, big business rose with the rapid expansion of the railroad and construction industries. After the Civil War, the Reconstruction of America was on a fast pace, particularly in the railroad industry. According to the website, the Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad were eagerly awaiting their completion to form the Transcontinental Line, which would secure a link between the East and West Coast.

These big booming businesses drew many workers off of their farms and into factories to find meaningful work. However, low wages, long hours, and, in particular, poor working conditions helped in garnering the interest in a tradesmen to seek a voice that would represent the working man in order to create a safer environment. This peeked interest in organized labor was jettisoned with the formulation of the American Federation of Labor, founded in 1881 by Samuel Gompers (in 1955 this entity joined with the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or AFL-CIO). This was predominantly a network of unions, varying by trades (locomotive workers, engineers and carpenters). Union membership reached half a million workers prior to the turn of the century (1).

20th Century Unions

Our history lesson continues, as we examine the development of organized labor into the 1900’s. The "Progressive Era" in the early part of the century helped increase the labor force, elevating it to 6% (1). The dawning of a new debate was its infancy, where Republicans and Democrats began lobbying for and against unions, by mounting up counter - acting laws throughout these times. Republicans manned the position of anti - big government, seeking to jar loose the grasp of the judicial and legislative systems off of corporations. Democrats began to convey the pro-union stance, as they continue to demonstrate today.

During the FDR years, the Wagner Act of 1935, or the National Labor Relations Act, expounded on the judgment decried in 1842. It not only enabled the lawfulness of collective bargaining agreements for unionized employees in the private sector, it created the National Labor Relations Board. Their mission is to enforce the laws introduced by the NLRA by conducting elections for union representatives and to investigate any malfeasance by employers in union shops (2). The NLRB remains in existence to date.

Following WWII, the politics of Unions came to a head. Since the NLRA introduced a relationship between labor organizers and the democratic party, Republican conservatives (I know – that’s redundant), passed theTaft – Hartley Act was into law. This prohibited any financial contributions to be allocated to any political party from organized labor. It also eliminated any union activity led by Communists. There was always this undertone (and perhaps sometimes even overtone) of communism in the basic ideologies of unionism. That being said, it always has seemed to be a thorn in the side of political figures that sought to shrink the size of the government.

Figure 1


Union Participation Statistics, Past and Present

See Figure 1 table above. In the mid 1950’s, 35% of the labor force belonged to a union. Organized labor was at its apex. In 1979, 21 million workers were in a union. 14.8 million, or 12% of the working population, were unionized in 2009. Three years later, it has declined again to 11.3%. The private sector is the area demonstrating steady decline. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012, public sector (i.e. teachers, police) had a union membership rate of 36.8%. Private sector union membership rates (i.e. carpenters, tradesmen) dipped to 7.6% (3).

Unionized rates of men are higher than women (13.4% to 11.4% in 2012). In the past, there was a much more discernible difference in percentages of unionized males versus females. In 1983, for example, 24.7 % union members were male, while just 14.6% were of the gentler species. Also in 2012, the most densely populated of union members were black workers (13.4%). The next closest were white workers (11.1%), while the lowest was Asian (9.6 %). When it pertains to a breakdown unionized members by age, membership was at its highest with workers ranging in ages from 55 to 64 (16.6%). The least unionized group were those 16 to 24 years old (5%). Unionized laborers across the nation make approximately $200 more per week on average than non - union members, although these numbers are also affected by each actual type of employment, too (2).

Geographically speaking, the Pacific coast and Mid Atlantic states represent the highest population of organized workers. Southern states reflect a consistent percentage lower than the norm. New York State (24.9%) and Alaska (24%) rank highest in recognized union coverage for the working class, although Alaska's population is far less than a state such as California, which ranks 5th in union covered employees, at 18.6%). The least unionized state in the union was and consistently is North Carolina (in 2012, that percentage was 2.9%, and hasn't even reached 4% since 1998).

“Where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost.” --- Ronald Reagan


Why the decline?

To answer this question, we must look in hindsight at the two key aforementioned acts passed into law in the 20th century: the Wagner Act and the Taft - Hartley Act:

-- The Wagner Act, or the National Labor Relations Act, of 1935: This was created to provide a lawful recognition of unionized activity. It permits them to bargain collectively for the rights and wages of their workers, and to strike if their requests are not fulfilled to their satisfaction. Under this law, employers must negotiate with a representative of each said union in order to successfully bargain for better terms that fit the needs of both the company and its workers. Also previously mentioned was the Act's introduction of the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees employers' compliance to the law. The Wagner Act went on to criminalize employers who attempted to threaten or coerce employees from joining a union as well. As you might as well surmise, Republicans were not too happy with this law and were staunch lobbyists against its passing , referencing terms such as "socialism" when speaking of it (4).

-- The Taft - Hartley Act of 1947: Passed into law against President Truman's veto, was the Republican's antidote to the Wagner Act. It's main objective was to impede any momentum gained by unions. During WWII, the frequency of organized labor uproars had subsided - many memberships promised not to strike it all, since the focus was on American solidarity during a time in which our bravest were over in Europe fighting the good fight. Once the war ended, this changed. Unions ramped up their morale again with memberships reaching 25% of the American workforce (5). In 1946 alone, the occurrence of work stoppages increased in occurrence and duration. Republicans felt the need to interject authority and thwart these efforts. Their intentions were also to mitigate the existence of radical influence, i.e. Communists. With the Cold War beginning to bubble up, quelling Communists in any facet of the Nation became a paramount charge for "national security". When this law passed, the following were the main changes:

1) Union leaders had to file sworn affidavits that they were not Communists or linked to any Communist group.

