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Men's Working Lives
Women at Work: Values
The unionized share of the work force quadrupled from 1900 to 1920 despite heavy legal restraints on union activities. It peaked after World War I and then declined steadily until the advent of the New Deal. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 legalized collective bargaining and installed orderly procedures for organizing unions. The immediate result was the recruitment of millions of new union members. They constituted about a quarter of the civilian labor force from 1950 to 1970. After 1970, the unionized portion of the labor force declined steadily.
The incidence of strikes followed a less regular but roughly parallel trend. From 1945 to 1970, hundreds of major strikes involving a substantial share of the labor force occurred every year. The strikes of recent years involved no more than two-hundredths of 1 percent of the labor force in any given year.
In the heyday of organized labor, union strength was concentrated in heavy industry, construction, mining, and railroading. In the latter decades of the century, the biggest unions represented government workers such as teachers, postal employees, police officers, and garbage collectors, although pockets of strength still survived in the private sector. At the end of the century, about half of all government employees were unionized, compared with only one in ten workers in the private sector.
The decline in the unionized share of the labor force can be traced to many factors. The federal government effectively addressed important union issues by assuming much of the responsibility for workplace safety, creating and enforcing wage and hour rules, offering incentives for worker training, requiring notice of plant closings, providing a public pension system, and supervising private pension plans. Public distrust of unions grew in response to scandals that connected unions to organized crime. But the most important sources of the decline in the unionized portion of the work force are probably rooted in fundamental changes in the world and U.S. economies. These include the globalization of the labor market, along with the continual restructuring of U.S. enterprises through automation, mergers, downsizing, outsourcing, expanded fringe benefits, and the extensive use of part-time and temporary workers.
HS series D 4, D 14, D 927, and D 940; SA 1987, table 692; SA 1997, tables 624 and 688; and SA 1999, tables 649 and 718.