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  • Kyra Freeman

Why Unions Matter: A Brief History of Their Impact

Unions are so back. This past “summer of strikes” has surely proven that, showing us some massive wins. Two examples you can look at are the deals made by UPS workers and Hollywood writers.

UPS workers negotiated a historic contract for more benefits, higher hourly pay, and most importantly, more safety measures for their drivers. Before this deal, UPS was the only major delivery service with vehicles not equipped with air conditioning, leading to hazardous working conditions. Just last month the Hollywood writers' strike, which stalled the California economy, devised a contract with improvements for their most important issues. Writers in the union benefit from set rules for AI use, higher pay all-around, and new terms for streaming shows.

While recently there have been many notable union stories, the national unionization rate has continued to decline, now reaching the lowest point according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only one in ten American workers are in a union today, far behind the peak of one in three in the 1950s. Although union membership is still increasing, unions' power is stifled compared to their once-powerful reign.

Unions have existed since the birth of the United States, but their importance quickly skyrocketed with the Industrial Revolution, which changed much about the traditional view of labor. This was the era of rampant child labor, 10-12 hour workdays, and deadly working conditions. Local city craft unions rose to defend their practiced trades against automation and cheaper labor. Also, several larger impactful unions emerged, such as the National Labor Union and Knights of Labor.

Such labor unions of the time took action beyond organizing and collective bargaining, aiming to use political action to codify workers’ rights in the law. At its inception in 1866, the National Labor Union, which eventually would have over 500,000 members, called on Congress to mandate an eight-hour work week, heightening national attention to the issue. The Knights of Labor and their over 700,000 members also advocated for this issue as-well, which contributed to the creation of the still-strong American Federation of Labor (AFL). Other issues unions focused on were minimum wage laws, ending child labor, and general workplace safety.

With the growing attention on workers' rights, long-sought-after reforms were won. Federal reforms on child labor, minimum wage, and forty-hour work weeks were ultimately gained. More extensive structural changes would come as well, the Department of Labor becoming a cabinet department, a goal strongly advocated for by labor leaders. Just twenty years later, the National Labor Relations Board was founded partly because of the influence of labor unions and strikes. These organizations marked federal recognition and interest in the rights and protections of workers and unions.

This brings us to the peak of union power in the United States when about one-third of private sector workers were unionized. Multiple economic and political reasons can explain union’s fall from grace, but one significant factor was the change in culture around unions.

The conversations we have around unions have drastically changed. Because your parents, teachers, and neighbors are all less likely to be union members, people are less likely to understand the benefits. Even more though, is that those conversations are discouraged by an anti-union culture supported by businesses. Union busting was rampant in the 80s when Ronald Regan, a former union officer, sold out and massively changed the legal culture of union-employer relations. This culture still penetrates today, where over $433 million is estimated to be spent each year on anti-union consultant groups who work to prevent and dissuade union elections.

A Gallup poll showed that Americans' approval of unions has only just returned to the high rate of 1965 in 2022. The pandemic restated the importance of unions and workers’ issues, including safety and fair pay. Along with that, the current rising cost of living, use of artificial intelligence in the workspace, and massive wealth inequality have stirred the resurgence of union priorities.

In August, UPS workers negotiated the most beneficial contract in their history, creating more jobs, higher pay, and securing the long-sought-after air conditioning for truck drivers. After close to their longest recorded strike in Hollywood, the Writers Guild secured an equally lucrative deal in September. The deal increased their minimum wage and other forms of compensation, laid out terms for artificial intelligence use, and increased the size of collaborative writers’ rooms.

Throughout history, unions have created substantial benefits for those they represent and equally significant legal influence for all. These effects are not a thing of the past, as demonstrated by UPS and the Writers Guild unions continue to be incredibly advantageous to workers today. Given the formidable challenges that today's workers face, the relevance of union power persists in the present, much as it did in the past.


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