is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

Labor Unions in the United States

Gerald Friedman, University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Unions and Collective Action

In capitalist labor markets, which developed in the nineteenth-century in the United States and Western Europe, workers exchange their time and effort for wages. But even while laboring under the supervision of others, wage earners have never been slaves, because they have recourse from abuse. They can quit to seek better employment. Or they are free to join with others to take collective action, forming political movements or labor unions. By the end of the nineteenth century, labor unions and labor-oriented political parties had become major forces influencing wages and working conditions. This article explores the nature and development of labor unions in the United States. It reviews the growth and recent decline of the American labor movement and makes comparisons with the experience of foreign labor unions to clarify particular aspects of the history of labor unions in the United States.

Unions and the Free-Rider Problem

Quitting, exit, is straightforward, a simple act for individuals unhappy with their employment. By contrast, collective action, such as forming a labor union, is always difficult because it requires that individuals commit themselves to produce “public goods” enjoyed by all, including those who “free ride” rather than contribute to the group effort. If the union succeeds, free riders receive the same benefits as do activists; but if it fails, the activists suffer while those who remained outside lose nothing. Because individualist logic leads workers to “free ride,” unions cannot grow by appealing to individual self-interest (Hirschman, 1970; 1982; Olson, 1966; Gamson, 1975).

Union Growth Comes in Spurts

Free riding is a problem for all collective movements, including Rotary Clubs, the Red Cross, and the Audubon Society. But unionization is especially difficult because unions must attract members against the opposition of often-hostile employers. Workers who support unions sacrifice money and risk their jobs, even their lives. Success comes only when large numbers simultaneously follow a different rationality. Unions must persuade whole groups to abandon individualism to throw themselves into the collective project. Rarely have unions grown incrementally, gradually adding members. Instead, workers have joined unions en masse in periods of great excitement, attracted by what the French sociologist Emile Durkheim labeled “collective effervescence” or the joy of participating in a common project without regard for individual interest. Growth has come in spurts, short periods of social upheaval punctuated by major demonstrations and strikes when large numbers see their fellow workers publicly demonstrating a shared commitment to the collective project. Union growth, therefore, is concentrated in short periods of dramatic social upheaval; in the thirteen countries listed in Tables 1 and 2, 67 percent of growth comes in only five years, and over 90 percent in only ten years. As Table 3 shows, in these thirteen countries, unions grew by over 10 percent a year in years with the greatest strike activity but by less than 1 percent a year in the years with the fewest strikers (Friedman, 1999; Shorter and Tilly, 1974; Zolberg, 1972).

Table 1
Union Members per 100 Nonagricultural Workers, 1880-1985: Selected Countries

Year Canada US Austria Denmark France Italy Germany Netherlands Norway Sweden UK Australia Japan
1880 n.a. 1.8 n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a.
1900 4.6 7.5 n.a. 20.8 5.0 n.a. 7.0 n.a. 3.4 4.8 12.7 n.a. n.a.
1914 8.6 10.5 n.a. 25.1 8.1 n.a. 16.9 17.0 13.6 9.9 23.0 32.8 n.a.
1928 11.6 9.9 41.7 39.7 8.0 n.a. 32.5 26.0 17.4 32.0 25.6 46.2 n.a.
1939 10.9 20.7 n.a. 51.8 22.4 n.a. n.a. 32.5 57.0 53.6 31.6 39.2 n.a.
1947 24.6 31.4 64.6 55.9 40.0 n.a. 29.1 40.4 55.1 64.6 44.5 52.9 45.3
1950 26.3 28.4 62.3 58.1 30.2 49.0 33.1 43.0 58.4 67.7 44.1 56.0 46.2
1960 28.3 30.4 63.4 64.4 20.0 29.6 37.1 41.8 61.5 73.0 44.2 54.5 32.2
1975 35.6 26.4 58.5 66.6 21.4 50.1 38.2 39.1 60.5 87.2 51.0 54.7 34.4
1985 33.7 18.9 57.8 82.2 14.5 51.0 39.3 28.6 65.3 103.0 44.2 51.5 28.9

Note: This table shows the unionization rate, the share of nonagricultural workers belonging to unions, in different countries in different years, 1880-1985. Because union membership often includes unemployed and retired union members it may exceed the number of employed workers, giving a unionization rate of greater than 100 percent.

Table 2
Union Growth in Peak and Other Years

Country Years Membership Growth Share of Growth (%) Excess Growth (%)
Top 5 Years Top 10 Years All Years 5 Years 10 Years 5 Years 10 Years
Australia 83 720 000 1 230 000 3 125 000 23.0 39.4 17.0 27.3
Austria 52 5 411 000 6 545 000 3 074 000 176.0 212.9 166.8 194.4
Canada 108 855 000 1 532 000 4 028 000 21.2 38.0 16.6 28.8
Denmark 85 521 000 795 000 1 883 000 27.7 42.2 21.8 30.5
France 92 6 605 000 7 557 000 2 872 000 230.0 263.1 224.5 252.3
Germany 82 10 849 000 13 543 000 9 120 000 119.0 148.5 112.9 136.3
Italy 38 3 028 000 4 671 000 3 713 000 81.6 125.8 68.4 99.5
Japan 43 4 757 000 6 692 000 8 983 000 53.0 74.5 41.3 51.2
Netherlands 71 671 000 1 009 000 1 158 000 57.9 87.1 50.9 73.0
Norway 85 304 000 525 000 1 177 000 25.8 44.6 19.9 32.8
Sweden 99 633 000 1 036 000 3 859 000 16.4 26.8 11.4 16.7
UK 96 4 929 000 8 011 000 8 662 000 56.9 92.5 51.7 82.1
US 109 10 247 000 14 796 000 22 293 000 46.0 66.4 41.4 57.2
Total 1043 49 530 000 67 942 000 73 947 000 67.0 91.9 60.7 79.4

Note: This table shows that most union growth comes in a few years. Union membership growth (net of membership losses) has been calculated for each country for each year. Years were then sorted for each country according to membership growth. This table reports growth for each country for the five and the ten years with the fastest growth and compares this with total growth over all years for which data are available. Excess growth has been calculated as the difference between the share of growth in the top five or ten years and the share that would have come in these periods if growth had been distributed evenly across all years.

Note that years of rapid growth are not necessarily contiguous. There can be more growth in years of rapid growth than over the entire period. This is because some is temporary when years of rapid growth are followed by years of decline.

Sources: Bain and Price (1980): 39, Visser (1989)

Table 3
Impact of Strike Activity on Union Growth
Average Union Membership Growth in Years Sorted by Proportion of Workers Striking

Country Striker Rate Quartile Change
Lowest Third Second Highest
Australia 5.1 2.5 4.5 2.7 -2.4
Austria 0.5 -1.9 0.4 2.4 1.9
Canada 1.3 1.9 2.3 15.8 14.5
Denmark 0.3 1.1 3.0 11.3 11.0
France 0.0 2.1 5.6 17.0 17.0
Germany -0.2 0.4 1.3 20.3 20.5
Italy -2.2 -0.3 2.3 5.8 8.0
Japan -0.2 5.1 3.0 4.3 4.5
Netherlands -0.9 1.2 3.5 6.3 7.2
Norway 1.9 4.3 8.6 10.3 8.4
Sweden 2.5 3.2 5.9 16.9 14.4
UK 1.7 1.7 1.9 3.4 1.7
US -0.5 0.6 2.1 19.9 20.4
Total: Average 0.72 1.68 3.42 10.49 9.78

Note: This table shows that except in Australia unions grew fastest in years with large number of strikers. The proportion of workers striking was calculated for each country for each year as the number of strikers divided by the nonagricultural labor force. Years were then sorted into quartiles, each including one-fourth of the years, according to this striker rate statistic. The average annual union membership growth rate was then calculated for each quartile as the mean of the growth rate in each year in the quartile.

