Labor Unions


Labor Unions Essay, Research Paper

Labor unions are groups or clubs of workers and employees who bond

together to get good working conditions, fair pay, and fair hours for their

labor. For example, in a newspaper, all the people who work the

presses might all belong to one union. All of the artists, who are

responsible for the artistic layout, might belong to another. These unions

are usually joined together, and most unions in America are some branch

of the largest labor union organization in the United States, the AFL-CIO.

The unions of the workers at a certain business or factory might get

together with the management for a period of time to talk about a

contract. This time is known as negotiation. The union will tell the

management what it wants its workers getting paid, and then the

management will tell the union what it can pay the workers and still be

earning a reasonable profit. They bargain and it usually works out. Most

businesses and corporations have eight-hour work days, with optional

extra hours. This is not usually a topic in negotiations, but could be.

Working conditions could be discussed. If workers in the factory have

no heat, no lunch breaks or they are not allowed to speak, (which was the

case in many sweatshops for immigrants and children in the 1920’s

through 1940’s), then the labor unions will obviously want something


These differences are usually settled fairly quickly, and a new

contract featuring these agreements will be realized . Most contracts are

in operation for about 3 to 5 years. Then, negotiations begin again. This

is how labor-management relations go in a perfect world.

But, obviously, this is not always the case. Sometimes the unions

want unrealistic wages. They might stress extreme luxuries that the

company cannot provide for working conditions. Or the management

may be stubborn and unwilling to give up a large percentage of the profit

in a good year. Or maybe both sides are seemingly in the right and an

agreement can not be met. Whatever the case maybe, after the set

negotiation has been passed, and a contract has not been created, then the

union will go to the workers tell them the situation, and they will vote in

a strike.

The unions purpose in the strike is to stop the company or factory

from caring out their purpose of existence. If they are supposed to

deliver packages, blockades will be set up in most cases to stop this.

The union must succeed not only in this, but in preventing replacement

workers, known as scabs, from doing their jobs. If the new workers can

do the jobs and the company can perform its job, then all the union

members did by striking is quit their jobs and lose benefits. They have to

let the company feel their loss and force them to let them back and meet

their demands. In a striking situation, one of three basic things happens:

the union wins by preventing the company from overstating, they get their

jobs back and their demands are met; the management wins, the strike

fails, and the workers are unemployed; or the strike seemingly goes on

forever, a stalemate of a kind, and, hopefully, one side will just give in.

One of the methods that unions use to protest when on strike is

picketing, which is carrying around signs stating either your cause, what

your doing out there pacing on the sidewalk, or the union division you

belong to. Many strikes have become violent over history, whereas some

are merely workers who leave the job and will not come back until their

demands are met. The violent strikes may involve picketing, injury or

death of workers, severe rioting, damage and vandalization of company

or employer property, and more. Police have to intervene in this type of

strike, and it is this type of labor union action that irritates many people

with the whole organization. A lot of people are strongly for unions,

whether they work for the particular company or not, and will support the

unions in their strikes. It is this sort of support unions hope for, because

the more people they get the stronger they are. But some people,

especially small business owners, who do not see much profit in a day-

to-day operation, are very critical of unions. Some union demands have

driven small business owners out of business, simply because they could

not afford to do what the union wanted.

The major formation of national labor unions came after the Civil

War. This war greatly expanded factory production and railroad

building, which generated much concern about the well-being of the

workers. By 1864, about 300 local unions operated in twenty northern

states. In 1866, the International Industry Assembly of North America

became the National Labor Union. It was the first important association

of unions. But, in 1872 , it failed and disappeared from the pages of


The next big step in the labor movement was the formation of the

Knights of Labor, begun by Uriah Stephens, a tailor, in 1869. It began as

a secret society to improve workers welfare through peaceful means. It

became the first major American attempt to found a union for all

workers, skilled and unskilled.

The Nights of Labor had a boost of importance in the public eye

when it had its first major victory in the great railroad strikes of 1877. In

1886, the Knights had 600,000 to 700,000 members.

But, in that same year, Samuel Gompers and Adolph Strasser left

the Knights of Labor because it did not represent craft union interests.

