Labor unions and movements play a major role in the United States. Although they are treated synonymously, the labor movements encompass a broader scope than labor unions. Some of the examples of current labor unions and movements include National Guestworker, Domestic Workers United and Wal-Mart workers groups. The heart of the current labor initiatives in the United States can be traced back to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (Collier & Collier, 2002). The labor law was imperative since it was intended to put the power of the government behind the worker’s right to organize unions and bargain collectively with their employers on issues such as wages, hours and working conditions. In the last thirty years, labor unions have declined in both membership and influence. The primary reasons for the reduced labor unions include weak labor laws and employer opposition. This paper will entail an analysis of the labor unions and movements in the United States including their history, current status and impact on business.
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In the United States, the earliest form of labor organization constituted mutual aid societies that ensured restriction of entry into the craft and enforced workplace standards. The labor organization did not raise conflicts or cause problems since the craft workers were few and the companies were small (Collier & Collier, 2002). The origins of the labor movement can be found in the formative years of the nation during the emergence of a free wage-labor market in the artisan trades during the colonial period. The earliest strike in labor history took place in 1768 after the New York journeymen tailors protested a reduced wage. The creation of the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers (shoemakers) in 1794 marked the onset of sustainable trade union organization among workers in America (Collier & Collier, 2002). After that union, local craft unions increased in the cities, publishing the prices for their work and protecting their trades against diluted and cheap labor.
The industrial development in the early nineteenth century increased the gap between employers and skilled workers. The workers began to think of factories and industries as a threat to their wages and status. The workers soon created fledgling craft unions to resist undesirable working conditions. The craft unions sought to resist immediate wage reductions, increased working hours and unsafe working conditions. The unions also aimed to protect their political, social and economic rights. The unions moved from local to national movements as both labor and product markets became national as a result of improvements such as transportation (Collier & Collier, 2002).
Several factors inspired the early labor movement beyond the job interest of the craft members. It harbored the ideals of a just society based on the Ricardian labor theory of value and the republican conceptions of the American Revolution (Brody, 1993). Such ideals and revolutionary conceptions fostered social equality, honest labor and depended on an independent and virtuous citizenship. The industrial capitalism and the associated economic transformations contradicted the labor’s vision. The solution as early labor leaders saw it was to categorize the society into the poor and the rich. The advocates of equal rights presented a series of reform beginning with the workingmen’s parties. Some of the notable labor reforms created included the Knights of Labor and the National Labor Union (Brody, 1993).
During the 1880s, the labor unions reinforced their relationship with trade unionism. The Knights of Labor recruited scores of workers with the vision of improving their immediate conditions (Brody, 1993). A conflict occurred between the national trade unions and the Knights of Labor as they performed their strikes. The national trade unions demanded the Knights to remain within the professed labor reform purposes. Their refusal led to the national trade unions uniting to form the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886 (Brody, 1993). The AFL took several lessons from the fallen Knights that enabled it to consider the position of collective bargaining as an acceptable compromise. The compromise was necessary in the face of the ongoing labor strike that ranged from slowdowns to industrial sabotage through the destruction of equipment (Reynolds, 1984).
The institution of the American Federation of Labor took place after the previous strikes ended in the defeat of the existing labor movements and unions. The new union was convinced that the previous forms of unionization were diffuse and fragment. The old unions did not stand a chance against the violence that the companies could bring upon the workers. The leaders of the previous unions organized themselves as a federation of narrow and self-interested unions (Reynolds, 1984)
The new federation marked a separation with the past since it denied labor reform further roles in the struggles of American workers and labor reforms lost its meaning hence the confusion and ultimate failure of the knights of labor due to industrialism. Trade unionism was defined as the movement of the entire working class (Reynolds, 1984). The formal policy represented all workers, irrespective of skill, race, religion, nationality or gender. Those unions that had created the American Federation of Labor compromised only the skilled labor; therefore, the movement encountered a dilemma.
A technological change began to undermine the crafting system of production, some national unions moved towards an industrial structure, most in coal mining and the garments trades. The trade union took a racist and sexist coloration since skill lines tended to conform to racial, ethnic and gender divisions. The federation reversed an earlier principled decision and chartered the whites only international association of machinist after it was unable to launch in interracial machinists in 1895. In 1902, African Americans made up a meager three percent of total membership (Reynolds, 1984).
