Trade union

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Cesar ChavezWikipedia speaking at a United Farm Workers union rally.
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A trade union (or labor union for those across the pond) is an association of workers united in maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment.

Unions are overwhelmingly associated with left-wing politics, though the odd pro-union conservative crops up occasionally. The BNP has its own fundraising apparatus union, Solidarity — The Union for British Workers.[note 1]

In the United States, unions began to decline during the Reagan presidency (partly because Reagan dismantled the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, one of only three unions that backed Reagan in his successful bid to defeat President Jimmy Carter; look what they got for breaking union solidarityWikipedia), and today occupy a drastically less prominent position than formerly,[1][2] up to the point that the USA is only one out of two countries in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) with total union representation under 15%.[3] Nevertheless, conservatives continue to blame unions whenever something goes wrong with the economy, as most recently seen during the events that prompted the 2011 Wisconsin protests and the fall of the Twinkie.[4]


Unions take many forms, and their objectives may differ depending on the profession. The main objectives have traditionally been:

  • Worker representation: Unions are charged with representing their members to employers and society.
  • Provision of benefits to members: Unions initially provided a range of benefits to ensure members against unemployment, ill-health, old age, and funeral expenses. In some countries, these functions have been taken on by the state. However, professional training, legal advice, and representation for members are still an important hallmark of trade union membership.


Trade unions employ various techniques for achieving their ends, including:

  • Collective bargaining: Unions can bargain with employers using the members' collective power over wages and working conditions. Since the Margaret Thatcher days in the UK, this has been somewhat trivialized. If civil service unions such as PCS start to look at their membership as a whole (instead of "I work for the DWP, you work for the DSA. Therefore, DWP issues take precedence"), this tactic could be negated.
  • Industrial action: With a majority vote, unions can organize strikes or work to rule as a sanction against unfavorable management decisions. There are also a variety of "job action" measures that workers may employ, some more legal than others.
  • Political activity: Trade unions lobby for legislation in favor of their members or workers. To this end, they may pursue campaigns, lobby on behalf of, or financially support candidates or parties for public office.

Differing approaches[edit]

Craft unionism organizes workers with the same skills into their own unions; industrial unionism organizes workers in the same industry (regardless of skills) into the same union by industry rather than by skill. This is probably why the term "labor unions" is favored over "trade unions" in the United States because "trade unions" is associated with craft unionism. A third approach of organizing everybody into "one big union" was also tried, notably by the Industrial Workers of the World circa 1905-1924. A fourth approach was a fraternal labor organization organized along the lines of a secret society, typified by the Knights of Labor, which had a brief heyday from 1869-1886. The latter two approaches fizzled, and the primary distinction since then has been between craft and industrial unions.

Craft unionism was dominant in the old American Federation of Labor where, for example, machinists, electricians, carpenters, musicians, and so on each had their own unions, and in the railroads where engineers, conductors, brakemen, Pullman porters, and maintenance of way employees each had their own unions. This approach broke down with the rise of manufacturing industries where most unskilled and semi-skilled workers were left unrepresented with no specific craft union to represent them.

Industrial unionism in the U.S. was pioneered by an attempt at forming a single American Railway Union in the 1890s. It didn't become a permanent fixture until John L. Lewis and the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s, leading to the formation of such unions as the United Auto Workers, United Steelworkers, United Mine Workers, and United Electrical Workers. The UAW pulled everyone working in the auto industry into the same union instead of separating them into different unions by skill.

A good compare-and-contrast between the two is to compare the United Electrical Workers (UE) with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). The IBEW is a craft union, mainly representing electricians and linemen, and largely focused on apprenticeship job training and hiring halls; UE (and later IUE, a rival union started after UE was expelled from the CIO for having communist leadership) are industrial unions representing workers in the electrical industry, particularly electric appliance manufacturing, who had been left unrepresented by the IBEW's focus on skilled workers. The AFL and CIO merged in 1955, and in many ways, the distinction between craft and industrial unionism has since blurred, as have the industry-specific and skill-specific focus of many unions — the Teamsters, for one, are now organized in so many different fields they are far from being merely the "truck drivers union" that they once were.

The above distinctions may (or may not) be specific to the United States. In some countries, government-controlled or company-controlled unions are the norm. These are rarely more than formalities that do little to represent workers' rights, though exceptions do exist. Government-controlled unions were the norm in Soviet bloc countries, where independent unions such as Solidarność in Poland were suppressed.

