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The United States is one of the largest and powerful economies in the world with a GDP US$ 14294 and a labour force of 154.7 million (Katz & Colvin, 2011). The unions in America came into being in the 1790's by skilled craftsmen even before industrialisation. They had a lasting legacy in the American unions until the onset of egalitarianism in the US labour movement in the early nineteenth century. In the 1850s and 1860s many women, children and immigrants from various countries joined the widespread establishment of the factory system. These workers did not form any union maybe because their pay was higher than American farm earnings and the factory workers in Europe. There was also enough social mobility which prevented them to unionise and there was prevention of unionisation by the employers either directly or through the government (Katz & Colvin, 2011). In the 1930's during the great depression the US unions rose and penetrated into the factory system. The factors contributing to the organising of large number of workers was that the pay and the working conditions had suffered and there was a federal right to organise and strike granted by the Wagner Act 1935. The unions continued to grow in the 1950's and there was a wave of organising in the 1960's and 1970's (Katz & Colvin, 2011). The union density in 1900 was almost 7 percent which increased to 34 percent in the year 1954. Then the decline prevailed until the year 2000 when the density stood at 13 percent. The increase in the union density occurred in massive events like World War I, the years of the New Deal and World War II (Kaufman, 2004). The overall decline in the union coverage including the public and the private sector has fallen from 23.3 percent in 1983 to 14.3 percent in 2003. The union coverage decline in the private sector has been much more than in the public sector with a decline from 18.5 percent in 1983 to just 9 percent in 2003. The union membership in the public sector has remained steady all these years (Slaughter, 2007).
The unions perform economic and non economic functions. The economic functions involve the redistribution of wealth from capital to labour, protection of employees from any unjust by the employers like wage cuts, long hours and increase in wage for the labour. The non economic function involves the giving of rights to the employees, the representation of employees by taking collective action (Kaufman, 2004). The unions in the United States consider collective bargaining and strike threat to be their weapon and have relied on them for a long time. This reliance has made the day to day work of administering more effective and it has also required the unions to be financially stable to be able to provide funds for strike. According to the main agenda of collective bargaining the power within the union is placed with the national union, regional union or local union (Katz & Colvin, 2011). In America business unionism dominated in the period 1950-1990s which is usually bureaucratic, hierarchical, formal, limited, reactive and undemocratic (Walsh, 2012).
The increase in union membership was during the major events like World War and the great depression. During this time the government supported the unions and the labour movement so as to maintain peace and secure the support of the workers (Kaufman, 2004). The increase in the union density in the early 19th century can be attributed to the increase and deepening of the labour problems with the onset of the decade long great depression of the 1930s (Kaufman, 2004).
The unions in America have gone through a tough time and have suffered a slow decline. The factors unique to the American society like individualism and consumerism, market competition and widespread acceptance of capitalism, a poorly defined and fragmented working class and lack of a viable labour political party all contribute to the decline in the demand for unionism (Kaufman, 2004). The unions in the United States have not paid enough attention on providing benefits to their existing members due to their ideology of business unionism (Katz & Colvin, 2011). The decline in the unions in the 1980s can be attributed to various external changes like the relocation of capital into geographical areas that were not union friendly, the shift to service producing industry, increase in resistance by the employers, subcontracting and globalisation (Walsh, 2012). The various internal factors contributing to the decline in unions are the decentralisation of unions, the separation of leadership from rank-and-file and the declining industrial sector (Walsh, 2012).
Globalisation can be one of the reasons behind the decline of unions because during the period of decline in the union density, the sum of US share of exports and imports have also grown (Slaughter, 2007). The mobility of capital has increased and the owners of the capital are not willing to increase their labour costs which might be the demand of the unions making it difficult to unionise (Farber & Western, 2001). The difference in the rate of growth of union and non-union sectors has made a huge contribution to the decline in unions with a higher growth rate in the non-union sectors (Farber & Western, 2001). The shift in employment from the traditional part time employment and contingent workers towards employment in services, retail trade, information technology which were not prone to unions also added to the decline (Kaufman, 2004). The decline of unions continued in the 1990's and the non union sector has continued to grow in the private sector. The management of the organisations in the private sector took advantage of the technology, relied on outsourcing and shifted work within or outside United States by taking advantage of the tax enforcement of labour laws in order to avoid union organisation (Katz & Colvin, 2011). Employers think that unions reduce flexibility and raise costs, so there is a resistance in the management towards unionisation which makes them go out of their way to avoid unions (Kaufman, 2004). The resistance towards unions has long been in existence in the United States. The management goes out of their way to avoid unions like harassment of union leaders, firing of union leaders, pay increases for the employees and employee involvement programs (Kleiner, 2001). This is experienced more in the private sector than in the public sector. Globalisation and increased international competition due to wage and cost control pressures has put the labour movement under difficulty with the management behaviour towards unions becoming aggressive (Katz & Colvin, 2011). The Taft-Harley Act of 1947 was another challenge that the unions have to overcome in order to organise workers successfully as it introduced provisions which were not favourable for the unions at all. It made the union certification less flexible, permitted states to pass further labor restrictions, outlawed closed shop hiring, gave strike breakers a right to vote and made members sign an anti-communist loyalty oath (Walsh, 2012). In response to this the American Federation of Labour (AFL) and Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO) joined forces in 1955 and became AFL-CIO to take the labour movement further by overcoming these challenges. The factors contributing to the decline of unions have been many. They include economic causes like plant closures, layoffs, slower growth in manufacturing industries and not so economic increase in resistance to unions by the employers (Dickens & Leonard, 1985). In 1970s the United States poor economic performance certainly did lead to the decline in unions as the organising rates decreased and the success rate of organising was also low. These structural changes do not seem to reverse even if the economy improves which is a challenge for the unions (Dickens & Leonard, 1985).