Nothing better captures the displaced amalgam of old and new in the postwar labor movement than the treatment of minorities and women who came in masses, initially from the mass production industries. After 1960, they also came from the public and service sectors as well. Labor’s historic dedication to racial and gender equality was reinforced, but not to the point of challenging the status quo within the labor movement itself (Brody, 1993).
The leadership structure remained largely closed to minorities. The skilled jobs were historically reserved for the white male workers, notoriously so in the construction but the industrial unions as well. The AFL played a crucial role in the battle for civil rights legislation in 1964-1965 (Brody, 1993). The meaning they derived in achieving this kind of reform was more significant than the chance to act on the on the broad ideals of the labor movements.
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This motivated to the deployment of labors power with significant effect in the achievement of John F. Kennedy’s domestic programs during the 1960s. The weakening of organized labor’s grip on the industrial sector contributed to the decline in political capability. New competitive forces swept through the heavily ionized industries from the early 1970s onward set off by deregulation in communications and transportation, by industrial restructuring, and by an unprecedented onslaught of foreign goods (Montgomery, 2009).
The labor sector has experienced a significant decline from 1985 to 2012. During the administrations of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the labor movement did not experience significant changes. However, the election of Barack Obama into the presidency in 2008 brought a glimmer of hope to labor unions and movements in the United States (Montgomery, 2009). Labor required the establishment of methods to ensure the certification of newly organized unions. The Labor leaders advocated the Employee Free Choice Act that would compel organizations to acknowledge and bargain with unions provided that a majority of the employees requested the representation of unions.
Currently, the labor unions and movements continue to lack the power to influence the needed changes in the labor market. The unions anticipate making a comeback despite the legislative defeat in 2009. The increasing trend of outsourcing in the private sector is contributing to the decline in the power of unions in that sector. The labor unions do not have power because of the outsourcing of workers to other countries that provide cheap labor. The pattern of union densities explains the problems affecting the labor unions. The union density in the public sector was thirty-six percent between 1980 and 1985. In the industry, it reduced from 20.6% to 15.5% in the private sector during the same period (Zieger, 2004). The reduced union density in both public and private sector shows the decline in the power of labor unions and movements in America.
The changes in the labor unions and movements throughout history can be ascribed to the dynamics between workers and corporations. A negative relationship exists between labor unions and the companies because of a variety of reasons. Business owners recognize the potential to compete successfully in an economy. However, the potential is attainable through flexibility in reducing wages, hiring and firing workers (Zieger, 2004). It is also achievable through the addition of extra hours of work and reducing the hours of free-time. Wages and salaries account for a significant proportion of the overall costs. Currently, such costs are above fifty percent, and corporations strive to ensure they remain at a minimum. The result is the conflict between labor unions and business owners because of the contradictory nature of their goals.
Labor unions and movements have several implications on businesses. One of the impacts includes reduced profitability because of the increased costs. The unions strive to ensure that their workers are rewarded deservedly while the companies aim to increase their profits through the reduction of costs including wages and salaries (Zieger, 2004). Labor unions also affect the productivity of businesses since they affect factors that influence productivity. The unions demand reduced working hours consequently leading to diminished productivity in an organization.
In conclusion, labor unions and movements have a conflicting relationship with corporations as evidenced throughout history. The labor unions are revolutionary and seek to ensure the fair treatment of their workers. On the other hand, the corporations strive to maximize profitability, and this entails reducing the costs involved. They attempt to increase productivity through increased hours and reduced the free time for the workers. The conflict of interests contributes to the struggle between labor unions and business owners.
- Brody, D. (1993). Workers in industrial America: essays on the twentieth-century struggle. Oxford University Press on Demand.
- Lewis, H. G. (1986). Union relative wage effects. Handbook of labor economics, 2, 1139-1181.
- Montgomery, D. (2009). Workers’ control in America: Studies in the history of work, technology, and labor struggles. Cambridge University Press.
- Reynolds, M. O. (1984). Power and privilege: Labor unions in America. Universe Pub.
- Zieger, R. H. (2004). American workers, American unions. Johns Hopkins Univ Pr.
- Collier, R. B., & Collier, D. (2002). Shaping the political arena (p. 53). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
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