Labour unions Essay



1.1 The Historical Context of Labor Unions


2.1 Trade Union Defined

2.2 Structure of Trade Unions

2.3 Legal Status of Trade Unions


3.1 Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining Defined

3.2 Collective Bargaining Defined

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3.3 The Place of Collective Bargaining in United States

3.4 The Legal Effects of Collective Bargaining




1.1 The Historical Context of labor Unions

Since the length of working days is one of the repressive factors imposed upon the pleasure principle by the principle reality, the reduction of working day… constitute of the first prerequisite for liberty (Herbert Marcuse; 1955)

In effect the progress towards a shorter work-day and week constitutes of the history of labor movement (George Meany, 1956)

             The foregoing prepositions echo the conditions that lead to establishment of trade unionism that represented various theories that have been put forward which fully examine the development of organized labor movements, which resulted in revolutionary transformation in employment. Too full appreciate the historical development of unionism it is imperative to examine the two theories that relate to the concept of revolution and development of labor movement,

            The Marxist theory establishes that in the early days, the society was controlled by capitalism, which was skewed towards exploitative economic systems based on class distinctions.  (Lavson & Nissen, 1987).  This in turn led to the exploitation of slaves and peasants for the benefit of the dominant class.  This perpetuated as described by Karl Marx systematic robbery of the slaves and peasants as the dominant class extracted enormous wealth from these persons.  Capitalism was thus viewed as a mechanism that left a large number of workers property less while in real sense they were the ones involved in the creation of such wealth.  This kind of society finally created antagonist class interests between the capitalists and workers as the system caused extreme economic dependence on one hand and insecurity of workers on the other hand.

            However the concentration of workers in large industrial and business establishments lead to the creation of commonality of interest in view of the conditions of employment – the need for freedom of employees, freedom to acquire and own property, freedom to fair treatment that lead to favorable working conditions and reasonable payment and lastly the freedom to be involved in decision making on matters that turn and relate to employees interests.  It is these common interests that spawned the first industrial strike, the first collective action uniting both the skilled and unskilled workers (Musson, 2006), the first attempts to establish regional and national labor organizations and the establishment of a labor party.  (Taylor & Francis, 2002).  This demands lead to the unification of workers across the lines of craft, sex, skill, age and ethnicity and attempts to divide them by the employing class was to no avail. (Larson & Nissen, 1987).  This demand also plays a special role in American labor history as they elicited both political as well as trade union struggles. In the political scene campaigns were held that reflected the need to improve the working conditions of employees and the need to enact local state and/or federal labor laws. (Taylor & Francis, 2002).  It can thus be concluded from the foregoing that the development of trade unionism in America was occasioned by collective movement in small groups that gathered force in a merchant capitalist movement that oppressed employees (Larson & Nissen, 1987).  The next section attempts to look at the composition of trade unions and their implication within the American society.


2.1 Trade Union Defined

A trade union is broadly defined as a conglomeration of employees acting collectively for mutual protection of their interest and rights often directed towards wages and conditions of employment (Najita & Roberts, 1994).  It may constitute of workers belonging in the similar trade or as current trends depict from different trades.

        Various reactions emerged upon the introduction of trade unionism.  Those favoring trade unionism stated that it provided a sphere of industrial democracy as it was only through collective representation that the governance of employees can be heard.  Others however, hold the view that unionism enhances inefficiency within the workforce due to its competitive nature; this assumption has been shunned with the view that economic inefficiency is only for a short spun as compared to the benefits that result from unionism.

2.2 The Structure of Trade Unions

            The structure of trade unions encompasses its governance and management and distribution of power (Taylor & Francis, 2002) which is constituted in the unions rule book.  The rule book defines the composition of various governing bodies and eligibility of members constituting of these bodies.  Provisions in this book are however influenced by the requirement patterns, which are determined by its objectives and the changing needs and requirements within the society. (Musson, 2006)

            Most Unions within America are characterized by unitary structures with geographical regional administration. (Musson, 2006) However in instances of diverse membership, administration is sectional based reflecting the many trades or occupations within the members.  Thus where the structure is federal with sections separate to the national union, different management arrangement are usually in place as members of federal union belong to both the regional and national unions.   This is because regional organizations are considered as separate and discrete from the national unions though the national union comprise of a conglomeration of the regional unions and itself.  The autonomy of any branch is determined by the provisions stipulated in the rule book (Taylor & Francis, 2002)

            The implementation of the federal union policy and authority vests in the federal executive committee which is authorized to personally act or delegate its functions.  The executive committee is chaired by a president who is ordinarily a nominee from the committee members and a secretary general.

2.3 The Legal Status of Trade Unions

            The legal status of trade unions is of import since it determines the functioning of these organizations within a society.  The legal status determines the kind of legal action to be taken against such unions, and the liability of members of the organization to effect/enforce collective agreements (Taylor & Francis, 2002).  The question put forward therefore is whether the legal status can be examined as that of the individual partnership or corporation.

