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Labor Unions in the United States

By Leocthasme

Richard Trumka

of the AFL-CIO is one of the most prominent union leaders in America

Labor Unions in the United States are legally recognized as representatives of workers in many industries. The most prominent unions are among public sector employees such as teachers and police. Activity by labor unions in the United States today centers on collective bargaining over wages, benefits, and working conditions for their membership and on representing their members if management attempts to violate contract provisions. Although much smaller compared to their peak membership in the 1950s, American unions also remain an important political factor, both through mobilization of their own memberships and through coalitions with like-minded activist organizations around issues such as immigrant rights, trade policy, health care, and living wage campaigns.

Today most unions are aligned with one of two larger umbrella organizations: the AFL-CIO created in 1955 and the Change to Win Federation, which split from the AFL-CIO in 2005. Both advocate policies and legislation on behalf of workers in the United States and Canada, and take an active role in politics. The AFL-CIO is especially concerned with global trade issues.

American union membership in the private sector has in recent years fallen under 9% — levels not seen since 1932. Unions allege that employer-incited opposition has contributed to this decline in membership.

Unions are currently advocating new federal legislation that would allow workers to elect union representation by simply signing a support card. The current process established by federal law requires at least 30% of employees to sign cards for the union, then wait 45 to 90 days for a federal official to conduct a secret ballot election in which a simple majority of the employees must vote for the union in order to obligate the employer to bargain. Unions report that, under the present system, many employers use the 45 to 90 day period to conduct anti-union campaigns.

During the 2008 elections, the Employee Free Choice Act had widespread support of many legislators in the House and Senate, and of the President. Since then, support for the "card check" provisions of the EFCA subsided substantially.

Labor unions today

See also : US labor law

Labor unions in the United States

National trade union organization(s)

National government agency(ies)
United States Department of Labor
National Labor Relations Board

Primary trade union legislation
National Labor Relations Act
Taft-Hartley Act

Trade union membership

    16.1 million[1]

Percentage of workforce

  • Total: 12.4%
  • Public sector: 36.8%
  • Private sector: 7.6%


  • Age 16–24: 5.0%
  • 25–34: 10.7%
  • 35–44: 13.4%
  • 45–54: 16.0%
  • 55–64: 16.6%
  • 65 and over: 9.0%
  • Women: 11.4%
  • Men: 13.4%

Standard Occupational Classification

  • Management, professional: 13.4%
  • Service: 11.9%
  • Sales and office: 7.4%
  • Natural resources, construction, and maintenance: 17.7%
  • Production, transportation, and material moving: 16.4%

International Labour Organization

United States is a member of the ILO

Convention ratification

Freedom of Association ............... not ratified
Right to Organise..................... not ratified

Today most labor unions in the United States are members of one of two larger umbrella organizations: the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) or the Change to Win Federation, which split from the AFL-CIO in 2005. Both organizations advocate policies and legislation favorable to workers in the United States and Canada, and take an active role in politics favoring the Democratic party but not exclusively so. The AFL-CIO is especially concerned with global trade issues.

Recently unions have become a larger issue within the 2008 "Economic Crisis" with the three largest automakers seeking $50 billion in loans in order to stay viable. According to some Senators 'costly labor agreements' including pension and health plans put the U.S. automakers at a disadvantage to foreign companies resulting in their collapse. Others point out that the United Auto Workers has made extensive concessions to the car companies over the last twenty years in order to help the companies remain competitive, and allege that the automakers' recent troubles are better ascribed to other factors.

Private sector union members are tightly regulated by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), passed in 1935. The law is overseen by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent federal agency. Public sector unions are regulated partly by federal and partly by state laws. In general they have shown robust growth rates, for wages and working conditions are set through negotiations with elected local and state officials. The unions' political power thus comes into play, and of course the local government cannot threaten to move elsewhere, nor is there any threat from foreign competition. In California the public sector unions have been especially successful.

To join a traditional labor union, workers must either be given voluntary recognition from their employer or have a majority of workers in a bargaining unit vote for union representation. In either case, the government must then certify the newly formed union. Other forms of unionism include minority unionism, Solidarity unionism, and the practices of organizations such as the Industrial Workers of the World, which do not always follow traditional organizational models.

Public sector worker unions are governed by labor laws and labor boards in each of the 50 states. Northern states typically model their laws and boards after the NLRA and the NLRB. In other states, public workers have no right to establish a union as a legal entity. (About 40% of public employees in the USA do not have the right to organize a legally established union.)

Once the union has won the support of a majority of the bargaining unit and is certified in a workplace, it has the sole authority to negotiate the conditions of employment. However, under the NLRA, if a minority of employees voted for a union, those employees can then form a union which represents the rights of only those members who voted for the union. This minority model was once widely used, but was discarded when unions began to consistently win majority support. Unions are beginning to revisit the "members only" model of unionism because of new changes to labor law which unions view as curbing workers' ability to organize.