Criticism of unions[edit]

Some opponents of unions view them as an infringement on laissez-faire economics, infringing on the purpose of business (as they see it, according to Chicago School guru Milton Friedman) to turn a profit for shareholders.[5][6][7] Some of them regard union activity as little better than criminal and barely tolerate it only because they have had to since the passage of the 1935 Wagner Act in the U.S. (although the Taft-Hartley Act in 1949 put some dampers on unions' legal status and also authorized states to curtail it further, as with right-to-work laws).

Conservative opposition to unions tends to be rooted in this quasi-libertarian ideology. Others have a more moderate opposition to unions, or at least labor laws requiring the recognition of unions, based on the idea that these laws can give unions the legal right to force an employer into bankruptcy by demanding money that the employer may very well not have.

The minority of conservatives who support unions come from a different perspective, sometimes known as "producerism," which views a productive middle class as a stabilizing (and hence, inherently conservative) force in society and tends to regard unregulated big business with some disdain.

From a strictly libertarian perspective, opposing unions makes no sense, as private-sector unions would seem to be something consistent with freedom of association, freedom to withhold labor (i.e., to strike), freedom of contract (including the freedom to contract for better wages or a closed union shop), and all of this outside the realm of governmental regulation (with public sector unions, however, the situation is more complicated, as the government plays the role of both "employer" and "regulator"). However, it was only following the passage of laws compelling employers to recognize unions that many of the large advances in labor rights were secured; hence, many libertarians view unions in the same way they view the Federal Reserve, as organizations that only exist by the grace of the State, thus they hate them just as much as they hate the State![note 2] These laws established that employers do not have the right to use yellow-dog contracts to keep workers from joining unions or use paramilitary forces such as Pinkerton and Baldwin-Felts to keep unions out of their workplaces. Removal of the latter right would theoretically fit within the proper limited role of government espoused by libertarians to protect an individual right to freedom of association from the initiation of force. The one area where their objection is in keeping with libertarian principles is that these laws set up a governmental agency, the National Labor Relations Board, mediating between unions and employers and granting it the power to compel union recognition.

On the other hand, should corporations be allowed the same freedoms as unions allow workers? That is to say, should companies be allowed to collectively bargain with other employers to lower the amount they are forced to pay workers? If workers of an industry are allowed to unite and push up wages, it stands to reason that companies should be allowed to unite and do the reverse. Companies can't do this under federal antitrust law,[8] but it's worth considering. On an individual level, workers have the right to withhold labor, but firms also have the right to withhold capital. The big question is whether or not businesses should be allowed to withhold capital collectively as laborers can withhold labor collectively. A big determinant of the answer may lie in one's idea of corporate personhood and whether or not people believe that corporations are people and hence should be extended these same freedoms of association and to collectively bargain as laborers. The belief that a corporation itself is not a person makes sense, but just because it isn't a person doesn't mean that those making the decisions aren't people. It also doesn't mean that the shareholders that make up the corporation (which ironically sometimes includes workers with 401(k) plans with the company) and who would be negatively affected by a worker strike aren't people. A second line of thinking as to why corporations should not be extended this same collective bargaining ability as workers is that there exists an inequality of bargaining power, with companies or corporations having the upper hand in employment and wage negotiations. One answer to this is it depends on education level. Competition for bachelor's degrees or higher has pushed their wages up, but for individuals without at least a bachelor's, their wages have been decreasing in real terms.[9] In addition to this, the industry that the worker is participating in matters. For example, STEM majors make significantly more money and have higher employment numbers than non-STEM majors.[10] This is not to say that we should just let the uneducated and misplaced workers die and let only the strong and smart survive; that is preposterous. Of course, the government should help those people. Not to mention there are only so many jobs that require a bachelor's degree in the first place, often leaving the losers working at shitty jobs that don't need a degree. Any country's government should levy a reasonable progressive tax and redistribute the wealth from those in the country who have done well to those who have not done so well in the form of welfare programs and job training programs. Many countries have done this, but some lag behind by lowering taxes on the rich in the mystical belief that it will trickle down, according to the likes of Kyle Smith.Wikipedia[11] If we attempt to fix the problem of poor individuals by progressive taxation and income redistribution, we can avoid the philosophical conundrum of allowing unions to do what corporations can not (and the whole corporate personhood issue) straight off and still help poor people. Those who work hard and help industries vital to an economy are rewarded more, while those who do are not treated like rabble.

