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The Role of Collective Bargaining in the History of the U.S. Labor Movement

4 Min Read

American trade unionism took shape in the early 19th century. But by 2015, just 11.1 percent of workers belonged to a union, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.1 Some say this makes our country less socially fair and accepting. So what will you do about it?

As a public administrator, you can influence the bargaining process of labor movements among industries and government. Several case studies show the power of collective bargaining today. For example, in Brazil waste pickers in the state of Minas Gervais successfully bargained for the passage of the Recycling Bonus Law. This law established a monetary incentive paid by the state to waste pickers who were members of a cooperative or workers’ association. It is the first law in Brazil that authorizes the use of public money for ongoing payments to waste pickers.2

The ability of labor to organize and successfully bargain for change is rooted in the history of the labor movement, and the premise of a just society.

Historical Perspective

Trade unionism centers on the premise of a just society rooted in the republic’s ideals of the American Revolution, in which honest labor, social equality, and acting with virtue comprised the necessary components of good citizenship. The movement grew. However, so did the ethos of industrial capitalism, which ran counter to the labor movement’s founding principles.

The situation grew more complex in the second half of the 19th century, with different labor movements pursuing different agendas. Trade unionism fought for higher wages for skilled workers, while the National Labor Union sought to improve working conditions through legislative reform rather than through collective bargaining.

Between 1880 and 1930 most union members were skilled workers who belonged to craft unions, many of them affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. The Great Depression in the 1930s stirred the discontent of industrial workers. During that decade, the pro-union Roosevelt administration successfully pushed New Deal collective bargaining legislation through Congress, after which mass production industries began to organize in earnest. By the end of World War II, more than 12 million workers belonged to unions, and collective bargaining was commonplace in the industrial economy.3 The movement was impressively successful, more than tripling weekly earnings in manufacturing between 1945 and 1970.

Then, with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the theory of trickle-down economics came to the fore and anti-union policies began to take shape. Between 1975 and 1985, union membership fell by 5 million. By the end of the 1980s, less than 17 percent of American workers were organized in a union.3

Modern Labor

In recent years, the focus of collective bargaining in the U.S. has turned to health care and pension benefits. In 2007, after striking, the United Auto Workers union4 relied on collective bargaining to establish the terms of what some observers have described as a “historic” contract with General Motors Corp.5 The agreement sought a compromise between maintenance of worker health care benefits and a way to lessen legacy costs for the company in a struggling industry. The contract called for the formation of a Voluntary Employees’ Benefit Association (VEBA) fund. Under the agreement, the UAW was given the responsibility of administering the health care benefits of workers.

Labor rights and labor laws are a historically complex issue with many moving parts. To ensure our country and our world honor the ideals of the labor movement, we need more skilled negotiators who understand these nuances.

With a master’s degree in public administration, you can endeavor to protect workers and broaden the scope of unionized work across the globe. Some of the skills students develop in the online Master of Public Administration degree program at Anna Maria College include:

  • Strategies to manage and conduct negotiations
  • Skills to promote ethical practices in labor management
  • The ability to foresee problems in labor management relations
  • Strategies and plans to ensure effective labor management

Learn more about the online Master of Public Administration degree from Anna Maria College and how its focus on management, executive leadership, and strategic planning can help even highly experienced professionals gain additional skills to earn more and make a difference for all. Call 877-265-3201 to speak to a Program Manager or request more information online.



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