Rapid Union Growth Provokes a Hostile Reaction

These periods of rapid union growth end because social upheaval provokes a hostile reaction. Union growth leads employers to organize, to discover their own collective interests. Emulating their workers, they join together to discharge union activists, to support each other in strikes, and to demand government action against unions. This rising opposition ends periods of rapid union growth, beginning a new phase of decline followed by longer periods of stagnant membership. The weakest unions formed during the union surge succumb to the post-boom reaction; but if enough unions survive they leave a movement larger and broader than before.

Early Labor Unions, Democrats and Socialists


Before modern labor unions, guilds united artisans and their employees. Craftsmen did the work of early industry, “masters” working beside “journeymen” and apprentices in small workplaces. Throughout the cities and towns of medieval Europe, guilds regulated production by setting minimum prices and quality, and capping wages, employment, and output. Controlled by independent craftsmen, “masters” who employed journeymen and trained apprentices, guilds regulated industry to protect the comfort and status of the masters. Apprentices and journeymen benefited from guild restrictions only when they advanced to master status.

Guild power was gradually undermined in the early-modern period. Employing workers outside the guild system, including rural workers and semiskilled workers in large urban workplaces, merchants transformed medieval industry. By the early 1800s, few could anticipate moving up to becoming a master artisan or owning their own establishment. Instead, facing the prospect of a lifetime of wage labor punctuated by periods of unemployment, some wage earners began to seek a collective regulation of their individual employment (Thompson, 1966; Scott, 1974; Dawley, 1976; Sewell, 1980; Wilentz, 1984; Blewett, 1988).

The labor movement within the broader movement for democracy

This new wage-labor regime led to the modern labor movement. Organizing propertyless workers who were laboring for capitalists, organized labor formed one wing of a broader democratic movement struggling for equality and for the rights of commoners (Friedman, 1998). Within the broader democratic movement for legal and political equality, labor fought the rise of a new aristocracy that controlled the machinery of modern industry just as the old aristocracy had monopolized land. Seen in this light, the fundamental idea of the labor movement, that employees should have a voice in the management of industry, is comparable to the demand that citizens should have a voice in the management of public affairs. Democratic values do not, by any means, guarantee that unions will be fair and evenhanded to all workers. In the United States, by reserving good jobs for their members, unions of white men sometimes contributed to the exploitation of women and nonwhites. Democracy only means that exploitation will be carried out at the behest of a political majority rather than at the say of an individual capitalist (Roediger, 1991; Arnesen, 2001; Foner, 1974; 1979; Milkman, 1985).

Craft unions’ strategy

Workers formed unions to voice their interests against their employers, and also against other workers. Rejecting broad alliances along class lines, alliances uniting workers on the basis of their lack of property and their common relationship with capitalists, craft unions followed a narrow strategy, uniting workers with the same skill against both the capitalists and against workers in different trades. By using their monopoly of knowledge of the work process to restrict access to the trade, craft unions could have a strong bargaining position that was enhanced by alliances with other craftsmen to finance long strikes. A narrow craft strategy was followed by the first successful unions throughout Europe and America, especially in small urban shops using technologies that still depended on traditional specialized skills, including printers, furniture makers, carpenters, gold beaters and jewelry makers, iron molders, engineers, machinists, and plumbers. Craft unions’ characteristic action was the small, local strike, the concerted withdrawal of labor by a few workers critical to production. Typically, craft unions would present a set of demands to local employers on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis; either the employer accepted their demands or fought a contest of strength to determine whether the employers could do without the skilled workers for longer than the workers could manage without their jobs.

The craft strategy offered little to the great masses of workers. Because it depends on restricting access to trades it could not be applied by common laborers, who were untrained, nor by semi-skilled employees in modern mass-production establishments whose employers trained them on-the-job. Shunned by craft unions, most women and African-Americans in the United States were crowded into nonunion occupations. Some sought employment as strikebreakers in occupations otherwise monopolized by craft unions controlled by white, native-born males (Washington, 1913; Whatley, 1993).

Unions among unskilled workers

To form unions, the unskilled needed a strategy of the weak that would utilize their numbers rather than specialized knowledge and accumulated savings. Inclusive unions have succeeded but only when they attract allies among politicians, state officials, and the affluent public. Sponsoring unions and protecting them from employer repression, allies can allow organization among workers without specialized skills. When successful, inclusive unions can grow quickly in mass mobilization of common laborers. This happened, for example, in Germany at the beginning of the Weimar Republic, during the French Popular Front of 1936-37, and in the United States during the New Deal of the 1930s. These were times when state support rewarded inclusive unions for organizing the unskilled. The bill for mass mobilization usually came later. Each boom was followed by a reaction against the extensive promises of the inclusive labor movement when employers and conservative politicians worked to put labor’s genie back in the bottle.

Solidarity and the Trade Unions

Unionized occupations of the late 1800s

By the late-nineteenth century, trade unions had gained a powerful position in several skilled occupations in the United States and elsewhere. Outside of mining, craft unions were formed among well-paid skilled craft workers — workers whom historian Eric Hobsbawm labeled the “labor aristocracy” (Hobsbawm, 1964; Geary, 1981). In 1892, for example, nearly two-thirds of British coal miners were union members, as were a third of machinists, millwrights and metal workers, cobblers and shoe makers, glass workers, printers, mule spinners, and construction workers (Bain and Price, 1980). French miners had formed relatively strong unions, as had skilled workers in the railroad operating crafts, printers, jewelry makers, cigar makers, and furniture workers (Friedman, 1998). Cigar makers, printers, furniture workers, some construction and metal craftsmen took the lead in early German unions (Kocka, 1986). In the United States, there were about 160,000 union members in 1880, including 120,000 belonging to craft unions, including carpenters, engineers, furniture makers, stone-cutters, iron puddlers and rollers, printers, and several railroad crafts. Another 40,000 belonged to “industrial” unions organized without regard for trade. About half of these were coal miners; most of the rest belonged to the Knights of Labor (KOL) (Friedman, 1999).

The Knights of Labor

In Europe, these craft organizations were to be the basis of larger, mass unions uniting workers without regard for trade or, in some cases, industry (Ansell, 2001). This process began in the United States in the 1880s when craft workers in the Knights of Labor reached out to organize more broadly. Formed by skilled male, native-born garment cutters in 1869, the Knights of Labor would seem an odd candidate to mobilize the mass of unskilled workers. But from a few Philadelphia craft workers, the Knights grew to become a national and even international movement. Membership reached 20,000 in 1881 and grew to 100,000 in 1885. Then, in 1886, when successful strikes on some western railroads attracted a mass of previously unorganized unskilled workers, the KOL grew to a peak membership of a million workers. For a brief time, the Knights of Labor was a general movement of the American working class (Ware, 1929; Voss, 1993).

The KOL became a mass movement with an ideology and program that united workers without regard for occupation, industry, race or gender (Hattam, 1993). Never espousing Marxist or socialist doctrines, the Knights advanced an indigenous form of popular American radicalism, a “republicanism” that would overcome social problems by extending democracy to the workplace. Valuing citizens according to their work, their productive labor, the Knights were true heirs of earlier bourgeois radicals. Open to all producers, including farmers and other employers, they excluded only those seen to be parasitic on the labor of producers — liquor dealers, gamblers, bankers, stock manipulators and lawyers. Welcoming all others without regard for race, gender, or skill, the KOL was the first American labor union to attract significant numbers of women, African-Americans, and the unskilled (Foner, 1974; 1979; Rachleff, 1984).

