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Essay/Term paper: Labor unions

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Economics

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Labor Unions

Labor unions are groups or clubs of workers and employees who bond
together to get good working conditions, fair pay, and fair hours for their
labor. For example, in a newspaper, all the people who work the presses might
all belong to one union. All of the artists, who are responsible for the
artistic layout, might belong to another. These unions are usually joined
together, and most unions in America are some branch of the largest labor union
organization in the United States, the AFL-CIO. The unions of the workers at a
certain business or factory might get together with the management for a period
of time to talk about a contract. This time is known as negotiation. The union
will tell the management what it wants its workers getting paid, and then the
management will tell the union what it can pay the workers and still be earning
a reasonable profit. They bargain and it usually works out. Most businesses
and corporations have eight-hour work days, with optional extra hours. This is
not usually a topic in negotiations, but could be. Working conditions could be
discussed. If workers in the factory have no heat, no lunch breaks or they are
not allowed to speak, (which was the case in many sweatshops for immigrants and
children in the 1920's through 1940's), then the labor unions will obviously
want something done.
These differences are usually settled fairly quickly, and a new contract
featuring these agreements will be realized . Most contracts are in operation
for about 3 to 5 years. Then, negotiations begin again. This is how labor-
management relations go in a perfect world.
But, obviously, this is not always the case. Sometimes the unions want
unrealistic wages. They might stress extreme luxuries that the company cannot
provide for working conditions. Or the management may be stubborn and unwilling
to give up a large percentage of the profit in a good year. Or maybe both sides
are seemingly in the right and an agreement can not be met. Whatever the case
maybe, after the set negotiation has been passed, and a contract has not been
created, then the union will go to the workers tell them the situation, and they
will vote in a strike.
The unions purpose in the strike is to stop the company or factory from
caring out their purpose of existence. If they are supposed to deliver packages,
blockades will be set up in most cases to stop this. The union must succeed not
only in this, but in preventing replacement workers, known as scabs, from doing
their jobs. If the new workers can do the jobs and the company can perform its
job, then all the union members did by striking is quit their jobs and lose
benefits. They have to let the company feel their loss and force them to let
them back and meet their demands. In a striking situation, one of three basic
things happens: the union wins by preventing the company from overstating, they
get their jobs back and their demands are met; the management wins, the strike
fails, and the workers are unemployed; or the strike seemingly goes on forever,
a stalemate of a kind, and, hopefully, one side will just give in.
One of the methods that unions use to protest when on strike is
picketing, which is carrying around signs stating either your cause, what your
doing out there pacing on the sidewalk, or the union division you belong to.
Many strikes have become violent over history, whereas some are merely workers
who leave the job and will not come back until their demands are met. The
violent strikes may involve picketing, injury or death of workers, severe
rioting, damage and vandalization of company or employer property, and more.
Police have to intervene in this type of strike, and it is this type of labor
union action that irritates many people with the whole organization. A lot of
people are strongly for unions, whether they work for the particular company or
not, and will support the unions in their strikes. It is this sort of support
unions hope for, because the more people they get the stronger they are. But
some people, especially small business owners, who do not see much profit in a
day-to-day operation, are very critical of unions. Some union demands have
driven small business owners out of business, simply because they could not
afford to do what the union wanted.
The major formation of national labor unions came after the Civil War.
This war greatly expanded factory production and railroad building, which
generated much concern about the well-being of the workers. By 1864, about 300
local unions operated in twenty northern states. In 1866, the International
Industry Assembly of North America became the National Labor Union. It was the
first important association of unions. But, in 1872 , it failed and disappeared
from the pages of history.
The next big step in the labor movement was the formation of the
Knights of Labor, begun by Uriah Stephens, a tailor, in 1869. It began as a
secret society to improve workers welfare through peaceful means. It became the
first major American attempt to found a union for all workers, skilled and
The Nights of Labor had a boost of importance in the public eye when it
had its first major victory in the great railroad strikes of 1877. In 1886, the