The employer and the union write the terms and conditions of employment in a legally binding contract. When disputes arise over the contract, most contracts call for the parties to resolve their differences through a grievance process to see if the dispute can be mutually resolved. If the union and the employer still cannot settle the matter, either party can choose to send the dispute to arbitration, where the case is argued before a neutral third party.

In the 1940s and 1950s, links to organized crime were discovered in U.S. unions, hurting their image. Since the 1970s, union membership has been steadily declining in the private sector while growing in the public sector. Right-to-work statutes forbid unions from negotiating agency shops. Thus, while unions do exist in "right-to-work" states, they are typically weaker.

Members of labor unions enjoy "Weingarten Rights." If management questions the union member on a matter that may lead to discipline or other changes in working conditions, union members can request representation by a union representative. Weingarten Rights are named for the first Supreme Court decision to recognize those rights.

The NLRA goes farther in protecting the right of workers to organize unions. It protects the right of workers to engage in any "concerted activity" for mutual aid or protection. Thus, no union connection is needed. Concerted activity "in its inception involves only a speaker and a listener, for such activity is an indispensable preliminary step to employee self-organization


Union membership had been steadily declining in the US since 1983. In 2007, the labor department reported the first increase in union memberships in 25 years and the largest increase since 1979. Most of the recent gains in union membership have been in the service sector while the number of unionized employees in the manufacturing sector has declined. Most of the gains in the service sector have come in West Coast states like California where union membership is now at 16.7% compared with a national average of about 12.1%.

Union density (the percentage of workers belonging to unions) has been declining since the late 1940s, however. Almost 36% of American workers were represented by unions in 1945. Historically, the rapid growth of public employee unions since the 1960s has served to mask an even more dramatic decline in private-sector union membership.

At the apex of union density in the 1940s, only about 9.8% of public employees were represented by unions, while 33.9% of private, non-agricultural workers had such representation. In this decade, those proportions have essentially reversed, with 36% of public workers being represented by unions while private sector union density had plummeted to around 7%. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics most recent survey indicates that union membership in the US has risen to 12.4% of all workers, from 12.1% in 2007. For a short period, private sector union membership rebounded, increasing from 7.5% in 2007 to 7.6% in 2008. However, that trend has since reversed. In 2009, the union density for private sector stood at 7.2%.

Labor education programs

In the US, labor education programs such as the Harvard Trade Union Program created in 1942 by Harvard University professor John Thomas Dunlop sought to educate union members to deal with important contemporary workplace and labor law issues of the day. The Harvard Trade Union Program is currently part of a broader initiative at Harvard Law School called the Labor and Worklife Program that deals with a wide variety of labor and employment issues from union pension investment funds to the effects of nanotechnology on labor markets and the workplace.


Labor unions use the term jurisdiction to refer to their claims to represent workers who perform a certain type of work and the right of their members to perform such work. For example, the work of unloading containerized cargo at United States ports, which the International Longshoremen's Association the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters have claimed rightfully should be assigned to workers they represent. A jurisdictional strike is a concerted refusal to work undertaken by a union to assert its members' right to such job assignments and to protest the assignment of disputed work to members of another union or to unorganized workers. Jurisdictional strikes occur most frequently in the United States in the construction industry.

Unions also use jurisdiction to refer to the geographical boundaries of their operations, as in those cases in which a national or international union allocates the right to represent workers among different local unions based on the place of those workers' employment, either along geographical lines or by adopting the boundaries between political jurisdictions.

Gompers, Samuel

Gompers, Samuel (gom'purz), 1850–1924, American labor leader, b. London.

He emigrated to the United States with his parents in 1863. He worked as a cigar maker and in 1864 joined the local union, serving as its president from 1874 to 1881, when he helped to found the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. It was reorganized in 1886 and became the American Federation of Labor, of which Gompers was first president and of which he remained president, except for the year 1895, until his death. He directed the successful battle with the Knights of Labor for supremacy, kept the union free from political entanglements in the early days, and refused to entertain various cooperative business plans, socialistic ideas, and radical programs, maintaining that more wages, shorter hours, and greater freedom were the just aims of labor. He came to be recognized as the leading spokesman for the labor movement, and his pronouncements carried much weight. During World War I, he organized and headed the War Committee on Labor; and as a member of the Advisory Commission to the Council of National Defense, he helped to hold organized labor loyal to the government program. A man of great personal integrity, he did much to make organized labor respected. See American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Do a search for his autobiography, Seventy Years of Life and Labor (1925, repr. 1967); the Samuel Gompers Papers (ed. by S. B. Kaufman, 2 vol., 1986–87); biographies by W. Chasan (1971) and G. E. Stearn, ed. (1971); L. S. Reed, The Labor Philosophy of Samuel Gompers (1930, repr. 1966); F. C. Thorne, Samuel Gompers, American Statesman (1957, repr. 1969); S. B. Kaufman, Samuel Gompers and the Origins of the American Federation of Labor, 1848–1896 (1973).

Researched by Leo C. Helmer

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