In the early days of my business career, I despised labor unions. One of my first management positions was heading up the first personal department (AKA Human Resources) for a small company. I was hired as a one-man effort to thwart an organizing attempt by the local Teamsters. Fortunately for my career prospects, we were able to stave off the union effort and the vote failed. I understood the original need for unions and agreed that companies had not treated their employees fairly. However, this was the 70’s and we were much more enlightened managers and were perfectly capable of taking care of our workers without the assistance of a third party.
That was my view early on and I believe it was valid given the very narrow focus of my responsibilities. Today I hope that my view has broadened. I still feel that it is management’s responsibility to provide for workers, but over time I am convinced that we have let the working man down. The earlier post on income distribution illustrates my view. The benefits of our country’s increased per capita GDP over the last 40 years have almost entirely accrued to the country’s wealthiest families. At the same time union participation has declined. In 1945, union membership reached a peak of 33.4 percent of the U.S. workforce but steadily declined to a low of 10.7 percent in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The membership numbers for the top 10 labor unions are self-reported, and unless specifically noted, the unions are headquartered in Washington, D.C.
A list of the current functioning unions follows:
National Education Association: With more than 3 million members, the NEA represents classroom teachers, education support professionals, higher education staff and faculty, retired teachers and students training to become education professionals. Founded in 1857, the NEA merged with the American Teachers Association in 1966.
Service Employees International Union: The SEIU has nearly 1.9 million members in more than 100 occupations in the U.S., including janitors, security workers, superintendents, maintenance workers, local and state government employees, bus drivers and child-care providers. Founded by janitorial workers in 1921, the SEIU is now the largest-membership union in the U.S. that represents the property services, public services and health-care industries.
American Federation of Teachers: The AFT was founded in Chicago in 1916, and now has more than 1.5 million members, including pre-K through grade 12 teachers, early childhood educators, paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel, higher education faculty and staff, government employees and other education professionals. International Brotherhood of Teamsters: In 1903, two unions merged to form the Teamsters, one of the most recognized unions in the U.S. It has 1.4 million members in 21 industrial divisions, including airlines, bakery and laundry, brewery and soft drinks, building material and construction, entertainment and passenger transportation. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees: With an estimated 1.3 million members, the AFSCME is the biggest public services employee union in the U.S., representing corrections officers, childcare providers, sanitation workers, EMTs and nurses. The union was founded in 1932 by a group of state employees in Madison, Wisconsin. United Food and Commercial Workers International Union: The UFCW was founded in 1979 and has grown to 1.3 million members in occupations such as food-processing workers, drugstore workers, poultry processing plant workers, packinghouse employees and grocery store workers. United Steelworkers: The USW was founded in 1942 and is headquartered in Pittsburgh. It has more than 1.2 million members in the steel, aluminum and metalworking industry, and also represents chemical plant workers, pharmacy workers, rubber workers and construction workers. The International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America: This union is more commonly referred to as the United Auto Workers and has more than 400,000 active members, and more than 580,000 retired members in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico. The UAW, which was founded in 1935 and is headquartered in Detroit, represents autoworkers, health-care workers, academic student employees, postdoctoral scholars and workers in the casino gambling industry. International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers: Founded in 1888 by a group of Atlanta-based machinists, the IAM is headquartered in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, and has 720,000 members. The union represents automotive repair workers, city employees, truck assemblers, fabrication workers and aerospace workers.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers:
With 675,000 members in the utilities, construction, telecommunications, broadcasting, manufacturing and railroad industries, the IBEW has been active since it was founded in St. Louis in 1891.
Most of these unions also belong to the AFL/CIO consortium of unions which numbers over 12 million.
The above does not include the 2nd largest and arguably the most powerful union in our country. Federal Civil Servants number in excess of 2.8 million and are by far the best-compensated workers. Their total compensation exceeds their private sector counterparts by over 70%. I would concede that private-sector wages are too low by as much as 30 – 40%. I would also argue that civil service compensation exceeded market value by about the same amount. Details on the comparison of civil service compensation are contained in a prior post for several years ago and are still available at this site.
My view on unions is still that they should not be necessary. However, without enlightened management practices or stricter federal labor rules they have the potential to add social value.