The KOL’s strategy

In practice, most KOL local assemblies acted like craft unions. They bargained with employers, conducted boycotts, and called members out on strike to demand higher wages and better working conditions. But unlike craft unions that depended on the bargaining leverage of a few strategically positioned workers, the KOL’s tactics reflected its inclusive and democratic vision. Without a craft union’s resources or control over labor supply, the Knights sought to win labor disputes by widening them to involve political authorities and the outside public able to pressure employers to make concessions. Activists hoped that politicizing strikes would favor the KOL because its large membership would tempt ambitious politicians while its members’ poverty drew public sympathy.

In Europe, a strategy like that of the KOL succeeded in promoting the organization of inclusive unions. But it failed in the United States. Comparing the strike strategies of trade unions and the Knights provides insight into the survival and eventual success of the trade unions and their confederation, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in late-nineteenth century America. Seeking to transform industrial relations, local assemblies of the KOL struck frequently with large but short strikes involving skilled and unskilled workers. The Knights’ industrial leverage depended on political and social influence. It could succeed where trade unions would not go because the KOL strategy utilized numbers, the one advantage held by common laborers. But this strategy could succeed only where political authorities and the outside public might sympathize with labor. Later industrial and regional unions tried the same strategy, conducting short but large strikes. By demonstrating sufficient numbers and commitment, French and Italian unions, for example, would win from state officials concessions they could not force from recalcitrant employers (Shorter and Tilly, 1974; Friedman, 1998). But compared with the small strikes conducted by craft unions, “solidarity” strikes must walk a fine line, aggressive enough to draw attention but not so threatening to provoke a hostile reaction from threatened authorities. Such a reaction doomed the KOL.

The Knights’ collapse in 1886

In 1886, the Knights became embroiled in a national general strike demanding an eight-hour workday, the world’s first May Day. This led directly to the collapse of the KOL. The May Day strike wave in 1886 and the bombing at Haymarket Square in Chicago provoked a “red scare” of historic proportions driving membership down to half a million in September 1887. Police in Chicago, for example, broke up union meetings, seized union records, and even banned the color red from advertisements. The KOL responded politically, sponsoring a wave of independent labor parties in the elections of 1886 and supporting the Populist Party in 1890 (Fink, 1983). But even relatively strong showings by these independent political movements could not halt the KOL’s decline. By 1890, its membership had fallen by half again, and it fell to under 50,000 members by 1897.

Unions and radical political movements in Europe in the late 1800s

The KOL spread outside the United States, attracting an energetic following in the Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and other European countries. Industrial and regional unionism fared better in these countries than in the United States. Most German unionists belonged to industrial unions allied with the Social Democratic Party. Under Marxist leadership, unions and political party formed a centralized labor movement to maximize labor’s political leverage. English union membership was divided between members of a stable core of craft unions and a growing membership in industrial and regional unions based in mining, cotton textiles, and transportation. Allied with political radicals, these industrial and regional unions formed the backbone of the Labor Party, which held the balance of power in British politics after 1906.

The most radical unions were found in France. By the early 1890s, revolutionary syndicalists controlled the national union center, the Confédération générale du travail (or CGT), which they tried to use as a base for a revolutionary general strike where the workers would seize economic and political power. Consolidating craft unions into industrial and regional unions, the Bourses du travail, syndicalists conducted large strikes designed to demonstrate labor’s solidarity. Paradoxically, the syndicalists’ large strikes were effective because they provoked friendly government mediation. In the United States, state intervention was fatal for labor because government and employers usually united to crush labor radicalism. But in France, officials were more concerned to maintain a center-left coalition with organized labor against reactionary employers opposed to the Third Republic. State intervention helped French unionists to win concessions beyond any they could win with economic leverage. A radical strategy of inclusive industrial and regional unionism could succeed in France because the political leadership of the early Third Republic needed labor’s support against powerful economic and social groups who would replace the Republic with an authoritarian regime. Reminded daily of the importance of republican values and the coalition that sustained the Republic, French state officials promoted collective bargaining and labor unions. Ironically, it was the support of liberal state officials that allowed French union radicalism to succeed, and allowed French unions to grow faster than American unions and to organize the semi-skilled workers in the large establishments of France’s modern industries (Friedman, 1997; 1998).

The AFL and American Exceptionalism

By 1914, unions outside the United States had found that broad organization reduced the availability of strike breakers, advanced labor’s political goals, and could lead to state intervention on behalf of the unions. The United States was becoming exceptional, the only advanced capitalist country without a strong, united labor movement. The collapse of the Knights of Labor cleared the way for the AFL. Formed in 1881 as the Federation of Trade and Labor Unions, the AFL was organized to uphold the narrow interests of craft workers against the general interests of common laborers in the KOL. In practice, AFL-craft unions were little labor monopolies, able to win concessions because of their control over uncommon skills and because their narrow strategy did not frighten state officials. Many early AFL leaders, notably the AFL’s founding president Samuel Gompers and P. J. McGuire of the Carpenters, had been active in radical political movements. But after 1886, they learned to reject political involvements for fear that radicalism might antagonize state officials or employers and provoke repression.

AFL successes in the early twentieth-century

Entering the twentieth century, the AFL appeared to have a winning strategy. Union membership rose sharply in the late 1890s, doubling between 1896 and 1900 and again between 1900 and 1904. Fewer than 5 percent of industrial wage earners belonged to labor unions in 1895, but this share rose to 7 percent in 1900 and 13 percent in 1904, including over 21 percent of industrial wage earners (workers outside of commerce, government, and the professions). Half of coal miners in 1904 belonged to an industrial union (the United Mine Workers of America), but otherwise, most union members belonged to craft organizations, including nearly half the printers, and a third of cigar makers, construction workers and transportation workers. As shown in Table 4, other pockets of union strength included skilled workers in the metal trades, leather, and apparel. These craft unions had demonstrated their economic power, raising wages by around 15 percent and reducing hours worked (Friedman, 1991; Mullin, 1993).

Table 4
Unionization rates by industry in the United States, 1880-2000

Industry 1880 1910 1930 1953 1974 1983 2000
Agriculture Forestry Fishing 0.0 0.1 0.4 0.6 4.0 4.8 2.1
Mining 11.2 37.7 19.8 64.7 34.7 21.1 10.9
Construction 2.8 25.2 29.8 83.8 38.0 28.0 18.3
Manufacturing 3.4 10.3 7.3 42.4 37.2 27.9 14.8
Transportation Communication Utilities 3.7 20.0 18.3 82.5 49.8 46.4 24.0
Private Services 0.1 3.3 1.8 9.5 8.6 8.7 4.8
Public Employment 0.3 4.0 9.6 11.3 38.0 31.1 37.5
All Private 1.7 8.7 7.0 31.9 22.4 18.4 10.9
All 1.7 8.5 7.1 29.6 24.8 20.4 14.1

Note: This table shows the unionization rate, the share of workers belonging to unions, in different industries in the United States, 1880-1996.

Sources: 1880 and 1910: Friedman (1999): 83; 1930: Union membership from Wolman (1936); employment from United States, Bureau of the Census (1932); 1953: Troy (1957); 1974, 1986, 2000: United States, Current Population Survey.

