Forgot your password?

Have Labor Unions Worn Out Their Welcome?

By Edited May 13, 2016 9 20

Norma Rae

The late 1700's through the early 1800's was the age of Cottage Industry. People farmed and made every attempt at self-sufficiency. If they needed to earn extra money they sold produce, eggs, milk and butter. Some sewed for others or built wagons. But a massive upheaval in the American economic system was brewing. The Industrial Revolution, which began very slowly in the late 18th century and reached its pinnacle by 1914, ushered in a strange new world, pulling men, women and children from the farm fields to the factory floor.


The Rise of the Labor Union

Labor Unions began as skilled trade union organizations in the UK and began forming in small groups in the US, one such being the Knights of Labor. The Knights became the largest and most powerful labor union in the States in the 1880's. Founded by Uriah Smith Stephens and James L. Wright as a tailors' union, the Knights enjoyed exponential growth throughout the 1880's and '90's. The collapse of the National Labor Union in 1873 had left a vacuüm the Knights were eager to fill. Their agenda was no child or convict labor, eight-hour workdays and safer working environments. Embraced by the coal miners and steelworkers in Pennsylvania, the Knights membership exploded until mismanagement shut them down in 1949.

The Age of the Wobblies

In 1905, a group of thirty union organizers, led by William "Big Bill" Haywood, formed the Industrial Workers of the World, aka the Wobblies. Most of the early members were miners and lumbermen in the West. The Wobblies were very liberal for their day, excluding no one from their ranks, including women and people of other races. The glory days of the IWW were very important for labor unions, as they gave unskilled laborers a voice in the workplace. Still in existence today, at its pinnacle it had 200,000 members. Today, the group has membership of 2,000.

Government Reactions

Between 1912 and 1918 the US government began to react to the demands of labor unions. 36 states adopted the Workers Compensation Act, and one rest day out of seven, maximum daily hours of work and minimum wage requirements for women were all implemented as policy. While the government had always tried to intervene in labor practices, actual policy change in favor of labor demands was an animal of the early 20th century.

During the Great Depression, Congress delivered six important pieces of labor legislation favored by unionists, virtually revolutionizing labor markets: Davis-Bacon (1931, requiring fair, locally competitive wages in the construction field), Norris-LaGuardia (1932, granting labor unions immunity from wrongful acts in anti-trust cases), National Industrial Recovery Act (1933, approval of collective bargaining practices), Wagner National Labor Relations Act (1935, created the National Labor Relations Board), Walsh-Healey (1936, allowed fixed minimum wages for government contract workers), and the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938, popularly known as the minimum wage law). The root of this legislation is the belief that higher wages mean better product. This actually reverses the cause and effect proving high wages are an effect of high productivity and thus wages, not a cause of them.  It also gave labor unions far more leeway in their negotiating practices.


The Rise of the UAW & the Teamsters

 The United Auto Workers (UAW), is a labor union which represents workers in the United States and Puerto Rico, and formerly in Canada. Founded as part of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s, the UAW grew rapidly from 1936 to the 1950s. Under the leadership of Walter Reuther it played a major role in the liberal wing of the Democratic party, including the civil rights and anti-Communist movements. The UAW was especially known for gaining high wages and pensions for the auto workers, but it was unable to unionize auto plants built by foreign-based car-makers in the South after 1970s, and went into a steady decline in membership.

The labor body that would become the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Union formed in 1887.  Beginning that year, the American Federation of Labor, or AFL, assisted in establishing local unions of teamsters in the United States. During this time, teamsters drove teams of horses and wagons for commercial purposes. 12 years later the Team Drivers' International Union formed. A few years after that a group of local unions broke with the AFL's organization and started the Teamsters National Union. Two years later, these  two organizations merged, under the umbrella of the AFL. That incarnation was  the first to bear the name International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

The Teamsters history is fraught with corruption, graft and greed. Organized crime figures were major players in the Teamsters organization.  Jimmy Hoffa, a Teamsters organizer from 1932 to 1975, played a major role in the growth and development of the union, though not always in an above-board way.

