Trends And New Labor Movements Cultural Studies Essay

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Union membership has been in decline for much of the last few decades. There are many reasons for this including: lack of education about unions in public schools, corruption in unions, shifting economy away from manufacturing, and sociopolitical factors. Also discussed in the literature review are the new labor movements such as the living-wage campaign and Social Movement Unionism (SMU). My proposed study seeks to address a gap in the literature about whether or not the lack of education about labor unions in schools has been a factor in union membership decline. This is significant because union membership has seen a major decline over the last several decades and most research points to the economy as a reason. Labor unions are appropriate for social and sociological study as the labor movement seeks to organize workers around collective thinking to better their working conditions and wages.

Literature Review

Union Membership

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that labor union membership has declined significantly from its peak in the 1940's. The percentage of people in labor unions is at 11.8% for the year 2010, down slightly from 11.9% in 2009. This is down vastly from its peak membership of 35% in the early 1940's. Figure 1.1 shows the union membership trend from 1930-2010. This figure shows both the percentage of employed and salary workers.

Figure 1.1 shows the union membership trends in the United States from 1930-2010.

Thomas Kochan writes about how American workers view unions in his study "How American Workers View Labor Unions." This article is from 1979 and was written around the time unions were starting their decline in power. In this study, Kochan writes about how union members see the leadership as corrupt and not looking out for the members of the union. He also notes that this does not necessarily mean that people do not believe in organizing labor but rather, people have lost faith in the current system. Kochan further writes that members often go to union leadership as a form of last resort. Unions are not seen as proactive, but rather a place to go when no one else will help them (Kochan 1979). This article is important because it discusses why the unions are in decline and how worker attitudes about unions have shifted away from the pro-union culture.

Shifting union demographics are important to understanding the current union membership and trends associated with it. Roland Zullo writes about this in his article, "The Evolving Demographics of the Labor Movement." In this article, Zullo writes about how race and gender play a role in why unions are shifting. Results from the study indicate that African Americans transition faster and better from nonunion to union members than other minority groups. Latinos show evidence for above-average representation in unions. He also notes that women join unions because of stability of the industry or their occupation. Another key finding in this article is that higher education levels means that people are more likely to join unions while people with lower education levels are less likely to join. This study is important because it shows what the major shifts are in union demographics, who is joining unions in recent years, and what factors are contributing to membership. This study does not give reasons for the decline in union membership, but it does show the current trends. This is important because it shows the changing face of the labor movement and how these changes can affect the labor movement in the future.

Anti-union culture and a backlash against unions are important to study because attitudes about unions have shifted. In Lawrence Richards book "Union-free America: Workers and antiunion culture" he writes about the history of the labor movement, and three different cases where unions were rejected by employee. The book describes one factory where a union was rejected in West Virginia because of strong anti-union stance of the company. The other two places where unions failed were library employees at NYU in the early 1970's and a group of teachers that never organized. The main theme of these case studies is that the unionization failed because of better organization of the employer against unionization for the workers. In the West Virginia factory, fear was used as a motivator as they company threated to shut down leaving the employees without jobs if they unionized. Other fear tactics such as having to pay for a union, and the corruption of unions were also discussed as the ways in which companies attempted to thwart unionization. The perception by the workers was that the factory owners could not afford to pay their employees anymore and that it would bankrupt the company if the workers unionized and wanted better wages and working conditions. This book is important because it notes where unionization has failed and the reasons for this failure because of the employer.

Right to work legislation is another major obstacle to unions and organization efforts. Hogler, in his article "How Right to Work Is Destroying the American

Labor Movement: From the Ku Klux Klan to the Tea Party" writes about the right to work movement and how these laws affect labor unions. Right to work laws are laws that let employers fire a worker for any reason at any time, and these laws are claimed to help businesses succeed. This was found not to be the case in some states. In Oklahoma, after right to work was passes, business showed a slowing trend that could be correlated to this law. The law hurt these companies because it gave them a bad reputation in the community and this further hurt their ability to find employees. The origins of right to work are explored and shown to be a moment from the south and that these laws are an attempt to keep organized labor out. This article shows how there is less power for unions, less collective bargaining for employees, and more wealth for the upper class. This article shows how government is being used to thwart unionization and reduce organized labor's influence and power

