History and future of unions

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Workers’ unionism arose as a result of the desire to form a unified front in order to advocate for better working conditions. The majority of the early unions concentrated on workplace wages and working conditions. Employers were originally opposed to trade unions, but this did not prevent employees from banding together. Staff from all around the world were eventually able to persuade politicians to pass legislation and regulations that favored their unionism. Most developing nations have fulfilled the mission of these unions. Workers have had their most of grievances responded to and they currently enjoy good remuneration and working conditions in most industries. This has led to individualism where many workers are tending towards personally entering agreements with their employers. This has become a threat to unionism in the recent years. This paper will examine the history of unions and the factors that have led to discouragement of the contemporary workforce from forming and joining unions.

Background of the Labor Movement

The movement was founded on the developing need to protect the rights and interests of the common worker. Labor Unions were organized to ensure that the workers were remunerated well, worked for a reasonable amount of time under safe working conditions (Cowie 14). The US has a history of abandoning labor unions once they achieve their mandate. Printers across New York briefly organized a union in 1778 to lobby for better working conditions. Once the employers obliged, these individuals abandoned the union and it was eventually disbanded. One of the early successful formal strikes took place in Philadelphia in 1871. It brought together carpenters who were lobbying for reduction of their workday to ten hours. The industrial revolution and the Civil War precipitated more activism in the labor sector. Both skilled and nonskilled laborers came together to press for fairer wages.

The National Labor Union was formalized in 1886 to lobby the congress to reduce the workday of federal workers up to eight hours. This call was positively responded to. However, the effect of labor unions on private employees was minimal because there were no laws that could help them enforce their grievances. In the 1890s, the United Mine and Pullman Railroad workers staged various protests to have their employers give in to various demands, key among them being working conditions and remuneration (Rainey 3). The government came in and broke up the demonstrations and the workers returned before their grievances were addressed.

There was need for a greater voice to have the government give in to the demands of the workers. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions formed towards the end of the 19th century seemed to draw more attention from the congress because of the large numbers involved (Kim and Sherman 8). The congress started showing empathy towards the workers. It created the Department of Labor that was placed under the executive arm of government, headed by an appointee of the president. This department pushed for the enactment of the Fair Labor Standards Acts that put frameworks in place on more pay for overtime work, put in place minimum wage standards and put up basic laws to protect children from abuse by employers (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, n.p).

The period between the two world wars had a major impact on labor unionism. The demand for human resource continued growing and this meant that employees had to offer the best working conditions to attract and maintain the best workforce. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies salvaged the country from the effects of the Great Depression and strengthened the unions. Union membership grew as workers who sought protection from employers joined local trade unions. The government needed a steady supply of commodities in order to sustain the country during the Second World War. As a result, strikes were illegalized for some time. The end of the war saw a rebirth of unionism and they became very vibrant in the 1950s and 1960s (Kim and Sherman 27).

Decline of the Labor Union’s Power and Influence

As unions grew stronger, they became organizations of key interest to major political and economic stakeholders. They were used to lobby for major economic reforms and politicians would even seek to appease the leaders in order to prevail over the members to support their bids for various elective posts. This led to the infiltration complacency and corruption among the union officials and their members.

Figure 1: Variations in the Percentage of Unionized Workforce (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016)

The strength of labor unions and the growing significance of the labor force made the government give in to demands to enact laws aimed at protecting the interests of the individual worker. As formal employment grew, more people became concerned about the role that the government was playing in safeguarding their interests. The regimes of the mid-20th century passed many laws that gave workers better pay, eliminated racial barriers to employment and good remuneration and outlawed child labor. With the existence of these laws, labor unions started becoming irrelevant. Employees would go to courts when they felt that their employers were violating their rights.

Corruption and decline of the power of the labor unions eroded the faith and trust that American workers had in these organizations. Since the workers now felt exposed, the government had to come in top enact laws aimed at protecting the employee. In addition, the law of contract advanced. Employees realized that they were guaranteed better working conditions and remuneration if they entered individual contracts with the employees at entry. The government set up special courts and authorities that were mandated with the responsibility of handling issues of employment. With these organizations in place, employees’ issues were efficiently handled at the personal, organizational, sectoral and industrial levels. As a result, labor unions started becoming weaker in the 1970s (Naidu and Yuchtman 19). New employees did not see the necessity of joining these unions.

Labor unions, have survived to date despite the erosion of their influence and power that occurred in the second half of the 20th century. Despite the interest of a section of Americans in labor unions, there have been continued calls for governments to enact laws aimed at protecting the interest of the workers. For instance, the Obama administration made many attempts to reform trade unionism in the US through the Employee Free Choice Act (Cowie 31). Though most of the laws in this act did not get a nod of the congress, they are key landmarks that demonstrate the interest of the general population to have injunctions in place to prevent unfair labor practices. This bill had many clauses that sought to give workers discretion to form, join and leave labor unions with much ease.

The history of labor unions is characterized by tremendous successes. The unions were able to get the employers respond to the grievances raised by their members. The growth in the significance of the labor unions is what eventually led to the deterioration of their influence and power. This significance made it easy for the unions to achieve their mandate. Once this was done, individuals had little or no interest in joining them. Despite their continued existence, their influence remained low (Naidu and Yuchtman 21). The union played a key role in attracting the attention of the government towards the key issues affecting the normal American worker.

All the three arms of the government were eventually drawn to the struggle towards addressing the issues affecting the American worker. The legislature created laws and set up agencies aimed at protecting the interests of both unionized and nonunionized employees. The executive implemented these laws and ensured smooth running of the agencies. The judiciary has mediated in conflicts between employers and employees on different occasions. Precedents have been set in various cases with both the employers and employees emerging victorious on various occasions. Federal court injunctions have also been required where unions flout laws aimed at protecting their members.


The future of trade unionism is bleak. Reading from history, it is evident that once these unions achieve their mandate, individuals start withdrawing. Employees who would have been eligible show little interest. In addition, the government has come in to ensure that the interests of the workers are catered. Due to this success, the current and the future workforce have very few grievances which can be addressed using the existing laws and relevant government agencies. However, this does not mean that labor unions will be phased out. Though they may continue to exist, their power and influence has been reduced.


Cowie, Jefferson. “Reframing the New Deal: The past and future of American labor and the law.” Theoretical Inquiries in Law 17.1 (2016): 13-38.

Naidu, Suresh, and Yuchtman. Noam. Labor Market Institutions in the Gilded Age of American Economic History. No. w22117. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2016.

Rainey, Paul L. The National Labor Relations Act: Structuration and the Interaction of Policy and the Hermeneutics of Case Law. Diss. Indiana University of Pennsylvania, 2015.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Union Membership In The United States. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Seoptember 2016. Web. April 17, 2017.

Voss, Kim, and Sherman, Rachel. “Breaking the Iron Law of Oligarchy: Union Revitalization in the American Labor Movement 1.” American Journal of Sociology 106.2 (2000): 303-349.

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