Unions in America

In 2006, Gary Chaison published a book discussing the modern state of labor unions entitled Unions in America. It available from SAGE Publications. Prof. Chaison teaches industrial relations at the Graduate School of Management at Clark University in Worcester, MA.

At 178 pages, the book provides a concise analysis regarding the orgnization of labor unions in the United States including their structure, their governance and administration, their role as bargaining agent and their poltical involvement. He also provides a brief history of labor unions in the United States and finishes with a larger discussion regarding the ability of unions to revive themselves and possible scenarios for the future.

The book published in 2006, a hopeful year as the Labor Unions traditional allies took back the House of Representatives and the 2008 Presidential election looked good for the Democrats after 8 long years of war and economic struggle. One might think that the resulting backlash of the 2010 elections followed by the unprecedented attacks on labor unions in the various statehouses in 2011 would make this book more of a history than something relevant to today, but it isn’t.

The three meaty chapters (roughly 100 pages) that cover the basic identity of labor unions in the U.S. provide a useful primer for anyone who follows the labor movement and wants to understand exactly what labor unions do, how they are organized and how they are regulated under the National Labor Relations Act. Many people may not realize that labor unions are more heavily regulated than the corporations that they negotiate with (at least in terms of electing leaders and managing the home office). The US experience, unlike most other industrialize nations has created a very uneven playing field for labor unions making the US second to last in terms of Union Density and bargaining coverage (only South Korea beats us on bargaining coverage and while France has a lower density, the coverage is over 90% of workers due to their unique system of laws).

Chaison makes some key points that don’t always get included in a journal or newspaper article. The umbrella organization of the AFL-CIO has little power or control over unions –while this group attempts to build strategy and coordinate actions, the unions are quite independent. Within each union, most of the hard work happens at the local level.

For people more familiar with labor unions in the United States, the last two chapters may be more interesting. Chaison examines the needs facing labor unions and estimates that, just to maintain the status quo, the labor movement needs to enlist 1,000,000 new members every year. This accounts for retirements, business failures, bankruptcies, and decertification. The reality is that efforts currently only number about 60,000. Chaison suggests that three futures exist for the modern labor movement: Retreat, Rebound and Renew. The latter two, it is argued, require a paradigm shift in how unions organize and orperate. It means reaching out to ignored sectors, actually invetsting financial and other resources in organizing.

As the cover notes, this book helps put into context the decision of SEIU, Teamsters and other to leave the AFL-CIo (although some have returned such as the UFCW).

The timing of the book’s release  caused it to miss some of the new efforts by unions such as the United Steelworkers and Mondragon and other labor unions’s (mostly at the local level) to affialite and work with worker cooperatives that have occured since publication. At the same time, the 2006 publication also help underscore the fultility of engagine the political establishment reminding us that despite controlling the government for two years, the Democrats failed to deliver some key reforms to assist worker who want to form a union.


About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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2 Responses to Unions in America

  1. Mark RegoM says:

    Nice to be back and read your thoughts on this union work. I recently found a piece about Amazon.com’s unit in Germany, where a strike against them was held by the EU based union. They also have Worker Councils there, a practice which was originated there, and has some inclusion at the EU level I read some time ago. As for USW-Mondragon Co-op, I clarified for myself recently that that was first announced in 2009, and then followed up in 2012.
    Here in Brazil, another visible strike has occurred by the Bank workers. Lula and the PT seem very distant now from the workers, though not antagonistic at least. cheers….

  2. tomorrow’s discussion opens up a discussion about the role of culture in the labor movement. I once learned that in Italy, people join their labour union based on social issues (a union for communists, another for Catholics, etc). A plant might for several different unions representing workers, but once a year, the Unions meet, make the peace, and go about representing their workers. In the US, the different unions are set against each other in the “spirit” of competition. This was considered a major improvement and one of the great sections of the Wagner Act, it also represents a very Anglo-Saxon approach to problem solving.

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