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A Brief History of Labor Relations in the United States (Part II)

By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

This is the second of a two-part series discussing the history of labor relations in the U.S. as we approach the annual Labor Day national holiday.

(Note: This article contains content adapted from lesson material written for APUS classes.)

U.S. entry into World War II brought an understandable need for a serious reevaluation of our national priorities. In the interest of self-preservation and patriotism, unions and employers ignored their adversarial relationships – if only temporarily – as the country’s resources were mobilized for the war effort.

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New Labor Legislation Began after World War II

But after the war, the government legislated some strict proscriptions against union coercion tactics in the public sector. Purported to be in the interest of ensuring that national security is never compromised, these unique limitations on public sector labor movements are still the subject of significant debate.

For example, the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 (LMRA, famously known as the Taft-Hartley Act) tightened restrictions on the conduct of both sides of a labor dispute from the original rules under the NLRA. The LMRA required good faith bargaining between employers and employees. It prohibited discrimination by employers based on union activity, but it also outlawed certain types of union leverage tactics including jurisdictional strikes, secondary boycotts and common situs picketing at construction sites, for example. The LMRA also established the national emergency dispute procedures that mandated mediation and conciliation when labor disputes rose to the level of national crises.

The Labor Management Reporting and Disclosures Act of 1959 (LMRDA, informally known as the Landrum-Griffin Act) further added to the list of rights and protections for both employers and employees in their labor disputes. However, the most important contribution of the LMRDA was to require that labor unions submit their financial reports to the U.S. Department of Labor on an annual basis.

Why Has Membership in Labor Unions Declined?

In the post-war mid-20th century, unions reached their heights of power in terms of membership and bargaining leverage. The two biggest union federations – the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) – merged in 1955 to form the AFL-CIO, the largest labor conglomerate our nation has ever experienced. The AFL-CIO today comprises 55 different national and international unions.

However, despite this ascension to power in the mid-20th century, unions have experienced a steady decline ever since. Today, unions are a fraction of the size they once were. At their height, roughly one in three American workers was a union member. Today, that number is approximately one in 10.

This membership decline has occurred for a variety of reasons. For one, employer interests have heavily lobbied politicians to craft legislative tactics such as “Right to Work” laws for undermining the sources of funding, their union dues.

Under the traditional NLRA paradigm, if a union was voted into a work environment, it maintained the right to collect dues from all employees – even those who did not want to be union members – for the purposes of funding its efforts and activities. Employees were still not obligated to support a union through their words or actions, or to participate in union activities for that matter. But they were normally required to pay dues that the union negotiated as part of its contract with the employer.

However, Right to Work laws now require that employees be given a choice not only whether to join a union, but also whether to pay union dues. And when workers are given a choice about contributing financially to their union, many choose not to do so. If they haven’t had a direct need for union support or advocacy, they might fail to see the benefits that a union offers. And when a union fails to generate enough revenue to support its activities, the detrimental effect can be sorely felt.

Right to Work Laws Are Clever Strategies to Destroy the Power of Labor Unions

In this sense, Right to Work laws are disguised as benefits for workers, but the reality is they are clever strategies by big business interests to destroy the power of labor unions. And they have been quite successful in their effect, if deceptive in their design.

The first Right to Work law was passed by the Florida legislature in 1943. However, passage of these laws really gained momentum in the latter half of the century. Today, about half the states have Right to Work laws.

Unsurprisingly, these states tend to be some of the most heavily industrialized in the country. And as a result, their Right to Work laws have dramatically reduced the presence and effectiveness of unions throughout the United States.

But Right to Work laws were not the only driver behind the decline of unions over the past few decades. Changes in the composition and circumstances of the American workforce have also significantly changed the union-employer landscape. Today’s young workers are several generations removed from the days of the most abhorrent, tangible employer abuses, and they consequently have different opinions about the propriety and utility of labor unions.

Another factor is changing work models. Innovations in work flexibility, such as telecommuting programs and novel scheduling strategies such as flex time, are complicating the traditional ways in which unions would leverage support and negotiate benefits for members.

Will Unions Rise Again?

It is unclear whether unions will continue their decline or realize a resurgence in this new century. Much depends on public opinion concerning their relevance and the policy agenda of future national leaders. Currently, it seems that the modern workforce still views unions as net-beneficial, but also that they increase the adversarial nature of the workplace.

Although some workers might prefer not to make waves in this way, we know from psycho-social research that outside conflict tends to increase levels of in-group cohesion. In other words, we humans tend to rally around our “teams” when facing external threats, so this predisposition bodes well for unions and their uphill battles ahead.

In the aggregate, there is a relatively even division among today’s workers who are not currently unionized over whether they would support a union in their place of work. We must also remember, however, that the current workforce is in a state of substantial transition from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the Baby Boomer generation is reaching retirement age and exiting the scene. That leaves the new demographic with somewhat different opinions on the subject.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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