Opponents of unions tend to use rather, ahem, pointed terms to frame the debate:

  • "Union bosses" — A phrase intended to invoke comparisons to "mafia bosses" and imply that unions are somehow corrupt or criminal organizations. There have indeed been several corrupt unions with ties to organized crime (a prime example is the Teamsters under Jimmy Hoffa's leadership), but using this phrase to imply criminality is a false generalization.
  • "Right to work" — ostensibly a person's right to hold a job in their chosen field if, for some reason or other, they do not wish to join a union or are booted out of one. In practice, however, this often means infringement on the freedom of unions and employers to contract for a closed union shop. It also means unions are forced to bargain collectively for the free riders who don't want to pay union dues yet reap the benefits of having the significantly higher pay rates and benefits found at union shops. In the United States, workers in states considered to be "Right-to-Work" states have a lower annual income than those in other states.[12] So while the wages of sin might be death, right-to-work wages are just less than what others are getting.
  • "Secret ballot" — this refers to employers being able to dictate to employees that they have to hold a secret ballot election before the union is recognized. What this really means is if a majority of employees want a union, the employer should know about it first and require everyone to attend meetings where they are forced to listen to anti-union presentations while denying union organizers access to the company property to give pro-union presentations, and then and only then conduct a "secret ballot" after enough employees have been turned against the union by the one-sided propaganda. Some employers have also been known to fire the most vocal union supporters before the election. Not very "secret", is it?
  • "Big labor" — this is a play on peoples' distrust of "big business" and "big government" by portraying unions as cut from the same big, bad cloth.

Criticism by fascists[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Fascism

Fascists have frequently attacked unions because unions support their membership equally, regardless of race, gender, or sexuality. Such equality is contrary to the hierarchical nature of fascist ideology, as well as contrary to the fascist ideal of subservience to the national leader.[13]:78-92,171-172 Some research suggests that becoming a member of a labor union tends to reduce one's racism.[14][15] Adolf Hitler repeatedly attacked trade unions in Mein Kampf, claiming that Jews controlled the leadership of unions and that unions hindered the efficiency of business.[13]:171-172 Fascism is also opposed to labor unions because labor unions reduce economic inequality on a national scale, and economic inequality is important to fascism for the preservation of hierarchy.[13]:172-173

Unions today[edit]

We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combination of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labor above their actual rate. When workers combine, masters … never cease to call aloud for the assistance of the civil magistrate, and the rigorous execution of those laws which have been enacted with so much severity against the combination of servants, labourers, and journeymen.
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations[16]

With the rise of the "me, me, me" and the "I'm alright, Jack" cultures as a result of Thatcherism and Reaganism (as well as a few rather embarrassing incidents in which unions played political power games and lost), union membership and power have been greatly diminished in the UK and US,[17] to the point where many young workers (in whatever profession) are happy not to belong to a union. Despite the good work that unions have done for laborers in the past, the union tradition is comparatively weak among the white-collar and (especially) the professional occupations, which have accounted for a large part of the new jobs in recent decades, so many of the iPod generation see unions as an anachronism.

It is almost as bad in the United States, where corruption in the largest unions, such as the Teamsters, has reduced unions to something of a necessary evil, making it very easy for anti-labor propagandists to convince workers that they don't need a union; in fact, in some industries such as the recording industry, the very organization set up to protect the financial interests of their talent (RIAA, ASCAP, BMI) is controlled by the industry itself rather than by the musicians. The mafia influence on the Teamsters (and similarly corrupt influence in other unions, most notably the International Longshoremen's Association during the 1950s as portrayed in the movie On the Waterfront, and the United Mine Workers during the Tony Boyle era in the 1960s) was rooted out long ago. However, opponents of unions are still fond of bringing this up. The nature of being a human enterprise is such that there are always dirtbags who pop up every so often, but without diminishing the damage some of them have done to individual workers, these are now almost always cases of people acting alone.[18]

Some people are also a bit leery because of the occasional but persistent horror stories coming out of teacher's unions, which have at times made it almost impossible to fire admitted and/or convicted sex offenders; this is, however, a problem specific to certain unions (the biggest fireworks tend to come from New York City, and a few other large cities have similar issues) and not nearly as widespread as it's made out to be.[19] The so-called "protection of sex offenders" is much more a right-wing fabrication. The rightists wrote, "This past week the most prominent teachers' unions made it painfully obvious, they are on the side of the sex offender, rapist, and murderer who has been convicted. They are not now (and pretty much never have been) on the side of your child."[20] Fox News cheerfully featured the story for all it was worth; it was yet another propaganda slur coup for the right. Another account of this same occurrence more accurately reported: "Of course, the objections that teacher unions have voiced are not objections to protecting kids against sexual predators. The teacher unions want to strengthen the bill, not stop it. But no matter; the bill is a set-up. While it is about stopping "sexual predators," it is used here as a honey-trap to elicit objections that can be used against unions."[21] People who know something about education may be sharply critical of teachers' unions and their leaders, notably Steven BrillWikipedia in New York City, and still emphasize that any meaningful improvements to education will inevitably require the unions to buy-in.