Limits to the craft strategy

Even at this peak, the craft strategy had clear limits. Craft unions succeeded only in a declining part of American industry among workers still performing traditional tasks where training was through apprenticeship programs controlled by the workers themselves. By contrast, there were few unions in the rapidly growing industries employing semi-skilled workers. Nor was the AFL able to overcome racial divisions and state opposition to organize in the South (Friedman, 2000; Letwin, 1998). Compared with the KOL in the early 1880s, or with France’s revolutionary syndicalist unions, American unions were weak in steel, textiles, chemicals, paper and metal fabrication using technologies without traditional craft skills. AFL strongholds included construction, printing, cigar rolling, apparel cutting and pressing, and custom metal engineering, employed craft workers in relatively small establishments little changed from 25 years earlier (see Table 4).

Dependent on skilled craftsmen’s economic leverage, the AFL was poorly organized to battle large, technologically dynamic corporations. For a brief time, the revolutionary International Workers of the World (IWW), formed in 1905, organized semi-skilled workers in some mass production industries. But by 1914, it too had failed. It was state support that forced powerful French employers to accept unions. Without such assistance, no union strategy could force large American employers to accept unions.

Unions in the World War I Era

The AFL and World War I

For all its limits, it must be acknowledged that the AFL and its craft affiliates survived after their rivals ignited and died. The AFL formed a solid union movement among skilled craftsmen that with favorable circumstances could form the core of a broader union movement like what developed in Europe after 1900. During World War I, the Wilson administration endorsed unionization and collective bargaining in exchange for union support for the war effort. AFL affiliates used state support to organize mass-production workers in shipbuilding, metal fabrication, meatpacking and steel doubling union membership between 1915 and 1919. But when Federal support ended after the war’s end, employers mobilized to crush the nascent unions. The post-war union collapse has been attributed to the AFL’s failings. The larger truth is that American unions needed state support to overcome the entrenched power of capital. The AFL did not fail because of its deficient economic strategy; it failed because it had an ineffective political strategy (Friedman, 1998; Frank, 1994; Montgomery, 1987).

International effects of World War I

War gave labor extraordinary opportunities. Combatant governments rewarded pro-war labor leaders with positions in the expanded state bureaucracy and support for collective bargaining and unions. Union growth also reflected economic conditions when wartime labor shortages strengthened the bargaining position of workers and unions. Unions grew rapidly during and immediately after the war. British unions, for example, doubled their membership between 1914 and 1920, to enroll eight million workers, almost half the nonagricultural labor force (Bain and Price, 1980; Visser, 1989). Union membership tripled in Germany and Sweden, doubled in Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway, and almost doubled in the United States (see Table 5 and Table 1). For twelve countries, membership grew by 121 percent between 1913 and 1920, including 119 percent growth in seven combatant countries and 160 percent growth in five neutral states.

Table 5
Impact of World War I on Union Membership Growth
Membership Growth in Wartime and After

12 Countries 7 Combatants 5 Neutrals
War-Time 1913 12 498 000 11 742 000 756 000
1920 27 649 000 25 687 000 1 962 000
Growth 1913-20: 121% 119% 160%
Post-war 1920 27 649 000
1929 18 149 000
Growth 1920-29: -34%

Shift toward the revolutionary left

Even before the war, frustration with the slow pace of social reform had led to a shift towards the revolutionary socialist and syndicalist left in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States (Nolan, 1981; Montgomery, 1987). In Europe, frustrations with rising prices, declining real wages and working conditions, and anger at catastrophic war losses fanned the flames of discontent into a raging conflagration. Compared with pre-war levels, the number of strikers rose ten or even twenty times after the war, including 2.5 million strikers in France in 1919 and 1920, compared with 200,000 strikers in 1913, 13 million German strikers, up from 300,000 in 1913, and 5 million American strikers, up from under 1 million in 1913. British Prime Minister Lloyd George warned in March 1919 that “The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent, but of anger and revolt among the workmen . . . The whole existing order in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other” (quoted in Cronin, 1983: 22).

Impact of Communists

Inspired by the success of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, revolutionary Communist Parties were organized throughout the world to promote revolution by organizing labor unions, strikes, and political protest. Communism was a mixed blessing for labor. The Communists included some of labor’s most dedicated activists and organizers who contributed greatly to union organization. But Communist help came at a high price. Secretive, domineering, intolerant of opposition, the Communists divided unions between their dwindling allies and a growing collection of outraged opponents. Moreover, they galvanized opposition, depriving labor of needed allies among state officials and the liberal bourgeoisie.

The “Lean Years”: Welfare Capitalism and the Open Shop

Aftermath of World War I

As with most great surges in union membership, the postwar boom was self-limiting. Helped by a sharp post- war economic contraction, employers and state officials ruthlessly drove back the radical threat, purging their workforce of known union activists and easily absorbing futile strikes during a period of rising unemployment. Such campaigns drove membership down by a third from a 1920 peak of 26 million members in eleven countries in 1920 to fewer than 18 million in 1924. In Austria, France, Germany, and the United States, labor unrest contributed to the election of conservative governments; in Hungary, Italy, and Poland it led to the installation of anti- democratic dictatorships that ruthlessly crushed labor unions. Economic stagnation, state repression, and anti-union campaigns by employers prevented any union resurgence through the rest of the 1920s. By 1929, unions in these eleven countries had added only 30,000 members, one-fifth of one percent.

Injunctions and welfare capitalism

The 1920s was an especially dark period for organized labor in the United States where weaknesses visible before World War I became critical failures. Labor’s opponents used fear of Communism to foment a post-war red scare that targeted union activists for police and vigilante violence. Hundreds of foreign-born activists were deported, and mobs led by the American Legion and the Ku Klux Klan broke up union meetings and destroyed union offices (see, for example, Frank, 1994: 104-5). Judges added law to the campaign against unions. Ignoring the intent of the Clayton Anti-Trust Act (1914) they used anti-trust law and injunctions against unions, forbidding activists from picketing or publicizing disputes, holding signs, or even enrolling new union members. Employers competed for their workers’ allegiance, offering paternalist welfare programs and systems of employee representation as substitutes for independent unions. They sought to build a nonunion industrial relations system around welfare capitalism (Cohen, 1990).

Stagnation and decline

After the promises of the war years, the defeat of postwar union drives in mass production industries like steel and meatpacking inaugurated a decade of union stagnation and decline. Membership fell by a third between 1920 and 1924. Unions survived only in the older trades where employment was usually declining. By 1924, they were almost completely eliminated from the dynamic industries of the second industrial revolution: including steel, automobiles, consumer electronics, chemicals and rubber manufacture.

New Deals for Labor

Great Depression

The nonunion industrial relations system of the 1920s might have endured and produced a docile working class organized in company unions (Brody, 1985). But the welfare capitalism of the 1920s collapsed when the Great Depression of the 1930s exposed its weaknesses and undermined political support for the nonunion, open shop. Between 1929 and 1933, real national income in the United States fell by one third, nonagricultural employment fell by a quarter, and unemployment rose from under 2 million in 1929 to 13 million in 1933, a quarter of the civilian labor force. Economic decline was nearly as great elsewhere, raising unemployment to over 15 percent in Austria, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom (Maddison, 1991: 260-61). Only the Soviet Union, with its authoritarian political economy was largely spared the scourge of unemployment and economic collapse — a point emphasized by Communists throughout the 1930s and later. Depression discredited the nonunion industrial relations system by forcing welfare capitalists to renege on promises to stabilize employment and to maintain wages. Then, by ignoring protests from members of employee representation plans, welfare capitalists further exposed the fundamental weakness of their system. Lacking any independent support, paternalist promises had no standing but depended entirely on the variable good will of employers. And sometimes that was not enough (Cohen, 1990).