            The passage of labor laws enabled trade unions to acquire legal status.  This position was echoed by the ruling in Taff Vale Rly Co. V. ASRS where the federal court established that the purpose of Trade Unions Act rendered the purpose of trade unions legal and enabled this purpose to be carried out by virtue of the specific provisions encapsulated within the statute.  Pursuant to the provisions of the Trade Unions Act (1871) trade unions were conferred with a degree of legal personality equivalent to that of quasi-corporate institutions. (Taylor & Francis, 2002)

            Due to the Acts establishment of a system of registration of unions it is perceived that the congress intended to treat registered trade unions as legal entities with the same duties and responsibilities as an individual and a corporation. (Montgomery, 1987).   It is also observed by Najiya & Roberts (1994) that an individual branch or section of trade union can fall under the definition of trade union if it carries out sufficient functions as to fall within the description promulgated in section 1(a) of the Act. This provision is imperative as it defines the operation of various union departmental functions in America.


3.1 Freedom of Association: Collective Bargaining Perspective

            The fundamental right of association entrenched in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights grants the workers the right to join and participate in trade union affairs or defect from such unions (Block 2003).  It also gives the unions the legal mandate to engage in collective bargaining on behalf of its members. (Montgomery, 1987).  The foregoing two concepts: of collective bargaining and association in trade unions depict at a glance the future of trade unions. So important is the freedom of association and collective bargaining especially since the current trends in labor movement have depicted an undermine in collective bargaining especially in the aspect of effective organization – where trade union members and officials are discouraged or penalized for participating in such unions.  (Najila & Roberts, 1994).  With regard to collective bargaining, the recognition of trade unions by the employer, law, and government is of essence.  As depicted in the introductory section, the recognition of trade unions by employers was not achieved easily.  Strikes, lockouts and picket lines between hired strikebreakers were features of the industrial relations then. (Larson & Nissen, 1987).  This conditions as aptly described by Montgomery (1987) in the preamble led to the fall of the house of labor, which prompted introduction of legal provisions that would adequately contain the strife at hand.  It is as a result of this preposition that laws were promulgated that ratified the provisions of the Universal Declarations.

3.2 Collective Bargaining Defined

            Collective bargaining involves the process of determining the terms and conditions of employment through negotiations between the representatives of employees acting as unionist representative and the employer. (Block, 2003).  Unionism and collective bargaining are seen as facilitative tools to industrial democracy as they act as means by which the employees have a voice in their occupational areas.  Thus it is only through collective representation that employees make their voices heard.

3.3 The Place of collective Bargaining in United States

            The place of unionism and collective bargaining in United States is greatly disadvantaged due to the high value and culture placed on individualism (Block; 2003).  This culture of the Americans is aptly depicted in Bellans maxim that states “individualism lies at the very core of American culture”.  This in effect creates a negative impact on the place and future of unionism since individualism creates an implication that individual rights are superior to collective rights, thus in instances of conflict, they would take precedence  over collective rights.  The operation of unions in such cultural conditions would render them culturally disadvantaged (Montgomery 1987) Collectivization in United States thus occurs only if majority of workers in unit decide to collectivize the relationship through legal means and may be rescinded at any time (Block, 2003).  Legal debates have spawn regarding the proper scope of collective activity.

3.4 The legal Effect of Collective Bargaining

            For effective collectivity representation of employees to be effected a union must aggregate the interest of all employees into a unified position (Block, 2003).   This in turn implies the subordination of certain individual interests for that of a larger group.  Collective bargaining is thus seen to create conflict in the sphere of the legal principle of individual rights. Public policy is thus fashioned with the aim of protecting the choice of employees as to whether they intend to be represented or not.  Thus the legal environment established the National Labor Relations Act which has created a decentralized structure of collective bargaining of plant-by plant or unit by unit (Taylor & Francis, 2003). Each unit is expected to negotiate only for employees in the bargaining units unless all affected parties explicitly and unambiguous agree to an inclusive bargaining structure. (NLRB V. Insurance Agents International Union, 361 U.S. 477). Employees may also rescind from this union once the bargain has been conducted. (American Shipbuilding. V. NLRB, 380 U.S. 300 (1965))


            The foregoing thesis has demonstrated the concepts that govern trade unionism in America by looking at its genesis, present practice and its future prospects.  It has in the historical background elicited the conditions that lead to the development of collective actions; of which it has examined the poor conditions of work.   It has further looked at the present state, which constitute of the structure and administration of unions today.  Finally a look into the future of the concept of freedom of association in light of unionism has demonstrated that though unionism is highly disadvantaged due to the individualistic culture, various legal mechanisms have been put in place to protect this institutions and collective bargaining.


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          W.E. Upjohu Institute

Larson S, & Nissen (1987) Theories of the Labor Movement, Wayne State University


Montgomery D. (1987). The Fall of the House of Labor.  The workplace the State and

             American labor, Cambridge University Press

Musson E. (2006) Trade Union and Social History, Routledge

Najita J & Roberts S. (1994) Roberts Dictionary of Industrial Relations BNA Books

Roediger, D & Foner S.P. (1989) Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the

            Working Day; Verso

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