Collective Bargaining: Historical Models of Collective Bargaining in the U.S.

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Introduction

The predominant collective bargaining model in the United States is only one of a number of alternative methods through which workers have historically attempted to exert collective power over the determination of wages, benefits and conditions of work. Before evaluating the modern collective bargaining practices and results, it is important to identify some of these alternatives that have been at least temporarily abandoned by workers in this country.

The starting point for distinguishing forms of collective action is recognition of the different means through which workers may attempt to achieve control over their conditions of work. Labor organizations may be broadly classified as either political or economic organizations. In theory, political unions attempt to exercise power over the organization of work through political action, looking to government or the political process to establish terms and conditions of work and economic security for workers. Economic unions attempt to achieve similar goals through the economic arena, through direct interaction with the employers of workers. Although virtually all modern unions in the United States are economic organizations, albeit with significant political agendas, this has not always been the case. A number of efforts to establish political movements of workers in this country have occurred, although none has achieved long-term stability.

The earliest economic labor organizations in the United States were temporary unions. Workers banded together to raise their wages or resist wage cuts without any effort to maintain an organizational structure between labor disputes. Even when efforts to establish a permanent structure emerged, the new permanent unions tended to have a short life span. Consolidated economic power in times of relative prosperity was generally counterbalanced by the destruction of early organizations in times of economic depression or panic. In contrast, early political labor organizations tended to be countercyclical. Workers turned to political unions in greatest numbers during times of economic depression. Unlike workers' experience in other nations, efforts in the United States to develop permanent and consistent political and economic organizations simultaneously have never achieved long-term success.

A second major issue in evaluating alternative models of labor organization is the identification of the intended beneficiaries of labor's collective action. Labor organizations can be classified as either job conscious or class conscious, depending on whether the goal of the union is to advance the economic and workplace security of an identifiable group of workers or whether the goal is to advance broader working or producing class interests. Occasionally, an organizational form emerges for which neither the job nor the class is the dominant bond between the members. Religious labor organizations represent an organizational model that is based on social relations rather than job or class concerns. Contemporary unions in the United States are generally job conscious organizations, although this has not always been the dominant union goal in this country.

Where modern unions differ is in the determination of which workers or jobs to include in the development of job conscious strategies. By definition, class conscious unions tend to be broadly inclusive, general organizations. While there have been different conceptualizations of a working or producing class historically, craft, industrial or occupational differences tend to be irrelevant or of secondary importance within a class conscious organization. However, these distinctions lie at the heart of the difference between industrial and craft unions. Craft unions attempt to advance the interests of all workers possessing the same skill irrespective of the nature or identity of their employers. Industrial unions attempt to organize all workers engaged in production of the same or similar goods or services, irrespective of individual craft or occupational distinctions. For example, although it now represents workers in a number of occupations and industries, the traditional strategy of the Carpenters' union as a craft organization was to bring into one union all skilled carpenters, whether they were employed in construction, manufacturing or transportation services. In contrast, traditional industrial union strategy, such as that of the United Automobile Workers, was to organize all workers engaged in the manufacturing of the same product, such as automobiles, whether they were skilled craft workers or semi-skilled or unskilled productions workers. The vast majority of modern unions in the United States began as either craft or industrial unions but now constitute multi-craft or multi-industry general organizations.

Perhaps the first rather than the last question relevant for analysis of union strategy and organizational models is the ultimate goal of the union. Unions may exist for either pragmatic or ideological reasons. Unions may either accept the existing economic order and work within that order to achieve a favorable set of economic terms and employment conditions, or they may seek to overthrow the existing economic system and replace it with another. The former strategy has been called "business unionism" or "pure and simple unionism" and was the underlying philosophy of the American Federation of Labor and its affiliated unions. Although modern unions are neither as pure nor as simple in strategic organization, they still tend toward this ideology in the United States. The best revolutionary union example from U.S. labor history was the Industrial Workers of the World, which thrived for a short period in the early twentieth century. In addition to the pragmatic and revolutionary union ideologies, a variety of other philosophical forms of labor organizations have existed at different times during United States labor history. Socialist, collectivist and uplift unions have all experienced some temporary success during various eras in this country's history and remain viable organizations in other parts of the world.

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