Knights had 600,000 to 700,000 members.
But, in that same year, Samuel Gompers and Adolph Strasser left the
Knights of Labor because it did not represent craft union interests. They formed
the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL became a competitor to the
Knights of Labor, and eventually ran them out of business. The AFL became the
reigning giant in the labor force, almost doubling the Knights' membership in
just three years. Gompers remained president of the AFL for forty years.
Mass-production industries such as car manufacturers separated from the
AFL because of lack of attention in the 1930's, and formed the Congress of
Industrial Organizations (CIO). This organization was formed by John T. Lewis
of the United Mine Workers in 1938. In the late 1930's and early 1940's, both
the AFL and the CIO made huge gains in recruiting new members. Both came out of
World War II stronger than ever before. In 1955, both labor unions agreed on a
contract that combined the two into one huge union, the AFL-CIO, still the
largest labor union in existence today.
In July 1993, the contract between the Detroit News and the major local
union that the employees belonged to, ran out. The paper took this opportunity
to let the union know that it had purchased new printing presses, and this
reduced the number of people needed to operate it. The old ones took nineteen
people per press to operate. Since the new ones, which only required ten, had
been put into use, the operators took turns going to a nearby bar, since there
were still nineteen of them. The newspaper wanted to fire the extra nine people
per press, and the union did not want them to. The union went on strike, but
were unsuccessful in getting their demands met. During this time, replacement
workers had been hired. They were working much faster than the previous workers,
who, it turns out , were purposely working especially slow to cover the fact
that not all nineteen of them were needed. With the new replacement workers,
the presses only required six people per press. This would save the paper a lot
of money in the future.
Meanwhile, the strike was not going well. The union leaders and the
teamsters headed to the newspaper negotiators. They were willing to make a deal
to allow only ten to work the press if the teamsters could have their jobs back.
The paper told them that now only six people were needed. Infuriated, the
teamsters stormed out, and a full-fledged strike again in late July. Literally
millions of ex-workers and sympathetic workers of the union, flooded the
streets with picket signs and clubs, beating cars and buses, stopping traffic,
clubbing "scabs", and wreaking havoc in the streets of Detroit.
Buckets of paint were hurled at the walls and windows of Detroit News
and Detroit Free Press buildings, although the real strike was going on at the
news. Star nails, nails about the size of tennis balls that stick out in all
directions to pop and shred the tires on cars, were everywhere. These were
stopping the armored cars busing workers and scabs into the building. The buses
were clubbed and beaten, but police intervention eventually brought the riots
down.. Even months afterward, several fights broke out between scabs and union
enthusiasts. Detroit became torn: those for the strike, and those against it.
It was very tense, but did eventually die down somewhat.
Ex-workers picketed around stores and businesses that advertised in the
newspaper, which ruined sales for these stores by stopping those sympathetic
with the strike from shopping there. Many businesses withdrew dramatically.
Also, thousands of subscribers were canceled by union sympathetic and
enthusiasts. In the early days of the strike, papers were kept from being
delivered to boxes and homes. This continued for quite a while, reducing sales
of paper overall. But not even all of this was enough to make a giant in
business such as the Detroit News fall. The strike has died down much now, and
only two or three lone picketers can be seen pacing at the gates of the News
building now. The union has tried several times to give in and make weak deals,
and over time the paper has refused. In this strike, it would appear that the
management has won.
But, to look at the issue of strikes from a different view, the
infamous 1994 Major League Baseball Strike comes to mind. The salary caps caused
the players to simply walk off the job. No violent riots or picketing was
necessary: most players went and played golf. This was because of two things:
they were already rich by most peoples standards, and they were desperately
needed by the owners, because baseball is a hard business to find replacements .
The owners tried, though, but failed. Although public disgust ran high at the
"spoiled" baseball players, the union did not waver, and the owners gave in, and
the next season baseball was back.
Labor unions all started out as a small idea when a few workers shared
their ideas that they did not like the way management was running things. They
formed a union and threatened the management by walking off the job. This was a
new idea then, but today it is commonplace. The big worry is among the heads
of big business who are resorting to downsizing to raise profit. The future of
labor unions is unclear, but it seems to be a colorful one.


1. The Detroit News and Free Press.
Saturday, February 15, 1997; Front page


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