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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
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
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
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 unskilled.
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 pag
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