This is typical of the anti-union sentiment that unions are subject to in the United States.

Globalization has been decimating unions in the U.S. and the resulting loss of jobs in the once heavily unionized manufacturing industries; today, public service and government employees are the most heavily unionized sectors of the economy. Some companies, such as Wal-Mart, have an apparent policy of closing any store where employees vote to unionize; while this practice is highly illegal, it has not been seriously challenged by regulators to date.

But let's face it, we live in an age of globalization, MacBooks, and blogs. Who would need a union now that we're all masters of our destiny? Right? Right?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership is up by 262,000 as of the end of 2017.[22]

As for the union members on the political spectrum, Trump got 40% of union votes.[23]

See also[edit]


  1. Not just the name nicked from the famous Polish union, but the logo too. Its claimed membership as of 2009 was 439.
  2. This view is not particularly true, as craft unionism was already well established long before the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, as some craft unions came out of the trade guild tradition.


  1. Union Membership in U.S. Fell to a 70-Year Low Last Year by Steven Greenhouse (January 21, 2011) The New York Times.
  2. Trade union membership by country Nation Master.
  3. The other is South Korea.
  4. Who Killed the Twinkie? by James Surowiecki (November 17, 2012) The New Yorker.
  5. The Myth of CEO Pay and "Greed" by Matt Palumbo (06/06/2015) Mises Institute.
  6. The union myth by Thomas J. DiLorenzo (10/01/2004) Mises Institute.
  7. The Myth of Voluntary Unions by Thomas J. DiLorenzo (09/14/2004) Mises Institute.
  8. Employee “No Poaching” Agreements Meet the Antitrust Laws: Protection of Employees in the New Economy by Mike Briley (July 27 2017) Lexology.
  9. For Millennials, a bachelor’s degree continues to pay off, but a master’s earns even more by Richard Fry (February 28, 2014) Pew Research Center.
  10. Science And Math Majors Earn The Most Money After Graduation by Peter Jacobs (Jul 9, 2014, 7:56 AM) Business Insider.
  11. Sorry, Obama Fans: Reagan Did Better on Jobs and Growth by Kyle Smith (9/11/2014 @ 9:13AM) Forbes.
  12. “Right-to-Work” States Still Have Lower Wages by Elise Gould & Will Kimball (April 22, 2015) Economic Policy Institute.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley (2018) Random House. ISBN 9780525511830.
  14. Frymer, Paul; Grumbach, Jacob M. (June 29, 2020). "Labor Unions and White Racial Politics" (in en). American Journal of Political Science 65 (1): 225–240. doiWikipedia:10.1111/ajps.12537. ISSN 0092-5853. JSTOR 45415623. 
  15. Tage S. Rai (August 7, 2020). "Union membership reduces racism". Science, Vol. 369, Issue 6504, pp. 640-641.
  16. The Wealth Of Nations by Adam Smith (1937) The Modern Library.
  17. What's behind the decline in unions by Raymond Hogler (November 30, 2016) The New Republic.
  18. Union’s Money Fueled Lavish Lifestyle, Prosecutors Say by Russ Buettner (Jan. 3, 2010) The New York Times.
  19. Sex predators remain in NYC schools thanks to discipline system, group finds by Corinne Lestch & Ben Chapman (Jun 23, 2013 at 2:30 am) New York Daily News.
  20. Why Teachers' Unions Want Sex Offenders In Your Child's Classroom by Kevin McCullough (Oct 27, 2013) (archived from October 29, 2013).
  21. Campbell Brown's Ridiculous Attack on Teacher Unions: Today's ridiculous attack on teacher unions is one that accuses them of supporting sexual predators in schools. Let's see if we can figure out what's behind it. by Dave Johnson (Jan 18, 2014, 01:58 PM EST; Updated Mar 20, 2014) Huffington Post.
  22. The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.8 million in 2017, edged up by 262,000 from 2016. (January 20, 2022) U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  23. Exit polls of the 2020 Presidential Election in the United States on November 3, 2020, share of votes by union membership Statista.