Hoffa, convicted of jury tampering, attempted bribery, and fraud in 1964, went to prison to serve a  13 year sentence in 1967. In mid-1971 he officially resigned the Teamsters' presidency, as part of a pardon agreement with president Nixon, to ensure his release from prison in late 1971.  Another part of the plea agreement, Nixon blocked Hoffa from union activities until 1980. Hoffa tried unsuccessfully to overturn this part of the plea-bargain.

Hoffa's disappearance on July 30, 1975, after an alleged meet with two top mafiosi, did not slow down the growth and development of the Teamsters. He was declared legally dead in 1982.



The Effects of OSHA on Labor Unions

Signed into law on December 29, 1970 by president Richard Nixon, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Act nullified a large part of labor unions' raison d'être. In pre-OSHA years, labor unions were the watchdogs of workplace conditions. OSHA's mission is to assure safe and healthful workplace conditions for all workers.

OSHA is responsible for enforcing its standards. The agency routinely sends Compliance Safety and Health Officers to work sites, where they carry out inspections and assess fines for regulatory violations. Planned inspections for work sites in particularly hazardous industries are the norm . Inspections can also result in response to workplace incidents, worker complaints or referrals by others. Properly applied OSHA safety standards in the modern workplace have effectively rendered this arm of labor unions obsolete, as OSHA covers over 7,000,000 industries in the US alone.

The Effects of the Fair Labor Standards Act

The Fair Labor Standards Act, or FSLA, enacted by the government to regulate a national minimum wage. It also deals with fair overtime pay practices, protection of workers under the age of 16, and oversees the Immigration and Nationality Act, which sets standards for immigrant workers, who make up a large percentage of the US workforce.  The FLSA also made the hiring of children illegal, thus completely preventing child-labor in the US.

Enacted in June of 1938 by Senator Hugo Black, the FLSA was a direct result of violence between employers and striking union workers. The government opinion is, with these types of standards in place, there will be less reason for unions to organize strikes. Surprisingly, the US Supreme Court was very much opposed to the FLSA; the court had repeatedly voted against excluding children in the workforce, and felt the FLSA stance on the topic was too severe and restrictive.


The Pros and Cons of Labor Unions

The most important duty of a labor union is representing the "collective voice" of the workers to management. Labor unions are very good at negotiating pay raises and better benefits for their members. The threat of a walkout is often a very good motivator for employers and tends to speed up negotiations exponentially. Labor unions also are used to represent individual workers who feel they are being discriminated against in some way. Union representatives can provide guidance and assistance in effectively filing complaints against management without fear of the loss of employment. However, it is this fearlessness of workers protected by the union shield that contributes greatly to the dark side of labor unions. Many employers are unable to dismiss union workers who are incompetent, dishonest or ineffectual for fear of a backlash from the union.

Also, the often unrealistic expectations of wages and benefits by union workers force the employer to send work overseas, where non-unionized workers will do the same job for lower pay and few (if any) benefits. This "cheapening" of the US labor force has been a direct result of unions being allowed to run roughshod over employers. Many union shops will hire employees through temporary employment agencies as a long-term hire, to avoid offering union demanded higher salaries and benefits packages. Lastly, discrimination against women and minorities, while still an issue in some industries, is not the hot button issue it was even twenty years ago. There is little that a union does for it's members, other than charge them often exorbitant union dues for "protection".

Although an important part of the history of industry in this country, the day of the labor union is slowly drawing to a close. Government protection of employees and the quality of their workplaces has superceded the union as the watchdog of the workplace. It won't be long before labor unions, like Jimmy Hoffa, are declared legally dead.