The American Federation of Labour-Congress of Industrial Organisations' (AFL-CIO) is a federation of national unions and it 'serves as a national level political and public relations voice for the labour movement' (Katz & Colvin, 2011:67). The organising efforts by the AFL-CIO has lead to the increase in the number of workers organised but at the same time the number of existing members lost has been more than those organised which states that the reversing of the union density remains elusive (Hurd, Milkman, & Turner, 2003). The unions and the AFL-CIO have made many efforts in the political arena to revitalise the union membership but they have had to face challenges like the anti-labour executive orders and anti-union administrative decisions. These strategies have made a little progress but not as much as expected (Hurd, Milkman, & Turner, 2003). The most important change in the AFL-CIO for the progress towards revitalisation has been in the field operations where they now encourage activism unlike the passive observation which was adopted earlier (Hurd, Milkman, & Turner, 2003). The unions in America have adopted various measures like inter-organisational strategies like mergers between unions, alliances with other union, community or organisation and political strategies like internal political mobilisation and external activities in regulatory and legislative arenas for the revitalisation of the unions (Katz, Batt, & Keefe, 2003). The unions have been compelled to use innovative way for labour to make gains with the increasing resistance by the employers, the decline in the private sector and unfavourable labour regulations (Walsh, 2012). Corporate campaign is one of the innovative ways of dealing with this. These campaigns target the policy makers so as to make changes in favour of the employees and pressure the vulnerability points of the target companies. Some use media to shame the company and gain public support to put them under pressure to recognise unions (Walsh, 2012). The power of management has remained to be a difficult challenge for the unions and it has strenthened with globalisation, outsourcing and the use of permanent striker replacement (Katz & Colvin, 2011). The traditional bargaining strategies like strikes are still used by the unions along with the new innovative stategies to revive union membership (Katz & Colvin, 2011).
The unions since 1980s in their effort to revitalise the membership have build alliances with various groups like feminist, environmental, religious, human rights and other community groups (Hurd, Milkman, & Turner, 2003). The AFL-CIO in its effort to reverse the fortunes of the unions formed an Organising Institute (OI) in 1989 which trained people in the technique of organising. This institute was engaged in both internal and external organising as oppose to only recruiting new members (Hurd, 2004). In an effort to increase union membership they have entered into labour-management partnerships where the unions agree to support the company in return for the recognition of the union. These partnerships have faced difficulties as the trust level among them was very low and they have not made a substantial contribution in the labour revitalisation process (Hurd, Milkman, & Turner, 2003). The rank-and-file organising strategies are used by the unions as the traditional bureaucratic methods are less effective. The transition has proven to be difficult for as there is resistance to change in the existing staff and the AFL-CIO has asked the union affiliates to focus all resources on organising (Hurd, Milkman, & Turner, 2003). The focus of the unions on external organising and the recruitment of new members have made the existing members to withdraw from the union (Hurd, 2004). The reversing of the union's situation in America will require experimentation with new structures, an effective political agenda and a mix of strategies (Hurd, 2004). In spite of all the efforts for organising the AFL-CIO has limited influence over the activities of the national affiliates and the loosely structured federation has become a burden for the revitalisation efforts (Hurd, Milkman, & Turner, 2003). Intensive interaction and coordination is required among the top-down, bottom-up and outside parties in the labour movement for effective policy innovations in the revitalisation process by the American unions (Hurd, Milkman, & Turner, 2003).
The revitalisation process for the union growth has been in place for decades in the United States. A lot of changes have been made within and outside the union federations in order to reverse their situation. The decline in unions seems to be a result of factors much deeper than those stated. It is a result of all the factors combined and for the situation to reverse a lot of planning and strategies will be required. The efforts made by the federation and individual unions have not made a significant difference in the revitalisation of the unions so far. The revitalisation strategies have not been able to overcome the challenges of labour movement completely and whether it will be successful in improving the union's condition is a question of the future.