December 5, 1955: Are Labor Unions Going Extinct?

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A Brief History

On December 5, 1955, the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merged to form the AFL-CIO, the largest confederation of trade and labor unions in the world.  By 1979 the AFL-CIO claimed to represent 20 million union workers, but today has only 12 million members.  Are union jobs going the way of the dinosaurs and Dodo birds?  Today we take a brief look at the history of labor unions in the United States and the trends that have developed regarding working people.  Workers represented by unions almost always have better pay and benefits than non-union workers, and if it were not for unions, even non-union workers would not enjoy many of the benefits they may receive now, such as paid holidays, OSHA workplace standards, overtime pay, minimum wage, Workman’s Compensation and Unemployment Insurance laws, etc.  Sadly, many non-union workers do not realize how much of the workplace and their own well being is due only to the fact that unions fought for those conditions.  Today, barely over 10% of American workers are represented by unions, whereas as recently as 1983 that number was 20%!  (Presumably the percent of American workers represented by unions used to be even higher.)

Digging Deeper

The Teamsters Union, known more formally as The International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) and formerly known as International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America once boasted a membership of 2 million members (1976), though their numbers are now down to 1.2 million (2014, with current 2018 numbers of 1.4 million claimed on their official website).  This big decrease in Teamsters, primarily truck drivers and those involved in loading and unloading the trucks, has come about in spite of the enormous increase in the number of trucks on the road and the tonnage of cargo hauled each year by trucks.  Growth is expected to continue at over 3% per year for the next several years and sales of commercial trucks have exploded.  In fact, there is a reported shortage of 51,000 truck drivers in the United States in 2018.  How could the truck driving occupation have such a hard time attracting and keeping drivers when full time jobs are at a premium?  Median full time truck driver income is only $42,000 annually as of 2018, which may not seem bad compared to minimum wage jobs, but the physical and social demands on truck drivers make such pay a pittance for the family separations and negative physical effect on the health of the drivers.  Semi-tractor trailers were limited to something like 28 feet long (the trailer) in the 1950s, which slowly but steadily increased through the years to the point where 53 foot long trailers are the main size used by the industry (let alone double-trailer rigs), making driving much more difficult and stressful.  Many streets and business just were not made with such long trailers in mind and turning is incredibly difficult.  With over 3.5 million commercial truck drivers employed in the US, not even half are union members.  With another 5.4 million workers related to trucking, a Teamsters representation of 1.4 million out of 8.9 million is eye-poppingly low. (Note: When the author was a Teamster in the 1970’s, Jimmy Hoffa, convicted felon and probable victim of a Mob hit, was spoken of highly among union members.)

Hoffa (right) and Bernard Spindel after a 1957 court session in which they pleaded not guilty to illegal wiretap charges

How did trucking jobs become mostly non-union?  The Motor Carrier Act of 1980 largely deregulated trucking, legislation sponsored most enthusiastically by Senator Ted Kennedy, a known enemy of the Teamsters Union despite his affiliation with the Democratic Party and their historical support of labor unions.  This law and others helped undermine union trucking jobs, and the enormous increases in trucking jobs went mostly to non-union companies, while union firms started folding up.  Profits increased for non-union company owners, and union jobs became scarce.  Prior to the MCA of 1980, another bit of legislation, this time instigated by Republicans over the veto of President Truman was the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 that limited the power of labor unions.  Obviously, the Teamsters and the umbrella organizations of the AFL and CIO opposed the anti-union legislation.

Meanwhile, not only the trucking industry has been hurt by the loss of union jobs, with the auto industry of American taking tremendous hits on traditional United Auto Workers Union (now called The International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America) jobs.  The UAW claims to represent 391,000 members, a pittance compared to the 1.5 million dues paying members in 1979!  When foreign auto companies came to the United States to build auto factories, those companies avoided having to hire UAW workers and many factories were built in “right to work” states, that is, states that allow workers to shun union membership.  The result of the increasing trend toward non-union auto working jobs has drastically hurt American car companies and lowered the pay and benefits received by these hundreds of thousands of non-union autoworkers.  Automation has also greatly reduced the number of factory workers needed at all levels of manufacturing, including auto manufacturing, resulting in fewer workers to become potential UAW members.

KUKA industrial robots being used at a bakery for food production

The steel industry in the United States was once the pride of the nation, a symbol (much like the auto industry) of the power and vitality of America.  By the late 1940’s, the US produced more than half of the entire steel production in the world!  The US had over 700,000 steel workers then and that number has melted to only 83,000 today.  Almost all steel workers are represented by the USW.  As the importance of steel lessened with the rise of plastics and other materials in manufacturing (especially cars), the demand for steel did not match the growth in manufacturing.  Foreign steel (Japan and now China) became much cheaper, with government support of foreign steel industries not found in the United States, with the domestic steel industry in the US greatly undermined.  Steel producing cities such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Gary, Buffalo, Lorain and Chicago took tremendous losses of steel making jobs, good paying jobs held by members of the United Steel Workers Union.  Still headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, “The Steel City,” the union is formally known as The United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union.  In the US the USW boasts about 860,000+ members.  Foreign steel mills that do not have meet US environmental regulations or pay their workers the pay and benefits expected by USW members have certainly eroded the number of union jobs in the steel industry, but like the auto industry (and many other industries) automation has also taken its toll on steel jobs.  The implementation of widespread recycling of steel has also hurt the number of steel producing jobs.

Without dissecting each and every industry represented or once represented by unions, suffice to say that factors such as automation, changing social trends, foreign monetary and government subsidies of their own industries have eroded the manufacturing and mining jobs in the US.  The coal industry is NOT being killed by stringent government regulation, but by the trend toward using natural gas in the place of coal for heating and electrical production, natural gas that is cheaper than ever to produce due to “fracking.”  Additionally, automation in mining has taken a tremendous toll on mining jobs, with machines stealing the jobs once held by miners.  Even if coal production had to double in the US, this does not translate into a doubling of coal miner jobs!  The increase in jobs would be minimal.

Placard against hydraulic fracturing at Extinction Rebellion (2018).

Another trend that serves to undermine trade and labor unions is the hostility to unions by the Republican Party.  Republicans regularly promote “right to work” laws that allow workers to be employed in a place with a union contract without having to join the union and pay the dues, greatly diminishing the finances of the union and its inherent ability to affect elections.  One anti-union law, regulation and court decision after another has undermined the power of unions across the United States and continues to erode union membership and power, courtesy of the Republican platform.  In Ohio, Governor Kasich tried to steamroll a law into effect that would take away the right of municipal and state workers to engage in collective bargaining.  As it is, government workers (police, fire, etc) cannot strike legally, and must rely on negotiation and binding arbitration to work out contracts.  Kasich and his cronies in other states (Wisconsin, for one) are trying to make it where these government employees have to take whatever pay and (decreasing) benefits the employer wants to give them, with no recourse.  (Ohio voters rejected the proposal.)  Gerrymandering of congressional and state representative districts have given Republicans a greatly increased power in state legislatures compared to actual ratios of Democrats vs. Republicans in many states, allowing for relentless anti-union measures to be enacted all over the country.  Republican appointed Federal and Supreme Court judges usually rule against unions as well.

Another factor in the decline of union jobs is the overwhelming trend toward employers making their work force a “part-time” work force.  Full-time jobs have been eliminated in favor of part-time jobs in which the pay scale is lower, there are no paid vacations or holidays, no health insurance and other benefits, and often no union contract to cover and support part-time workers.  Manufacturers, freight handlers and delivery companies, and even school districts and municipal governments have jumped on this ship on the voyage of the extinction of good jobs.  Colleges and universities now hire an increased number of “adjunct” professors to avoid paying full salaries and benefits, let alone allowing for tenure.

Students of a U.S. university with their professor on the far right, 2009

Finally, there is a certain hostility toward unions from non-union workers and from employers that paint unions as intractable impediments to progress.  Education reformers have often railed against teachers’ unions, claiming that the union contracts preclude the advancement and promotion of particularly good teachers in favor of those with longevity instead of good performance.  (The same can be said for other union jobs as well.)  Critics complain that union workers are sometimes darn near impossible to fire, despite egregious offenses against the company/school system/government entity.  You may often hear non-union workers, even those with lousy paying jobs with little or no benefits or pension complaining about unions, little realizing that unions are the only reason those workers have whatever pathetic pay and benefits they do enjoy, including workplace safety laws and unemployment/workman’s compensation protection.  Some workers are turned off by paying union dues, especially since those dues often go toward electing Democrats, if the worker is inclined to vote Republican.  (The author has witnessed this particular complaint first hand when police officers bitterly complained of the police union backing a Democrat for Governor and other positions even though the Democrats supported repeal of the WEP that robs “government” retirees of their fair social security amount and Republicans had championed an end to public sector unions being allowed to negotiate contracts.  Perhaps distaste for local Democratic politicians and the dismay at national Democratic politicians constantly denouncing police officers affected the seemingly self-defeating view of the union.)  It does seem that workers have a variety of priorities that creates a love-hate relationship with their own unions and unions in general, as people in general do not fit neatly into a particular set of beliefs and instead have sometimes inconsistent opinions about various topics.

You may also often hear something like, “Unions were once necessary, but have outlived their usefulness.”  Is this statement true?  The future of unions in the United States may be tied to the future of unions that cross international boundaries, a day when workers in all countries stop being used against each other.  Or perhaps unions will fade away as a major power in American politics and industry.  Only time will tell.  You can make the predictions!

Labour union demonstrators held at bay by soldiers during the 1912 Lawrence textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts

Question for students (and subscribers): Do you think unions serve an important role in today’s work world?  Have you ever been a union member?  Did you grow up in a union household?  Do teachers’ unions undermine the ability of school systems to reward good teachers and get rid of bad teachers? (Same question about any other profession represented by unions.)  Is the future of unions in the US bright or a fading star?  Is “right to work” merely a sham for union busting?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Feurer, Rosemary. Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism (Working Class in American History). University of Illinois Press, 2017.

Hogler, Raymond. The End of American Labor Unions: The Right-to-Work Movement and the Erosion of Collective Bargaining. Praeger, 2015.

Minchin, Timothy. Labor Under Fire: A History of the AFL-CIO since 1979. The University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

The featured image in this article, a photograph taken on August 16, 2014 by Matt Popovich (Previously published: and released under a CC-BY-3.0 license of the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C., is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.