Depression-era political shifts

Voters, too, lost confidence in employers. The Great Depression discredited the old political economy. Even before Franklin Roosevelt’s election as President of the United States in 1932, American states enacted legislation restricting the rights of creditors and landlords, restraining the use of the injunction in labor disputes, and providing expanded relief for the unemployed (Ely, 1998; Friedman, 2001). European voters abandoned centrist parties, embracing extremists of both left and right, Communists and Fascists. In Germany, the Nazis won, but Popular Front governments uniting Communists and socialists with bourgeois liberals assumed power in other countries, including Sweden, France and Spain. (The Spanish Popular Front was overthrown by a Fascist rebellion that installed a dictatorship led by Francisco Franco.) Throughout there was an impulse to take public control over the economy because free market capitalism and orthodox finance had led to disaster (Temin, 1990).

Economic depression lowers union membership when unemployed workers drop their membership and employers use their stronger bargaining position to defeat union drives (Bain and Elsheikh, 1976). Indeed, union membership fell with the onset of the Great Depression but, contradicting the usual pattern, membership rebounded sharply after 1932 despite high unemployment, rising by over 76 percent in ten countries by 1938 (see Table 6 and Table 1). The fastest growth came in countries with openly pro-union governments. In France, where the Socialist Léon Blum led a Popular Front government, and the United States, during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, membership rose by 160 percent 1933-38. But membership grew by 33 percent in eight other countries even without openly pro-labor governments.

Table 6
Impact of the Great Depression and World War II on Union Membership Growth

11 Countries (no Germany) 10 Countries (no Austria)
Depression 1929 12 401 000 11 508 000
1933 11 455 000 10 802 000
Growth 1929-33 -7.6% -6.1%
Popular Front Period 1933 10 802 000
1938 19 007 000
Growth 1933-38 76.0%
Second World War 1938 19 007 000
1947 35 485 000
Growth 1938-47 86.7%

French unions and the Matignon agreements

French union membership rose from under 900,000 in 1935 to over 4,500,000 in 1937. The Popular Front’s victory in the elections of June 1936 precipitated a massive strike wave and the occupation of factories and workplaces throughout France. Remembered in movie, song and legend, the factory occupations were a nearly spontaneous uprising of French workers that brought France’s economy to a halt. Contemporaries were struck by the extraordinarily cheerful feelings that prevailed, the “holiday feeling” and sense that the strikes were a new sort of non-violent revolution that would overturn hierarchy and replace capitalist authoritarianism with true social democracy (Phillippe and Dubief, 1993: 307-8). After Blum assumed office, he brokered the Matignon agreements, named after the premier’s official residence in Paris. Union leaders and heads of France’s leading employer associations agreed to end the strikes and occupations in exchange for wage increases of around 15 percent, a 40 hour workweek, annual vacations, and union recognition. Codified in statute by the Popular Front government, French unions gained new rights and protections from employer repression. Only then did workers flock into unions. In a few weeks, French unions gained four million members with the fastest growth in the new industries of the second industrial revolution. Unions in metal fabrication and chemicals grew by 1,450 percent and 4,000 percent respectively (Magraw, 1992: 2, 287-88).

French union leader Léon Jouhaux hailed the Matignon agreements as “the greatest victory of the workers’ movement.” It included lasting gains, including annual vacations and shorter workweeks. But Simone Weil described the strikers of May 1936 as “soldiers on leave,” and they were soon returned to work. Regrouping, employers discharged union activists and attacked the precarious unity of the Popular Front government. Fighting an uphill battle against renewed employer resistance, the Popular Front government fell before it could build a new system of cooperative industrial relations. Contained, French unions were unable to maintain their momentum towards industrial democracy. Membership fell by a third in 1937-39.

The National Industrial Recovery Act

A different union paradigm was developed in the United States. Rather than vehicles for a democratic revolution, the New Deal sought to integrate organized labor into a reformed capitalism that recognized capitalist hierarchy in the workplace, using unions only to promote macroeconomic stabilization by raising wages and consumer spending (Brinkley, 1995). Included as part of a program for economic recovery was section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) giving “employees . . . the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing . . . free from the interference, restraint, or coercion of employers.” AFL-leader William Green pronounced this a “charter of industrial freedom” and workers rushed into unions in a wave unmatched since the Knights of Labor in 1886. As with the KOL, the greatest increase came among the unskilled. Coal miners, southern textile workers, northern apparel workers, Ohio tire makers, Detroit automobile workers, aluminum, lumber and sawmill workers all rushed into unions. For the first time in fifty years, American unions gained a foothold in mass production industries.

AFL’s lack of enthusiasm

Promises of state support brought common laborers into unions. But once there, the new unionists received little help from aging AFL leaders. Fearing that the new unionists’ impetuous zeal and militant radicalism would provoke repression, AFL leaders tried to scatter the new members among contending craft unions with archaic craft jurisdictions. The new unionists were swept up in the excitement of unity and collective action but a half-century of experience had taught the AFL’s leadership to fear such enthusiasms.

The AFL dampened the union boom of 1933-34, but, again, the larger problem was not with the AFL’s flawed tactics but with its lack of political leverage. Doing little to enforce the promises of Section 7(a), the Federal government left employers free to ignore the law. Some flatly prohibited union organization; others formally honored the law but established anemic employee representation plans while refusing to deal with independent unions (Irons, 2000). By 1935 almost as many industrial establishments had employer-dominated employee- representation plans (27 percent) as had unions (30 percent). The greatest number had no labor organization at all (43 percent).

Birth of the CIO

Implacable management resistance and divided leadership killed the early New Deal union surge. It died even before the NIRA was ruled unconstitutional in 1935. Failure provoked rebellion within the AFL. Led by John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers, eight national unions launched a campaign for industrial organization as the Committee for Industrial Organization. After Lewis punched Carpenter’s Union leader William L Hutcheson on the floor of the AFL convention in 1935, the Committee became an independent Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO). Including many Communist activists, CIO committees fanned out to organize workers in steel, automobiles, retail trade, journalism and other industries. Building effectively on local rank and file militancy, including sitdown strikes in automobiles, rubber, and other industries, the CIO quickly won contracts from some of the strongest bastions of the open shop, including United States Steel and General Motors (Zieger, 1995).

The Wagner Act

Creative strategy and energetic organizing helped. But the CIO owed its lasting success to state support. After the failure of the NIRA, New Dealers sought another way to strengthen labor as a force for economic stimulus. This led to the enactment in 1935 of the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the “Wagner Act.” The Wagner Act established a National Labor Relations Board charged to enforce employees’ “right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing and to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” It provided for elections to choose union representation and required employers to negotiate “in good faith” with their workers’ chosen representatives. Shifting labor conflict from strikes to elections and protecting activists from dismissal for their union work, the Act lowered the cost to individual workers of supporting collective action. It also put the Federal government’s imprimatur on union organization.