They formed the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL became

a competitor to the Knights of Labor, and eventually ran them out of

business. The AFL became the reigning giant in the labor force, almost

doubling the Knights’ membership in just three years. Gompers remained

president of the AFL for forty years.

Mass-production industries such as car manufacturers separated

from the AFL because of lack of attention in the 1930’s, and formed the

Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). This organization was

formed by John T. Lewis of the United Mine Workers in 1938. In the late

1930’s and early 1940’s, both the AFL and the CIO made huge gains in

recruiting new members. Both came out of World War II stronger than

ever before. In 1955, both labor unions agreed on a contract that

combined the two into one huge union, the AFL-CIO, still the largest

labor union in existence today.

In July 1993, the contract between the Detroit News and the major

local union that the employees belonged to, ran out. The paper took this

opportunity to let the union know that it had purchased new printing

presses, and this reduced the number of people needed to operate it. The

old ones took nineteen people per press to operate. Since the new ones,

which only required ten, had been put into use, the operators took turns

going to a nearby bar, since there were still nineteen of them. The

newspaper wanted to fire the extra nine people per press, and the union

did not want them to. The union went on strike, but were unsuccessful in

getting their demands met. During this time, replacement workers had

been hired. They were working much faster than the previous workers,

who, it turns out , were purposely working especially slow to cover the

fact that not all nineteen of them were needed. With the new replacement

workers, the presses only required six people per press. This would

save the paper a lot of money in the future.

Meanwhile, the strike was not going well. The union leaders and

the teamsters headed to the newspaper negotiators. They were willing to

make a deal to allow only ten to work the press if the teamsters could

have their jobs back. The paper told them that now only six people were

needed. Infuriated, the teamsters stormed out, and a full-fledged strike

again in late July. Literally millions of ex-workers and sympathetic

workers of the union, flooded the streets with picket signs and clubs,

beating cars and buses, stopping traffic, clubbing “scabs”, and wreaking

havoc in the streets of Detroit.

Buckets of paint were hurled at the walls and windows of Detroit

News and Detroit Free Press buildings, although the real strike was

going on at the news. Star nails, nails about the size of tennis balls that

stick out in all directions to pop and shred the tires on cars, were

everywhere. These were stopping the armored cars busing workers and

scabs into the building. The buses were clubbed and beaten, but police

intervention eventually brought the riots down.. Even months afterward,

several fights broke out between scabs and union enthusiasts. Detroit

became torn: those for the strike, and those against it. It was very tense,

but did eventually die down somewhat.

Ex-workers picketed around stores and businesses that advertised

in the newspaper, which ruined sales for these stores by stopping those

sympathetic with the strike from shopping there. Many businesses

withdrew dramatically. Also, thousands of subscribers were canceled

by union sympathetic and enthusiasts. In the early days of the strike,

papers were kept from being delivered to boxes and homes. This

continued for quite a while, reducing sales of paper overall. But not

even all of this was enough to make a giant in business such as the

Detroit News fall. The strike has died down much now, and only two or

three lone picketers can be seen pacing at the gates of the News building

now. The union has tried several times to give in and make weak deals,

and over time the paper has refused. In this strike, it would appear that

the management has won.

But, to look at the issue of strikes from a different view, the

infamous 1994 Major League Baseball Strike comes to mind. The salary

caps caused the players to simply walk off the job. No violent riots or

picketing was necessary: most players went and played golf. This was

because of two things: they were already rich by most peoples

standards, and they were desperately needed by the owners, because

baseball is a hard business to find replacements . The owners tried,

though, but failed. Although public disgust ran high at the “spoiled”

baseball players, the union did not waver, and the owners gave in, and

the next season baseball was back.

Labor unions all started out as a small idea when a few workers

shared their ideas that they did not like the way management was running

things. They formed a union and threatened the management by walking

off the job. This was a new idea then, but today it is commonplace. The

big worry is among the heads of big business who are resorting to

downsizing to raise profit. The future of labor unions is unclear, but it

seems to be a colorful one.


1. The Detroit News and Free Press.

Saturday, February 15, 1997; Front pag

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