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Factors Affecting Labor Markets, Unions

Congress of Industrial Organization, Samuel Gompers, Wagner Act, craft unions, employers fund

Many U.S. workers belong to unions or to professional associations (such as the National Education Association for teachers) that act like unions. These unions and associations represent groups of workers in collective bargaining with employers to agree on contracts. During this bargaining, workers and employers establish wages and fringe benefits, such as health care and pension benefits, for different types of jobs. They also set grievance procedures to resolve labor disputes during the life of the contract and often address many other issues, such as procedures for job transfers and promotions of workers.

Many studies indicate that wages for union workers in the United States are 10 to 15 percent higher than for nonunion workers in similar jobs and that fringe benefits for union workers also tend to be higher. That compensation difference is an important consideration both for workers thinking about joining unions, and for employers who are concerned about paying higher wages and benefits than their competitors. In some cases, it appears that the higher wages and benefits are paid because union workers are more productive than nonunion workers are. But in other cases unions have been found to decrease productivity, sometimes by limiting the kinds of work that certain employees can do, or by requiring more workers in some jobs than employers would otherwise hire. Economists have not reached definite conclusions on some of these issues, but it is evident that there are many other broad effects of unions on the economy.

Unions and collective bargaining in the United States are markedly different from such organizations and procedures in other industrialized nations. U.S. unions generally practice what is often described as business unionism, which focuses mainly on the direct economic interests of their members. In contrast, unions in Europe and South America focus more on influencing national policy agendas and political parties.

The different focus by U.S. unions partly reflects the special history of unions in the United States, where the first sustained successes were achieved by craft unions representing skilled workers such as carpenters, printers, and plumbers. These skilled workers had more bargaining power and were more difficult for employers to replace or do without than workers with less training. Unions representing these skilled workers were also able to provide special services to employers that allowed both the unions and employers to operate more efficiently. For example, craft unions in large cities often ran apprenticeship programs to train young workers in these occupations. And many craft unions operated hiring halls that employers could call to find trained workers on short notice or for short periods of time.

Most of these craft unions were members of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), founded in 1886. The strong bargaining position of these skilled workers, and the fact that these workers typically earned much higher wages than most other workers, led the AFL unions to focus on wages and other financial benefits for their members. Samuel Gompers, the president of the AFL for nearly all of its first 38 years, once summarized his philosophy of unions by saying, “What do we want? More. When do we want it? Now.”

By contrast, industrial unions—which represent all of the workers at a firm or work site, regardless of their function or trade—were generally not successful in the United States before Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. This law, also known as the Wagner Act after its sponsor, Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York, changed the way that unions are recognized as bargaining agents for workers by employers, and made it easier for unions representing all workers to win that recognition. The Wagner Act largely put an end to the violent strikes that often occurred when unions were trying to be recognized as the bargaining agent for employees at some firm or work site. The act established clear procedures for calling and holding elections in which the workers decide whether they want to be represented by a union, and if so by which union. The Wagner Act also established a government agency known as the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hear charges of unfair labor practices. Either employees or employers may file charges of unfair labor practices with the NLRB.

After the Wagner Act was passed, the number of workers who belonged to unions increased rapidly. This trend continued through World War II (1939-1945), when unions successfully negotiated more fringe benefits for their members. These fringe benefits were partly a result of wage and price controls established during the war, which made large wage increases impossible. In the 1950s union strength continued to grow, and the national association of industrial unions, known as the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) merged with the AFL.

Since the late 1970s, total union membership has fallen. The percentage of the U.S. labor force that belongs to unions has decreased dramatically in the last half of the 20th century, from more than 25 percent in the mid-1950s to 14 percent in 1999. A number of reasons explain the decline in union representation of the U.S. labor force. First, unions are traditionally strong in manufacturing industries, but since the 1950s manufacturing has accounted for a smaller percentage of overall employment in the U.S. economy. Employment has grown more rapidly in the service sector, particularly in professional services and white-collar jobs. Unions have not had as much success in acquiring new members in the service sector, with the exception of government employees.

Union membership has also declined as the government established laws and regulations that mandate for all workers many of the benefits and guarantees that unions had achieved for their members. These mandates include minimum wage, workplace safety, higher pay rates for overtime, and oversight of the management of pension funds if employers fund or partially fund pensions.

Third, many U.S. firms have become more aggressive in opposing the recognition of unions as bargaining agents for their employees, and in dealing with confrontations involving existing unions. For example, it is increasingly common for firms to hire permanent replacement workers if strikes occur at a firm or work site.

Finally, workers with college degrees held a larger percentage of jobs in the U.S. economy in the late 1990s than in earlier decades. These workers are more likely to be in jobs with some level of managerial responsibilities, and less likely to think of themselves as potential union members.

Unions, however, continue to play many valuable roles in representing their members on economic issues. Equally or perhaps more importantly, unions provide workers with a stronger voice in how work is done and how workers are treated. This is particularly true in jobs where it is difficult to identify clearly how much an individual worker contributes to total output in the production process. During the 1990s, many U.S. manufacturing firms adopted team production methods, in which small groups of workers function as a team. Any member of the team can suggest ideas for different ways of doing jobs. But management is likely to consider more carefully those that are recommended by the union or have union support. Workers may also be more willing to present ideas for job improvements to union representatives than to managers. In some cases, workers feel that the union would consider how the changes can be made without reducing jobs, wages, or other benefits.

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