Crucial role of rank-and-file militants and state government support

Appointed by President Roosevelt, the first NLRB was openly pro-union, viewing the Act’s preamble as mandate to promote organization. By 1945 the Board had supervised 24,000 union elections involving some 6,000,000 workers, leading to the unionization of nearly 5,000,000 workers. Still, the NLRB was not responsible for the period’s union boom. The Wagner Act had no direct role in the early CIO years because it was ignored for two years until its constitutionality was established by the Supreme Court in National Labor Relations Board v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Company (1937). Furthermore, the election procedure’s gross contribution of 5,000,000 members was less than half of the period’s net union growth of 11,000,000 members. More important than the Wagner Act were crucial union victories over prominent open shop employers in cities like Akron, Ohio, Flint, Michigan, and among Philadelphia-area metal workers. Dedicated rank-and-file militants and effective union leadership were crucial in these victories. As important was the support of pro-New Deal local and state governments. The Roosevelt landslides of 1934 and 1936 brought to office liberal Democratic governors and mayors who gave crucial support to the early CIO. Placing a right to collective bargaining above private property rights, liberal governors and other elected officials in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere refused to send police to evict sit-down strikers who had seized control of factories. This state support allowed the minority of workers who actively supported unionization to use force to overcome the passivity of the majority of workers and the opposition of the employers. The Open Shop of the 1920s was not abandoned; it was overwhelmed by an aggressive, government-backed labor movement (Gall, 1999; Harris, 2000).

World War II

Federal support for union organization was also crucial during World War II. Again, war helped unions both by eliminating unemployment and because state officials supported unions to gain support for the war effort. Established to minimize labor disputes that might disrupt war production, the National War Labor Board instituted a labor truce where unions exchanged a no-strike pledge for employer recognition. During World War II, employers conceded union security and “maintenance of membership” rules requiring workers to pay their union dues. Acquiescing to government demands, employers accepted the institutionalization of the American labor movement, guaranteeing unions a steady flow of dues to fund an expanded bureaucracy, new benefit programs, and even to raise funds for political action. After growing from 3.5 to 10.2 million members between 1935 and 1941, unions added another 4 million members during the war. “Maintenance of membership” rules prevented free riders even more effectively than had the factory takeovers and violence of the late-1930s. With millions of members and money in the bank, labor leaders like Sidney Hillman and Phillip Murray had the ear of business leaders and official Washington. Large, established, and respected: American labor had made it, part of a reformed capitalism committed to both property and prosperity.

Even more than the First World War, World War Two promoted unions and social change. A European civil war, the war divided the continent not only between warring countries but within countries between those, usually on the political right, who favored fascism over liberal parliamentary government and those who defended democracy. Before the war, left and right contended over the appeasement of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy; during the war, many businesses and conservative politicians collaborated with the German occupation against a resistance movement dominated by the left. Throughout Europe, victory over Germany was a triumph for labor that led directly to the entry into government of socialists and Communists.

Successes and Failures after World War II

Union membership exploded during and after the war, nearly doubling between 1938 and 1946. By 1947, unions had enrolled a majority of nonagricultural workers in Scandinavia, Australia, and Italy, and over 40 percent in most other European countries (see Table 1). Accumulated depression and wartime grievances sparked a post- war strike wave that included over 6 million strikers in France in 1948, 4 million in Italy in 1949 and 1950, and 5 million in the United States in 1946. In Europe, popular unrest led to a dramatic political shift to the left. The Labor Party government elected in the United Kingdom in 1945 established a new National Health Service, and nationalized mining, the railroads, and the Bank of England. A center-left post-war coalition government in France expanded the national pension system and nationalized the Bank of France, Renault, and other companies associated with the wartime Vichy regime. Throughout Europe, the share of national income devoted to social services jumped dramatically, as did the share of income going to the working classes.

Europeans unions and the state after World War II

Unions and the political left were stronger everywhere throughout post-war Europe, but in some countries labor’s position deteriorated quickly. In France, Italy, and Japan, the popular front uniting Communists, socialists, and bourgeois liberals dissolved, and labor’s management opponents recovered state support, with the onset of the Cold War. In these countries, union membership dropped after 1947 and unions remained on the defensive for over a decade in a largely adversarial industrial relations system. Elsewhere, notably in countries with weak Communist movements, such as in Scandinavia but also in Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands, labor was able to compel management and state officials to accept strong and centralized labor movements as social partners. In these countries, stable industrial relations allowed cooperation between management and labor to raise productivity and to open new markets for national companies. High-union-density and high-union-centralization allowed Scandinavian and German labor leaders to negotiate incomes policies with governments and employers restraining wage inflation in exchange for stable employment, investment, and wages linked to productivity growth. Such policies could not be instituted in countries with weaker and less centralized labor movements, including France, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States because their unions had not been accepted as bargaining partners by management and they lacked the centralized authority to enforce incomes policies and productivity bargains (Alvarez, Garrett, and Lange, 1992).

Europe since the 1960s

Even where European labor was the weakest, in France or Italy in the 1950s, unions were stronger than before World War II. Working with entrenched socialist and labor political parties, European unions were able to maintain high wages, restrictions on managerial autonomy, and social security. The wave of popular unrest in the late 1960s and early 1970s would carry most European unions to new heights, briefly bringing membership to over 50 percent of the labor force in the United Kingdom and in Italy, and bringing socialists into the government in France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. Since 1980, union membership has declined some and there has been some retrenchment in the welfare state. But the essentials of European welfare states and labor relations have remained (Western, 1997; Golden and Pontusson, 1992).

Unions begin to decline in the US

It was after World War II that American Exceptionalism became most valid, when the United States emerged as the advanced, capitalist democracy with the weakest labor movement. The United States was the only advanced capitalist democracy where unions went into prolonged decline right after World War II. At 35 percent, the unionization rate in 1945 was the highest in American history, but even then it was lower than in most other advanced capitalist economies. It has been falling since. The post-war strike wave, including three million strikers in 1945 and five million in 1946, was the largest in American history but it did little to enhance labor’s political position or bargaining leverage. Instead, it provoked a powerful reaction among employers and others suspicious of growing union power. A concerted drive by the CIO to organize the South, “Operation Dixie,” failed dismally in 1946. Unable to overcome private repression, racial divisions, and the pro-employer stance of southern local and state governments, the CIO’s defeat left the South as a nonunion, low-wage domestic enclave and a bastion of anti- union politics (Griffith, 1988). Then, in 1946, a conservative Republican majority was elected to Congress, dashing hopes for a renewed, post-war New Deal.

The Taft-Hartley Act and the CIO’s Expulsion of Communists

Quickly, labor’s wartime dreams turned to post-war nightmares. The Republican Congress amended the Wagner Act, enacting the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 to give employers and state officials new powers against strikers and unions. The law also required union leaders to sign a non-Communist affidavit as a condition for union participation in NLRB-sponsored elections. This loyalty oath divided labor during a time of weakness. With its roots in radical politics and an alliance of convenience between Lewis and the Communists, the CIO was torn by the new Red Scare. Hoping to appease the political right, the CIO majority in 1949 expelled ten Communist-led unions with nearly a third of the organization’s members. This marked the end of the CIO’s expansive period. Shorn of its left, the CIO lost its most dynamic and energetic organizers and leaders. Worse, it plunged the CIO into a civil war; non-Communist affiliates raided locals belonging to the “communist-led” unions fatally distracting both sides from the CIO’s original mission to organize the unorganized and empower the dispossessed. By breaking with the Communists, the CIO’s leadership signaled that it had accepted its place within a system of capitalist hierarchy. Little reason remained for the CIO to remain independent. In 1955 it merged with the AFL to form the AFL-CIO.

The Golden Age of American Unions

Without the revolutionary aspirations now associated with the discredited Communists, America’s unions settled down to bargain over wages and working conditions without challenging such managerial prerogatives as decisions about prices, production, and investment. Some labor leaders, notably James Hoffa of the Teamsters but also local leaders in construction and service trades, abandoned all higher aspirations to use their unions for purely personal financial gain. Allying themselves with organized crime, they used violence to maintain their power over employers and their own rank-and-file membership. Others, including former-CIO leaders, like Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, continued to push the envelope of legitimate bargaining topics, building challenges to capitalist authority at the workplace. But even the UAW was unable to force major managerial prerogatives onto the bargaining table.

