U.S. Labor Movement: The Modern Era

The merger of the AFL and CIO in 1955 created a new union, the AFL-CIO. With a membership of 16 million workers from 139 local affiliates, the great majority of unionized workers in the United States belonged to the AFL-CIO. The 1950s and early 1960s also represented the heyday of organized labor in the United States, when over 30 percent of the civilian labor force was unionized. Since that time the union membership rate—the percentage of U.S. workers who belong to a union—has declined steadily. In 2012 the union membership rate was 11.3 percent, which accounted for 14.4 million American workers.[1] Table 6.6 summarizes the state of union membership in the United States.[2]

The decline in union membership over the past half-century is rooted in some fundamental economic changes in the American economy. First, an improved standard of living for most Americans made workers less inclined to form or join unions. Second, federal legislation addressed some important workplace issues. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (1970) established safety regulations in the workplace. Third, the shift from a manufacturing to a services-producing economy drained workers from traditional union strongholds such as auto manufacturing plants and textile mills. Fourth, forces associated with globalization, including an avalanche of new global competitors and new offshoring opportunities to low-wage countries, reduced union power. Fifth, unions suffered from negative public opinion due, in part, to costly labor contracts and union involvement in political campaigns.

Some government policies also reduced the power of unions. At the federal level the Taft-Hartley Act (1947) banned the closed shop, an arrangement that required employers to hire only labor union members. This act also broadened the authority of government to block certain strikes through injunctions. The Landrum-Griffin Act (1959), which was enacted after union corruption was exposed in the 1950s, set rules for the selection of union leaders and for the conduct of union business.

Table 6.6 Characteristics of U.S. Union Membership, 2012

Characteristics of U.S. Union Membership

Source : U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Union Membership Summary (2012),” Economic News Release , January 23, 2013.

Despite the decline in the union membership rate since the 1960s, today's labor movement shows signs of vitality. The AFL-CIO, the flagship organization in the U.S. labor movement, continues its commitment “to improving the lives of working families, to bringing fairness and dignity to the workplace and securing social equity in the Nation.”[3] In 2012 the AFL-CIO represented more than 12 million workers from 57 associated national and international labor unions. Its membership includes workers from the services-producing and goods-producing sectors and from all socio-economic groups. Its mission reflects the need to mobilize the power of workers and give voice to their concerns at the local, national, and international levels.

There are some encouraging signs for organized labor in the United States. For example, the number and percentage of public sector employees enrolled under a union banner increased significantly in recent decades. In 2012, 35.9 percent of all government employees belonged to unions. And while just 6.6 percent of all private sector workers were union members, many of the nation's leading industries were heavily unionized, such as construction, utilities, transportation, and telecommunications. Union leaders also point to significantly higher pay for union labor, as the median weekly wage for union workers is 27 percent higher than the wage of nonunion workers.[4]

The Labor Movement in the Global Economy

Since its founding in 1919, the International Labor Organization (ILO) has advocated for the rights of labor on a global level by coordinating and strengthening the efforts of national labor unions. In 1946 the ILO became a specialized agency within the United

PRIMARY DOCUMENT: The International Labor Organization Establishes Fundamental Rights for Workers

The International Labor Conference

1. Recalls:

(a) that in freely joining the ILO, all Members have endorsed the principles and rights set out in its Constitution and in the Declaration of Philadelphia, and have undertaken to work towards attaining the overall objectives of the Organization to the best of their resources ...

(b) that these principles and rights have been expressed and developed in the form of specific rights and obligations in Conventions recognized both inside and outside the Organization.

2. Declares that all Members, even if they have not ratified the Convention in question, have an obligation arising from the very fact of membership in the Organization to respect, to promote and to realize, in good faith and in accordance with the Constitution, the principles concerning the fundamental rights which are the subject of those Conventions, namely:

(a) freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;

(b) the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor;

(c) the effective abolition of child labor; and

(d) the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.

Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, International Labor Organization

Nations system. The ILO is not a labor union, however. Instead, it is an international organization of 185 countries designed to promote cooperation among labor groups, business interests, and governments.[5] In 1998 the ILO adopted the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.[6] Today this document is one of the most widely recognized statements of labor rights in the global economy. The four basic principles of this declaration are shown on page 122. More recently the ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization (2008) expanded its push to protect the rights of labor in an era of globalization.[7] Other major documents that protect workers' rights include the United Nations' Global Compact and the Reverend Leon H. Sullivan's Global Sullivan Principles of Corporate Social Responsibility.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has emerged as another major player in the global labor movement. Founded in 2006, the ITUC brought a number of international labor groups under one umbrella organization to “better the conditions of work and life of working women and men and their families, and to strive for human rights, social justice, gender equity, peace, freedom and democracy.”[8] In 2012 the ITUC represented 175 million workers in 153 countries through 308 national affiliates. In addition, the ITUC pledged continued support for the work of the International Labor Organization (ILO), and cooperation with other trade unions and civil society organizations to end child labor, forced labor, discrimination and racism, and other forms of worker abuse in the global economy.[9]

  • [1] Ben J. Wattenberg, “Series D 927-939: Labor Union Membership, by Affiliation, 1935 to 1970,” Statistical History of the United States: From Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 1976), 176; DOL/BLS, “Union Members Summary (2012), Tables 1–4,” Economic News Release, January 23, 2013
  • [2] DOL/BLS, “Union Members Summary (2012), Tables 1–4,” Economic News Release, January 23, 2013
  • [3] American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), “Our Mission and Vision,” 2013; AFL-CIO, “What the AFL-CIO Does,”
  • [4] DOL/BLS, “Union Members Summary (2012), Tables 1–4,” Economic News Release, January 23, 2013
  • [5] International Labor Organization (ILO), “Alphabetical List of ILO Member Countries (185),”
  • [6] ILO, Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work
  • [7] ILO (Office of the Legal Advisor), ILO Declarations, September 27, 2011
  • [8] International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), ITUC Constitution & Standing Orders (amended, June 2010), (Brussels, Belgium: ITUC), 6.
  • [9] Ibid., 6–8.
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