Traditionally, European counties have much stronger unions than the United States. Voss and Fantasia's book "Hard Work: Remaking the American labor movement" chronicles the history of the labor movement of the United States and tries to answer the question of why organized labor is not strong in the United States as it is in Europe. This book notes that unlike European countries, the United States never really bought in to the labor movement as a major movement. Capitalism plays a role according to Voss and Fantasia because, as a society, we are more interested in profits than in worker rights. This book is important to note as it draws a direct comparison to European Unionism and how American Unionism is different and less organized. Laws such as Taft-Hartley Act are discussed as being a major difference between the American Unions and the Europeans Unions in that this law restricts the activates of union organizers. Also noted in this book are is the downward trend of labor unions in the 1970's and 1980's as the political landscape changes and unions lose their power. The authors note that the labor movement leaders were unprepared for this change and they are the ones to blame for Labor Unions losing power.

Women are joining unions and are central to current labor organization in Bronfenbrenner's article "Organizing Women: The Nature and Process of Union-Organizing Efforts Among U.S. Women Workers Since the mid-1990s." She writes that throughout most of the American history unions have been considered "men's" work as they are usually tied to manufacturing and industrial work. Unions have since shifted from manufacturing to the service industry and now women are increasingly joining unions. Women have become central to union organizing in recent years and the evidence shows that women are organizing in greater numbers than men. Women do face obstacles in labor unions as they are not included in the leadership of unions. This article is important for this study because it shows that while women are becoming more involved in unions; they still face inequality and hardship within union organization. Women are shown in this article to be joining and organizing more than men, but they are fighting a system that is stacked against them.

Channing union belief systems and attitudes towards social inequality is another key to understanding the current union membership. Ann Shirley Leymon studies changing union political attitudes in her article "Unions and Social Inclusiveness: A Comparison of Changes in Union Member Attitudes." In this article, Leymon studies the historical political face of union membership and shows how it has developed and changed. She also notes that changing union leadership has already taken place, but active membership is lagging behind. Findings of this article show that union members increasingly accept other racial minorities faster than nonunion members. This shift is important because it shows that unions are leading in including minorities in their ranks and show that progress is being made despite union membership as a whole that is in decline. This article is important because it shows a shift from the old thinking in unions where minorities were not included and inequality among different people. This article does not take into account the shifting economic factors as a reason for a shift towards more membership that includes minorities.

The American labor movement has declined much more rapidly than others such as in Canada according to John Godard. His article "The Exceptional Decline of the American Labor Movement" discusses why the American labor movement has declined so rapidly as opposed to other movements. The author writes that the American labor movement is a struggle rather than a long-term pursuit of a goal. This evidence that this article shows is how deep institutional norms are the reason for the decline in union membership, and the constant struggle for the labor movement in the United States. Godard suggests that the future of the American labor movement should be more "labor entrepreneurship" rather than a focused labor organization. He claims this because of the way America as developed and entrepreneurship is more linked to the American way. This article shows some reasons as to why the American labor movement has decline and a suggestion for the future. While a little idealistic, this article is appropriate for sociological study because it shows how America developed differently and thus needs a different system to organize its workers.

The future of the American Labor movement is cloudy. Thinking beyond the traditional union may be the only way to reignite the labor movement. Voss and Fantasia write about the future of labor in their article "the future of American labor: reinventing unions." In this article the authors write that unions are not going to survive on the traditional model, but workers need to move to organizing more people into the labor movement. Organized labor had a colorful history in Las Vegas according to the article, and this system was transformed by replacing the old union with a new "social movement" where equality is the key for the workers. This specifically was a hotel union that had become corrupt and was not longer serving the interest of the members. The article writes about several instances where the city and local population helped organize the workers and to show their support of the movement. This was successful because the workers got what they wanted and union membership actually increased. The authors note that there are still obstacles to unionization despite the success of the Las Vegas case. They write that the changing economy and sociopolitical factors is still a barrier that needs to be overcome. The authors also note that the success of the Las Vegas union revitalization was used in San Francisco to revitalize a union.

Other forms of labor organization

Some alternative ways that the labor movement has gained notoriety over the last few decades are the living-wage movement and social movement unionism (SMU). These movements are more informal and are less bureaucratic than traditional unions are and are not based on the employees of a specific company. The living-wage movement has had success in the north in areas where traditional unions have had success such as Maryland. These movements are important because they have been successful at helping workers gain better wages and benefits than traditional unions have been recently through petitioning local and state governments or by using a more informal system of unionization.

