Are Labor Unions in the U.S. Obsolete? Essay

Are Labor Unions in the U. S. Obsolete? To understand the worth of today’s unions, we must first understand the history and purpose of these organizations. Simply put, a union is an organization of employees formed to bargain with the employer. There are many types of unions. For instance, a craft union is one whose members do one type of work, often using specialized skills and training. An industrial union is one that includes many persons working in the same industry or company, regardless of jobs held. A federation is a group of autonomous national and international unions (Mathis 529).

The main purpose of all these organizations is to secure benefits and rights in the workplace. The history of unions in the United States dates back before the civil war, but has matured within the last 120 years. Many early unions were premature and short-lived, such as the National Labor Union, which was the first federation of U. S. unions. In the past, some unions used violence to promote the cause of unskilled labors such as the Industrial Workers of the World. In today’s society, labor unions are generally more civil and use strikes and other peaceful demonstrations to negotiate with employers.

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However, today’s union numbers are steadily declining and workers seem less interested in joining. While labor unions in the past have proved to be an effective way to bargain with employers and maintain employee satisfaction, today’s unions seem to be challenged by a number of different sources. These challenges aid in the decay of unions and the leverage they once had. This is why, in today’s world, U. S. unions are undeniably obsolete. So what are these challenges that face U. S. unions? The declining union representation largely results from factors external to the labor movement itself.

Some of these aspects include changes in economic structure that favor nonunion over union employment, a declining intensity of union organizing, a diminution in workers’ interest in union representation, and increasing management opposition (Bennett 459). Also, technology has played an important role in managing jobs. The old ways of doing things are dissolving into a new kind of cooperation. To a certain extent, today’s employees are able to ‘be their own boss’. Except for a small number of highly skilled labors, the old divide between those who design work and those who do it, has not changed much at all.

Perhaps this is why, outside human resource management textbooks, the language of workplace “empowerment” is heard less often these days (Inroads). In today’s economy the new attitude of labor is competitiveness and survival. Another factor that is affecting the demise of the union is non-union corporations. We can see a number of new large corporations taking form without unions. For companies like Federal Express, MCI, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, USA Today, Nucor Steel, Apple Computer, and Cable News Network they incorporate things like teamwork, flexibility, and innovation to shape a new age of employee relationships.

Most of the companies mentioned above depict the growing percentage of companies that are more service-based as opposed to manufacture-based. There is an increasingly small number of union members in the financial and wholesale/retail sectors in which many new jobs have been added, where as the number of industrial jobs continue to sink. Basically, union membership is primarily concentrated in the shrinking part of the economy, and unions are not making inroads into the fastest-growing segments in the U. S. economy (Mathis 532). Union supporters like to talk about the right to strike.

In labor law, it means you can quit your job, in concert with your fellow workers, and get it back later (under certain circumstances). Unfortunately, employers don’t always have to hire their workers back. For instance, if they believe the union did not act in good faith, they may have the right to fire their workers. Few private employers can afford simultaneous 100 percent turnover, even temporarily, so a strike threat encourages negotiations. Today, management holds more leverage knowing that many people cannot afford the risk of losing their jobs in such a competitive economy.

So instead of negotiating labor issues, employees are satisfied with what is given to them. The rhetoric of solidarity has long obscured the reality of unionism: Unions drive up wages by pitting workers against workers, insiders against outsiders (Reason). Another challenge that has effected the growth of unions is the organizing of unions themselves. Institutional developments indicate that the U. S. labor movement has been slow to respond to the challenge of new private sector organizing (Bennett 466).

There are committees and institutions that help the development of new unions, such as the Organizing Institute proposed by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO). Unfortunately, many existing organizations are more concerned with satisfying current members rather than organizing new ones. As mentioned before, the declining union representation is largely effected by outside factors. For example, one of those factors is the growing percentage of women in the U. S. workforce.

In the past, unions have not been as successful in organizing women workers as they have been in organizing men (Mathis 532). However, many of our legislation toward child care, paternity leave, and pay equity have been made possible by women union members. Women in low skill service jobs have been more inclined to join unions than women in white collar jobs. In the United States, where unions are not illegal, union rights are often denied through mass firings, blacklists and other forms of repression. In addition, many countries, including the United States, deny domestic workers and migrant workers the right to join unions.

Agricultural workers are another category often excluded from unions. Given that half the world’s workforce is rural, this has enormous significance (Inroads). Furthermore, as trade liberalization destroys the market niches of domestic firms, more workers are being forced into the informal economy. The informal sector is economic activity that is neither taxed nor monitored by a government; and is not included in that government’s Gross Domestic Product. The informal economy of the United States ranks 103rd in the world, and it represents 8. % of our employment (NationMaster). As economical trends show, unions are fast becoming an organization of the past. In the United States, we are witnessing the steady decline of pro-union corporations, and the steep incline of non-union corporations. There are a number of factors causing this behavior. These factors include geographic changes, workforce changes, and industrial changes. In the past, unions proved to be a successful and beneficial negotiating tool; an organization advocating equality. In today’s society, too many people are afraid of strikes.

They represent a risk of unemployment, something our economy is currently experiencing high rates of. So what is a union without the freedom to strike? It is a powerless entity that will eventually have little to no leverage over management. American unions face a choice. On it depends their future. They can continue to pursue their current course, taking their old-fashioned ideology to the only workplaces where it still applies–the monopoly shops owned and operated by government. Or they can reinvent unions as organizations that primarily serve workers rather than fight management (Reason).

Bibliography “Are labour unions obsolete in the new global economy? | Inroads | Find Articles at BNET. ” Find Articles at BNET | News Articles, Magazine Back Issues & Reference Articles on All Topics. Web. 31 Oct. 2009. . Bennett, J. What Do Unions Do? A Twenty-Year Perspective. New York: Transaction, 2007. Print. “Informal economy by country. Definition, graph and map. ” NationMaster – World Statistics, Country Comparisons. Web. 31 Oct. 2009. . Mathis, Robert. Human Resource Management. Belmont: Thomson/South-Western, 2006. Print. “Unions Forever? -. ” Reason Magazine. Web. 31 Oct. 2009. .


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