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Labor Unions In America History, Pros and Cons


Unions are recognized today as the legal representatives of workers in many industries. Unions have been a part of the American workplace since colonial times. Unions that existed in Europe at the time of the original settlers did make their way over to America. A brief look at the history of unions reveals how unions gained in popularity and in recent times have sustained a drop in overall membership.

Brief History Of Unions in America

Unions struggled to gain an identity in America during colonial times and that struggle included being recognized in courts of law. In 1842, a landmark decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a bootmaker’s union was a lawful association with a lawful right to organize and collectively withhold labor. During the time period of 1850 through 1900 Unions did start to become more prevalent in Europe. The American Federation of Labor was founded in this time period by Samuel Gompers. These unions consisted of employees in the trades like railroad engineers and carpenters. As late as 1892, AFL membership was about 200,000 people. However, by the end of the century union membership stood at about 500,000 workers who made up less than two percent (2%) of the workforce.

Union membership continued to rise in the early 1900’s. Prior to World War I it was recognized unions could exist but employers were under no legal obligation to bargain with them. World War I resulted in some pro union legislation that slowed again after the war ended. Collective bargaining was allowed for railroad employees by the federal government acting under the power of the Commerce Clause. The great depression brought about the creation of the National Labor Relations Act (1935) which resulted from previous legislation called the National Industrial Recovery Act. Union membership grew during this time as America was changing from an agricultural society to an industrial society.

World War II and further advances in the industrial power of America resulted in a large labor force being employed by businesses in various industrial areas. The relations between labor unions and employers were tumultuous at best during the time period of the mid-1900’s. Violence and loss of life was a real consequence to the strife that existed. Management and unions relations continue to be adversarial in nature.

Unions were able to obtain improvements in wages, benefits and working conditions for their labor membership. Strikes and contentious labor relations were seen as a huge cost for many employers. Many have argued that private unions have lost membership over the last twenty or thirty years because most businesses now provide wages, benefits and working conditions that are acceptable to most employees. This has eliminated the need to obtain union representation in many private settings.

Union representation is still strong for public sector employees. Teachers, police, fire and a wide variety of state, local and federal employees currently are represented by organized unions. The issue of union representation results in firm opinions on each side of the debate. The law is clear in that union membership is a right that can be sought and obtained under appropriate conditions. What are the benefits of union representation? Simultaneously, what are the negatives of union representation?

5 Pros of Union Representation

1. Strength in numbers is a clear advantage to union representation. A union will give a member bargaining power in the form of a group that any one individual will not be able to match if he/she attempted to bargain alone. Unions have professional negotiators who are cognizant of all issues that can be bargained for.

2. A contract that provides for certain rights and obligations on behalf of the employee. Employees without a union are often referred to as “At-Will Employees”. The term means that the employer can end the relationship at virtually anytime and without any cause being given. A contract will provide a grievance and arbitration procedure in the event of an adverse employer action.

3. Higher Wages – many contend that a union will provide for an increase in pay to be seen in a very short time. This includes extra pay for holiday and overtime.

4. Increase number of benefits such as paid time off for vacation time, sick time and other paid time off for personal or family time. Additionally, medical and dental benefits are often improved by negotiations conducted by unions.

5. Increased job security. Unions will make sure a fair process is followed by the employer seeking to terminate or suspend an employee. Seniority rights are also protected by many unions.

5 Cons of Union Representation

1. Unions are too political – Unions provide a lot of money to political candidates they believe are sympathetic to union views. Many employees do not share these same views and believe that their hard earned money should not be spent in this manner.

2. Union fees can be excessive and some employees do not believe that the return on the investment is worth the expense. Many see business as paying acceptable wages with attractive benefits programs and thus there is no need to seek union representation.

3. Unions are corrupt. Many view unions as corrupt organizations that are only interested in the collection of fees and not representing the interests of the members. Some unions have been tied to organized crime membership. Scandals have been reported involving the misallocation of union dues.

4. Independence and freedom to innovate. Unions like to establish rules that are primarily aimed at protecting certain employee rights. For example, most unions support seniority when it comes to layoffs and terminations. There are some employees who view this as not in their own best interest and short sighted.

5. Unions drive up costs for businesses and eventually force businesses out of business due to lack of appropriate economic resources. Contracts are negotiated to make the union look good in the short term and do not take into account the long term interests of the employee being tied to the sustainability of the business as a whole.