The quarter century after 1950 formed a ‘golden age’ for American unions. Established unions found a secure place at the bargaining table with America’s leading firms in such industries as autos, steel, trucking, and chemicals. Contracts were periodically negotiated providing for the exchange of good wages for cooperative workplace relations. Rules were negotiated providing a system of civil authority at work, with negotiated regulations for promotion and layoffs, and procedures giving workers opportunities to voice grievances before neutral arbitrators. Wages rose steadily, by over 2 percent per year and union workers earned a comfortable 20 percent more than nonunion workers of similar age, experience and education. Wages grew faster in Europe but American wages were higher and growth was rapid enough to narrow the gap between rich and poor, and between management salaries and worker wages. Unions also won a growing list of benefit programs, medical and dental insurance, paid holidays and vacations, supplemental unemployment insurance, and pensions. Competition for workers forced many nonunion employers to match the benefit packages won by unions, but unionized employers provided benefits worth over 60 percent more than were given nonunion workers (Freeman and Medoff, 1984; Hirsch and Addison, 1986).

Impact of decentralized bargaining in the US

In most of Europe, strong labor movements limit the wage and benefit advantages of union membership by forcing governments to extend union gains to all workers in an industry regardless of union status. By compelling nonunion employers to match union gains, this limited the competitive penalty borne by unionized firms. By contrast, decentralized bargaining and weak unions in the United States created large union wage differentials that put unionized firms at a competitive disadvantage, encouraging them to seek out nonunion labor and localities. A stable and vocal workforce with more experience and training did raise unionized firms’ labor productivity by 15 percent or more above the level of nonunion firms and some scholars have argued that unionized workers earn much of their wage gain. Others, however, find little productivity gain for unionized workers after account is taken of greater use of machinery and other nonlabor inputs by unionized firms (compare Freeman and Medoff, 1984 and Hirsch and Addison, 1986). But even unionized firms with higher labor productivity were usually more conscious of the wages and benefits paid to union worker than they were of unionization’s productivity benefits.

Unions and the Civil Rights Movement

Post-war unions remained politically active. European unions were closely associated with political parties, Communists in France and Italy, socialists or labor parties elsewhere. In practice, notwithstanding revolutionary pronouncements, even the Communist’s political agenda came to resemble that of unions in the United States, liberal reform including a commitment to full employment and the redistribution of income towards workers and the poor (Boyle, 1998). Golden age unions have also been at the forefront of campaigns to extend individual rights. The major domestic political issue of the post-war United States, civil rights, was troubling for many unions because of the racist provisions in their own practice. Nonetheless, in the 1950s and 1960s, the AFL-CIO strongly supported the civil rights movement, funded civil rights organizations and lobbied in support of civil rights legislation. The AFL-CIO pushed unions to open their ranks to African-American workers, even at the expense of losing affiliates in states like Mississippi. Seizing the opportunity created by the civil rights movement, some unions gained members among nonwhites. The feminist movement of the 1970s created new challenges for the masculine and sometimes misogynist labor movement. But, here too, the search for members and a desire to remove sources of division eventually brought organized labor to the forefront. The AFL-CIO supported the Equal Rights Amendment and began to promote women to leadership positions.

Shift of unions to the public sector

In no other country have women and members of racial minorities assumed such prominent positions in the labor movement as they have in the United States. The movement of African-American and women to leadership positions in the late-twentieth century labor movement was accelerated by a shift in the membership structure of the United States union movement. Maintaining their strength in traditional, masculine occupations in manufacturing, construction, mining, and transportation, European unions remained predominantly male. Union decline in these industries combined with growth in heavily female public sector employments in the United States led to the femininization of the American labor movement. Union membership began to decline in the private sector in the United States immediately after World War II. Between 1953 and 1983, for example, the unionization rate fell from 42 percent to 28 percent in manufacturing, by nearly half in transportation, and by over half in construction and mining (see Table 4). By contrast, after 1960, public sector workers won new opportunities to form unions. Because women and racial minorities form a disproportionate share of these public sector workers, increasing union membership there has changed the American labor movement’s racial and gender composition. Women comprised only 19 percent of American union members in the mid-1950s but their share rose to 40 percent by the late 1990s. By then, the most unionized workers were no longer the white male skilled craftsmen of old. Instead, they were nurses, parole officers, government clerks, and most of all, school teachers.

Union Collapse and Union Avoidance in the US

Outside the United States, unions grew through the 1970s and, despite some decline since the 1980s, European and Canadian unions remain large and powerful. The United States is different. Union decline since World War II has brought the United States private-sector labor movement down to early twentieth century levels. As a share of the nonagricultural labor force, union membership fell from its 1945 peak of 35 percent down to under 30 percent in the early 1970s. From there, decline became a general rout. In the 1970s, rising unemployment, increasing international competition, and the movement of industry to the nonunion South and to rural areas undermined the bargaining position of many American unions leaving them vulnerable to a renewed management offensive. Returning to pre-New Deal practices, some employers established new welfare and employee representation programs, hoping to lure worker away from unions (Heckscher, 1987; Jacoby, 1997). Others returned to pre-New Deal repression. By the early 1980s, union avoidance had become an industry. Anti-union consultants and lawyers openly counseled employers how to use labor law to evade unions. Findings of employers’ unfair labor practices in violation of the Wagner Act tripled in the 1970s; by the 1980s, the NLRB reinstated over 10,000 workers a year who were illegally discharged for union activity, nearly one for every twenty who voted for a union in an NLRB election (Weiler, 1983). By the 1990s, the unionization rate in the United States fell to under 14 percent, including only 9 percent of the private sector workers and 37 percent of those in the public sector. Unions now have minimal impact on wages or working conditions for most American workers.

Nowhere else have unions collapsed as in the United States. With a unionization rate dramatically below that of other countries, including Canada, the United States has achieved exceptional status (see Table 7). There remains great interest in unions among American workers; where employers do not resist, unions thrive. In the public sector and in some private employers where workers have free choice to join a union, they are as likely as they ever were, and as likely as workers anywhere. In the past, as after 1886 and in the 1920s, when American employers broke unions, they revived when a government committed to workplace democracy sheltered them from employer repression. If we see another such government, we may yet see another union revival.

Table 7
Union Membership Rates for the United States and Six Other Leading Industrial Economies, 1970 to 1990

1970 1980 1990
U.S.: Unionization Rate: All industries 30.0 24.7 17.6
U.S.: Unionization Rate: Manufacturing 41.0 35.0 22.0
U.S.: Unionization Rate: Financial services 5.0 4.0 2.0
Six Countries: Unionization Rate: All industries 37.1 39.7 35.3
Six Countries: Unionization Rate: Manufacturing 38.8 44.0 35.2
Five Countries: Unionization Rate: Financial services 23.9 23.8 24.0
Ratio: U.S./Six Countries: All industries 0.808 0.622 0.499
Ratio: U.S./Six Countries: Manufacturing 1.058 0.795 0.626
Ratio: U.S./Five Countries: Financial services 0.209 0.168 0.083

Note: The unionization rate reported is the number of union members out of 100 workers in the specified industry. The ratio shown is the unionization rate for the United States divided by the unionization rate for the other countries. The six countries are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Data on union membership in financial services in France are not available.

Source: Visser (1991): 110.


Alvarez, R. Michael, Geoffrey Garrett and Peter Lange. “Government Partisanship, Labor Organization, and Macroeconomic Performance,” American Political Science Review 85 (1992): 539-556.