The Living-wage movement is used to get local and state governments to pass laws and ordinances to guarantee a living wage to workers. Living wage is defined as providing enough of a wage for housing, food, benefits, and basic essentials for everyday living earned by one person. This has been effective in the Northeast as several local governments and states, such as Maryland, have passed these laws. Living wage is different from the minimum wage in that it is based on what people actually need to live on rather than a set minimum wage.

Luce talks about the living wage movement in her article "Lessons From Living-Wage Campaigns." In this article, she writes about six lessons from the living-wage campaign. The lessons outlined are "Labor needs allies and needs to think long term" (Luce 429) "Labor needs a moral vision of its own" (Luce 431) "Labor can't be afraid to break from the mainstream parties" (Luce 433) "Labor needs to work from the inside and the outside" (Luce 434), "Labor can't shy away from conflict (Luce 436) and "Labor must do a better job involving rank-and-file members" (Luce 437). Overall, these themes point to a need that this movement should not be about a formal union, but rather the workers. This is important as living-wage movements are not corporate based organizations but are local people involved in petitioning local governments. In her conclusion Luce writes that the living-wage movement is not going to replace labor unions, but rather work with them. The living-wage is used to further the cause of labor unions to help people actually get enough to live on rather than just a set minimum wage. Living wage campaigns usually win and they are hard fought campaigns that yield good results in wages, keeping jobs, and new workers (Luce 439). This article is thought provoking about why these movements have not taken off in other areas like the south. Most of the living-wage successes have been in the northern United States and in places that have traditionally had strong labor organization.

Social movement unionism is discussed by Fairbrother in his article, "Social Movement Unionism or Trade Unions as Social Movements." He describes these movements as a local, limited and small groups of workers who ban together to form a social union that is focused on one goal. In this article, Fairbrother compares SMU to Labor unions to see what the differences are in the two. The author also writes about where this movement is primarily localized in developing countries or where the government is more authoritative. He notes that this movement has had some success in the United States and that this movement is about worker solidarity as opposed to formal rules and collective bargaining. SMU belongs in this section because this movement is less about organized labor as a whole, but a focused group of workers striving for a common goal.

Proposed study

The gap I want to study is linking whether or not the lack of education about unions in schools is a factor in union membership decline. The data needed for this study includes worker attitudes on unions where no union exists, what they were taught about unions, and how this shapes their attitudes towards unions.

The theoretical framework for this study is based on Durkheim and his theory of collective versus individual consciousness. History shows that the northern United States industrialized faster than the south and has higher collective thinking among the people. In the south where industrialization took longer because of sociopolitical factors such as slavery and class, there is less collective consciousness and the people tend to think about individual needs. This is shown by union membership differences in the south and the north.

I want to do interviews of workers in workplaces that are not unionized, and workers who are not part of a union where one exists. I will ask questions about their education and views on unions. I want to do these interviews in the south and the north for comparison on regional differences. These regions are the focus of the study because these regions are the most different from each other in terms of union attitudes and organization. The focus would primarily be on their pre-college education. I want to compare what regional differences there are between the south and the north in terms of what they learned about unions, how they perceive unions, and why they think their workplace does not have a union or why they did not join. I would also like to look at if the different roles that pre-college education plays. For example, I would like to look at if private school or home schooled individuals have a different view on unions than people who went to public schools. I also want to ask questions based on the other types of labor organization. These questions would look at if the workers know what and how the living-wage movement is and how this affects them.

Given the literature, I expect to find regional differences in what workers were taught about unions and that this affects their decision making about their current workplace. I expect that the North and Northeastern regions will have a greater knowledge about the importance of unions and organized labor and will view them positively. Southerners will have less knowledge about unions, more anti-union feelings because of the culture in the south, and will view unions less favorably.


Union membership is declining and unions are much less powerful today then during the peak manufacturing years of the United States Economy. Various reasons are discussed for reasons why including sociopolitical, economics, and shifting demographics. New labor movements such as the living-wage are discussed to show what other forms the labor movement has taken besides labor unionization. My proposed study is to do interviews with people who are not in unions in the north and the southern United States. I expect to find regional differences in these two geographically distinct regions as the northern United States is more traditionally unionized where the south is not. This study is important for sociological study because organized labor attempts to form worker solidarity by accomplishing goals that benefit society and the workers.