2) Employers were now legally permitted to pronounce their distaste for their unions, and granted them permission to have the NLRB conduct a "re-count" of votes in their shop for union supporters.

3) "Card - checks" ceased: These were signed forms or "cards" by employees stating if they sought to be represented by a Union. The counts would be tallied up by the NLRB, and, by majority rule, the shops wish for organized labor influence would either be accepted or rejected (6). The new Act prolonged the process for a company to be permitted to bring into its shop someone to represent the masses. Hearings, campaigns, elections and between 45-90 day's time would need to pass to validate a Union's presence in a shop. This extra time allowed employers to literally bring workers into their office, one at a time, and verbally abuse and even threaten them for the mere thought of invoking an organized labor presence (2).

4) Closed shops dismantled: Previously, the existence of "closed shops" were prevalent. This meant that the shop was not accepting any new members, and all employees had to belong to the union. Taft - Hartley eliminated this, and went on to pass the right - to - work laws. This law, which has made the news in the past couple of years, stopped unions from stipulating in their CBA's that, if a member did not want to join the organized labor group, they could be fired.*

*Right - to - work laws remain in effect today. These laws are more evident in the South, where Unions are weaker.

Editorial Section

Please allow me this moment to editorialize, as I have been spitting out facts throughout this article. I have been a Supervisor for over ten years in a union shop. I have been involved in a multitude of grievances, mostly frivolous. I have never lost one. The vast majority never progressed to the next step of being presented to a third party arbitrator. I have locked horns with shop stewards, and also found mutual ground with them. Some can be reasonable, and some cannot. I found that, if an employee sought representation, talking to the steward about it one - on - one usually would accomplish a resolution.

A good tip to young supervisors out there: if you have found yourself alone in a conference room or office with more than one union member, get out. Leave them there. Get another Manager to accompany you upon your return to the conference room. Either attempt to reconcile differences in a meeting one - on - one, or make all teams even on both sides when it escalates.

Another tip for young supervisors: follow the contract religiously. It's hard for anyone, on either side, to argue points printed in black and white in a contract that both parties reviewed and signed. A good manager exercises discretion on instances of absenteeism and punctuality. Exceptions can and should be made for family emergencies for employees, provided that a pattern doesn't develop (i.e. a worker's car won't start every Monday or their child is in the ER every Friday). Know your workers, and watch their trends. Dealing with union members will not and should not always be difficult. Follow the rules, enforce them, and be consistent. If you do that, all grievances will be, as I mentioned above, frivolous.

Figure 2


The Future of Unions

Since the Recession in 2009, unemployment rates have averaged in the 10% range, dropping a bit lower recently (7). The shipping of jobs overseas has thrown dirt over a potential Union membership comeback trail. The hardest hit states of the Union is Michigan, where automotive manufacturing jobs were removed from the continent. (See Figure 2 above). Public sector jobs have peaked in recent years and sustained at this level. It's impossible to move public sector jobs out of this country due to their nature, thus maintaining a steady supply of vocations and union membership. Employees in the public sector are not completely impervious to layoffs, but it's documented that these careers are on the verge of dominating the union membership statistics in the country (8).

Returning to the private sector - with less employment, there is an equivalent decline in union membership. Parallel to this was public support of Unions, which dipped below 50% for the first time in 2009 as the Recession grew like wild fire (2). One can paint the clear picture that less jobs = less membership in organized labor, which = a weakening in the Union effort, thus creating far less support than before.

How do we counteract this? Well, if the above is true, than the opposite would be the cure: get more jobs back into this country, stop the stronghold on Republican - supported big - money corporations that get financial relief for packaging up our jobs and sending them off our shores. Increase tax relief for those same, large institutions that return employment to our nation. In the end, for any large, greedy corporation, money talks. The Wagner Act was a democratic effort; Taft - Hartley was the Republican response. Sixty years later, our freedom to unite as one and keep big business in check needs to be heightened once again. There is a safe, moral and civil method to organized labor. It can be one that will turn the tide back to a strong nation that rewards hard - working individuals with fair, lucrative and stable employment. That's the working environment in which I thrive, and I defy anyone to repeal that dream.

If they try to, then screw it - I'll just strike.

Are you in favor of Unions?

See results


(1) Reynolds, Morgan, July 2009, “A History of Labor Unions from Colonial Times to 2009”, Ludvig von Mises Institute, retrieved from

(2) Wikipedia, “Labor Unions in the United States.”

(3) Bureau of Labor Statistics,

(4) Wikipedia, “National Labor Relations Act”.

(5) Wikipedia, “Labor Management Relations Act of 1947”.

(6) Wikipedia, “Card checks”.

(7) Wikipedia, “Unemployment Rates”.

(8) Wikipedia, “Public Sector Trade Union”.


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    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      I sure learned a lot. I think Unions should ebb and flow with the times. Out here San Diego way they overreached for a couple of decades, and the pendulum is swinging back.


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