Ansell, Christopher K. Schism and Solidarity in Social Movements: The Politics of Labor in the French Third Republic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Arnesen, Eric, Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Bain, George S., and Farouk Elsheikh. Union Growth and the Business Cycle: An Econometric Analysis. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1976.

Bain, George S. and Robert Price. Profiles of Union Growth: A Comparative Statistical Portrait of Eight Countries. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980.

Bernard, Phillippe and Henri Dubief. The Decline of the Third Republic, 1914-1938. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Blewett, Mary H. Men, Women, and Work: Class, Gender and Protest in the New England Shoe Industry, 1780-1910. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Boyle, Kevin, editor. Organized Labor and American Politics, 1894-1994: The Labor-Liberal Alliance. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998.

Brinkley, Alan. The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

Brody, David. Workers in Industrial America: Essays on the Twentieth-Century Struggle. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Cazals, Rémy. Avec les ouvriers de Mazamet dans la grève et l’action quotidienne, 1909-1914. Paris: Maspero, 1978.

Cohen, Lizabeth. Making A New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Cronin, James E. Industrial Conflict in Modern Britain. London: Croom Helm, 1979.

Cronin, James E. “Labor Insurgency and Class Formation.” In Work, Community, and Power: The Experience of Labor in Europe and America, 1900-1925, edited by James E. Cronin and Carmen Sirianni. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983. .

Cronin, James E. and Carmen Sirianni, editors. Work, Community, and Power: The Experience of Labor in Europe and America, 1900-1925. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983.

Dawley, Alan. Class and Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Ely, James W., Jr. The Guardian of Every Other Right: A Constitutional History of Property Rights. New York: Oxford, 1998.

Fink, Leon. Workingmen’s Democracy: The Knights of Labor and American Politics. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1983.

Fink, Leon. “The New Labor History and the Powers of Historical Pessimism: Consensus, Hegemony, and the Case of the Knights of Labor.” Journal of American History 75 (1988): 115-136.

Foner, Philip S. Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619-1973. New York: International Publishers, 1974.

Foner, Philip S. Women and the American Labor Movement: From Colonial Times to the Eve of World War I. New York: Free Press, 1979.

Frank, Dana. Purchasing Power: Consumer Organizing, Gender, and the Seattle Labor Movement, 1919- 1929. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Freeman, Richard and James Medoff. What Do Unions Do? New York: Basic Books, 1984.

Friedman, Gerald. “Dividing Labor: Urban Politics and Big-City Construction in Late-Nineteenth Century America.” In Strategic Factors in Nineteenth-Century American Economic History, edited by Claudia Goldin and Hugh Rockoff, 447-64. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Friedman, Gerald. “Revolutionary Syndicalism and French Labor: The Rebels Behind the Cause.” French Historical Studies 20 (Spring 1997).

Friedman, Gerald. State-Making and Labor Movements: France and the United States 1876-1914. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Friedman, Gerald. “New Estimates of United States Union Membership, 1880-1914.” Historical Methods 32 (Spring 1999): 75-86.

Friedman, Gerald. “The Political Economy of Early Southern Unionism: Race, Politics, and Labor in the South, 1880-1914.” Journal of Economic History 60, no. 2 (2000): 384-413.

Friedman, Gerald. “The Sanctity of Property in American Economic History” (manuscript, University of Massachusetts, July 2001).

Gall, Gilbert. Pursuing Justice: Lee Pressman, the New Deal, and the CIO. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Gamson, William A. The Strategy of Social Protest. Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press, 1975.

Geary, Richard. European Labour Protest, 1848-1939. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981.

Golden, Miriam and Jonas Pontusson, editors. Bargaining for Change: Union Politics in North America and Europe. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Griffith, Barbara S. The Crisis of American Labor: Operation Dixie and the Defeat of the CIO. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

Harris, Howell John. Bloodless Victories: The Rise and Fall of the Open Shop in the Philadelphia Metal Trades, 1890-1940. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Hattam, Victoria C. Labor Visions and State Power: The Origins of Business Unionism in the United States. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Heckscher, Charles C. The New Unionism: Employee Involvement in the Changing Corporation. New York: Basic Books, 1987.

Hirsch, Barry T. and John T. Addison. The Economic Analysis of Unions: New Approaches and Evidence. Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1986.

Hirschman, Albert O. Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1970.

Hirschman, Albert O. Shifting Involvements: Private Interest and Public Action. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Hobsbawm, Eric J. Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964.

Irons, Janet. Testing the New Deal: The General Textile Strike of 1934 in the American South. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Jacoby, Sanford. Modern Manors: Welfare Capitalism Since the New Deal. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Katznelson, Ira and Aristide R. Zolberg, editors. Working-Class Formation: Nineteenth-Century Patterns in Western Europe and the United States. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986. Kocka, Jurgen. “Problems of Working-Class Formation in Germany: The Early Years, 1800-1875.” In Working- Class Formation: Nineteenth-Century Patterns in Western Europe and the United States, edited by Ira Katznelson and Aristide R. Zolberg, 279-351. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986. Letwin, Daniel. The Challenge of Interracial Unionism: Alabama Coal Miners, 1878-1921. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. Maddison, Angus. Dynamic Forces in Capitalist Development: A Long-Run Comparative View. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. Magraw, Roger. A History of the French Working Class, two volumes. London: Blackwell, 1992. Milkman, Ruth. Women, Work, and Protest: A Century of United States Women’s Labor. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.

Montgomery, David. The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Mullin, Debbie Dudley. “The Porous Umbrella of the AFL: Evidence From Late Nineteenth-Century State Labor Bureau Reports on the Establishment of American Unions.” Ph.D. diss., University of Virginia, 1993.

Nolan, Mary. Social Democracy and Society: Working-Class Radicalism in Dusseldorf, 1890-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Olson, Mancur. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Perlman, Selig. A Theory of the Labor Movement. New York: MacMillan, 1928.

Rachleff, Peter J. Black Labor in the South, 1865-1890. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984.

Roediger, David. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. London: Verso, 1991.

Scott, Joan. The Glassworkers of Carmaux: French Craftsmen in Political Action in a Nineteenth-Century City. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Sewell, William H. Jr. Work and Revolution in France: The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Shorter, Edward and Charles Tilly. Strikes in France, 1830-1968. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974.

Temin, Peter. Lessons from the Great Depression. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990.

Thompson, Edward P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage, 1966.

Troy, Leo. Distribution of Union Membership among the States, 1939 and 1953. New York: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1957.

United States, Bureau of the Census. Census of Occupations, 1930. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1932.

Visser, Jelle. European Trade Unions in Figures. Boston: Kluwer, 1989.

Voss, Kim. The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Ware, Norman. The Labor Movement in the United States, 1860-1895: A Study in Democracy. New York: Vintage, 1929.

Washington, Booker T. “The Negro and the Labor Unions.” Atlantic Monthly (June 1913).

Weiler, Paul. “Promises to Keep: Securing Workers Rights to Self-Organization Under the NLRA.” Harvard Law Review 96 (1983).

Western, Bruce. Between Class and Market: Postwar Unionization in the Capitalist Democracies. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Whatley, Warren. “African-American Strikebreaking from the Civil War to the New Deal.” Social Science History 17 (1993), 525-58.

Wilentz, Robert Sean. Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Wolman, Leo. Ebb and Flow in Trade Unionism. New York: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1936.

Zieger, Robert. The CIO, 1935-1955. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Zolberg, Aristide. “Moments of Madness.” Politics and Society 2 (Winter 1972): 183-207. 60

Citation: Friedman, Gerald. “Labor Unions in the United States”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL