Actors and institutions
Trade unions, employers’ organisations and public institutions play a key role in the governance of the employment relationship, working conditions and industrial relations structures. This section looks into the main actors and institutions and their role in the US.
Public authorities involved in regulating working life
The primary regulatory body for the union-management field is the NLRB. A statutory agency (1935 Wagner Act), it is composed of five members appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for staggered five-year terms. The prosecutorial side (under the General Counsel, a presidential appointee) files unfair labour practice charges against employers or unions. The judicatory side hears and decides unfair labour charges. Appeal is to the federal Circuit Court of Appeals for the geographic district. The office of the General Counsel also conducts and certifies results of union elections.
With regard to charges of discrimination on the basis of race, colour, religion, national origin, sex, age or disability, the enforcing agency is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (established by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act).
Regulatory agencies under the Department of Labor, including the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor, enforce the Occupational Safety and Health Act and legislation regarding wages and working time (‘hours’ in US terminology).
State-level agencies enforce state unemployment and worker compensation laws. Some states also have minimum wage statutes that are enforced by statutory agencies.
Union-management contracts are collectively bargained through negotiations following NLRB certification of a union. Although there are some national collective bargaining agreements, the vast majority of these are won at the local level. National agreements include a clause distinguishing agreements with regard to union shop clauses in right-to-work and non-right-to-work states.
The certified union is similar to the European concept of a works council, since it is the entity with which the employer bargains with regard to wages, working time and terms and conditions of work.
About trade union representation
The NLRA, or Wagner Act, as amended by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, 29 United States Code (USC) secs 151–169, remains the primary federal legislation governing trade union–management workplace disputes and trade union membership in the US. Section 7 secures the right of employees to self-organise and encourages collective bargaining. The 1935 law also established the NLRB, authorised to hear and decide unfair labour practice charges and to conduct and certify the results of union elections. While most private sector employees are covered under the NLRA, railroads and airlines are covered by the 1926 Railway Labor Act, 45 USC secs 181 (and following). Some categories of workers are excluded from NLRA coverage (independent contractors, employees of air and railway carriers, agricultural and domestic workers and some computer analysts).
Union membership in the US has never quite reached European levels, and it has declined over the past four decades. Presumably, the increase in so-called ‘right-to-work laws’ are partly responsible for this trend. A provision of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act permitted the states to enact right-to-work laws. These state statutes prohibit the enforcement of a collective bargaining clause that compels a worker to become a member of a union after 30 days of employment or 30 days after the effective date of the agreement (the 30-day minimum is in the federal statute), whichever takes place first. One effect of a right-to-work law is that workers in a unionised bargaining unit benefit from trade union representation without having to contribute dues to the union or to comply with other duties of union membership. As of 2017, 28 states had enacted right-to-work statutes, most recently Indiana and Michigan in 2012 and Wisconsin in 2015. Accordingly, union membership tends to be far below the national average in right-to-work states.
The case of the state of Missouri is instructive. In February 2017, the state legislature passed a right-to-work statute scheduled to take effect on 28 August. However, a sufficient number of opponents signed a petition to mandate a referendum to let voters decide whether Missouri would in fact become the 29th right-to-work state; the resulting vote in August 2018 rejected the right-to-work proposal by a two-to-one margin, considered as representing a huge victory for the organised labour movement.
Trade union membership and trade union density
Reportedly, in 1936, a year after adoption of the 1935 Wagner Act, 35% of the private sector workforce were union members. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1%; that figure declined to 10.7% in 2017. The rate of trade union membership has not changed significantly over the past five years, but in overall totals there was a marginal increase of 262,000 union members in 2017. Among the new union recruits, 75.6 % were workers under the age of 35 (Economic Policy Institute data 2018).
Union membership rates, 2012–2017 (%)
Union membership rate
Source: Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS) data
Trade union membership also varies greatly depending on sector, occupation and geography. In 2017 more than one-third (34.4%) of public sector workers were union members, whereas this applied to just 6.5% of private sector workers. At the occupational level, public sector jobs like those in education and training or in law enforcement are most likely to be unionised. In contrast, for workers in farming, fishing and forestry and those in food preparation and service, respective union membership rates were just 3.4% and 3.8%. In terms of state differences, the proportion of unionised workers can be as high as 23.8% (in New York) or as low as 2.6% (in South Carolina).
Main trade union confederations and federations
In the US, several national trade federations have been organised to confederate various industrial and trade unions. The main national trade federations are the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and the Change to Win Federation (the latter formed in 2005).
The AFL-CIO is the nation’s largest federation of industrial and trade unions, representing 11 million workers. Federated unions cross industries and trades. The Change to Win Federation is a coalition of national industrial and trade unions, representing 4.5 million workers. The coalition includes four unions: the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, United Food and Commercial Workers, and the United Farm Workers (UFW). Notably, UFW members are exempt from Taft-Hartley Act coverage.
The largest unions (i.e. those with membership in excess of 100,000) in descending order of union membership are as follows:
1. National Education Association of the United States (membership in excess of 2,731,000)
2. Service Employees International Union
3. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees
4. United Food and Commercial Workers
5. American Federation of Teachers
6. United Steelworkers
7. International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
8. Laborers International Union of North America
9. International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Union
10. UNITE HERE (formerly UNITE)
11. International Longshoreman and Warehousers Union
12. United Auto Workers
13. Communication Workers of America
14. United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners Association
15. International Union of Operating Engineers
16. United Association of Journeymen et al.
17. National Association of Letter Carriers
18. American Postal Workers Union (other than letter carriers)
19. International Association of National Postal Mail Handlers Union
20. American Federation of Government Employees
21. Amalgamated Transit Union
22. American Nurses Association
23. Sheet Metal Workers International Association
24. International Union of Painters and Allied Trades
25. International Association of Bridge and Structural Workers et al.
26. Transport Workers Union of America
27. International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees
28. American Association of Classified School Employees
29. National Rural Letter Carriers
The largest confederation of unions is the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (a 1955 merger of federations of unions organised along trade lines with those organised according to craft or skill). The other major federation is Change to Win (now a conglomerate of four unions).
Sectors with high union membership rates are utilities, transportation and warehousing, telecommunications, and construction. Sectors with low union membership are finance, food services and drinking places, and professional and technical services.
Workplace-level employee representation
Unlike in many EU Member States, there are no national or state laws in the US authorising alternative workplace representation, such as work councils. While not commonplace in most US companies, a few non-unionised companies engage in informal bilateral discussions. These arrangements are entirely voluntary and are mostly informal. The usual procedure is for a union to be certified by the NLRB as the official bargaining representative for a unit, after which the employer must bargain with the union in an effort to reach a collective bargaining agreement.
About employers’ representation
Joining an employer federation is largely voluntary. A major exception is the area of major league sports. A new franchise in Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association or the National Hockey League would be required to become a member of those respective employer groups and be party to the same collective bargaining agreements as other team managements.
Employers’ organisations – membership and density
The largest employer organisation in the US is the United States Chamber of Commerce, an organisation dedicated to representing employer interests by engaging in lobbying campaigns. In certain heavily unionised sectors (e.g. healthcare), employers can and do create multi-employer bargaining organisations to collectively negotiate the terms of collective bargaining agreements with employee-elected unions.
Main employers’ organisations and confederations
In the US, the density of companies involved in employer organisations is quite low at just 1.6%.
However, an emerging trend is for companies to increasingly voluntarily participate in employer organisations to more effectively navigate a growing web of federal and state laws concerning workers’ roles in managing employee relations. On behalf of the companies they represent, a number of employer organisations have also focused on union avoidance measures including anti-union litigation, lobbying and publicity campaigns, though traditionally they do not have bargaining power. The National Association of Professional Employers’ Organizations is the largest trade association, representing 85% of the nation’s employer organisations. Nationally, companies can voluntarily associate with over 470 different trade-specific employer organisations.