Jun 10, 2012 9:18pm
Thank you for your article. It gives a good overview of Labor Unions and their history.
Jun 10, 2012 9:56pm
Unions are nothing more than legalized extortion these days ("We do less for more money or we strike"). You can't get rid of a bad union employee with all the rigamarole you have to go through to fire one. I am glad ot see them on the decline deservedly. Good article. A thumb.
Jun 11, 2012 12:18am
Without unions there would still be child labour and we would return to the pre-union days of slums and extreme poverty for the majority.
Jul 17, 2012 1:57am
From the start of the industrial revolution to the onset of unionization child labor and poverty in the majority of the population were in drastic decline for decades. It was increased productivity brought on by the industrial revolution that that did this, not unions!
Jul 17, 2012 2:20am
Jul 17, 2012 4:12am
Not wrong. Pre industrial revolution child labor and poverty was nearly 100% and it decreased from the late 1800s after the end of serfdom.
Jul 17, 2012 4:12am
Not wrong. Pre industrial revolution child labor and poverty was nearly 100% and it decreased from the late 1800s after the end of serfdom.
Jun 11, 2012 5:14am
Thanks for the comments guys. Vic, I agree. I saw both of my parents pay exorbitant amounts of money to the union only to have the company go bankrupt and their pensions wiped out, and the union could do nothing for them. And I like that, legalized extortion. Great description, in my opinion.

Etcetera, I do believe there was a time and place for labor unions. However, with government intervention in the workplace and the standards set forth today, unions are obsolete. They do nothing more than take money from their employees for who knows what and fight for the continued employment of people who should not still be employed.

Askformore, thanks for your support! I really enjoyed researching and writing this article.
Jul 17, 2012 1:10am
Great article, very informative! Keep it up! Thumb up!
Jul 17, 2012 1:57am
Great article Angie and a well deserved feature.
Jul 17, 2012 4:56am
DDC I agree with your assessment of the decline of child labor. My research shows statistics backing up that fact. There are too many government programs in place today to protect the workforce; labor unions are nothing more than talking heads.

And as always, thanks for reading all! :)
Jul 17, 2012 6:24am
congrats angie! good article.
Jul 17, 2012 3:47pm
Thanks for reading claud! ;)
Jul 19, 2012 11:11am
My union dues recently lost me 3 years seniority and bankruptcy...... Nice article
Jul 19, 2012 11:23am
I'm sorry to hear that; my parent's were screwed over badly by the UAW. And I mean badly, to the tune of "no pension, no nothing". My dad is almost 70 and is having to drive a truck to be able to make ends meet; my mother got lucky and got a better job after losing her position and pension (which she'd worked almost 40 years for) and is drawing Social Security and a small pension from the job she worked at her last twelve years of work. (She retired early this year). So you can understand why I have no love lost for labor unions.

Thanks for reading! :)
Jul 21, 2012 6:16am
Timely and important subject for a featured article. Good job! Congratulations on being featured. Thumbs Up!
Jul 22, 2012 5:59am
Thanks SG! And thank you for reading. :)
Jul 31, 2012 3:36am
Unions were organization created in the early part when industrial society was still int he offing and still developing. Somehow after sometime when the whole system has completely developed and has reached its peak, unions usability to worker has already outlived their purpose. They've been integrated by the system as a machinery to control the workers and not basically serve the very purpose it was established in the early 1800's. Workers, if they really want to fight for their rights and welfare needs to have a different organization which should go beyond the limitations of the laws the system sets for them. A territorial workers assemblies in towns and cities can organized.
Jul 31, 2012 7:58pm
I completely agree with you rb; they are a dinosaur, extinct and worthless in today's workplace.

Thanks so much for reading! :)
May 31, 2013 9:41pm
Great article and I agree with you 100 percent. They help no one but the union leaders and corrupt politicians.
Add a new comment - No HTML
You must be logged in and verified to post a comment. Please log in or sign up to comment.

Explore InfoBarrel

Auto Business & Money Entertainment Environment Health History Home & Garden InfoBarrel University Lifestyle Sports Technology Travel & Places
© Copyright 2008 - 2016 by Hinzie Media Inc. Terms of Service Privacy Policy XML Sitemap

Follow IB Business & Money