Organized Labor in the 1980s

June 14, 1985

Report Outline
State of Unions
Labor Law Changes
Union Prospects
Special Focus

State of Unions

Labor Relations Act After Half a Century

Half a century has passed since American labor unions won passage of the “workers' bill of rights.” The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 was the centerpiece of New Deal legislation designed to protect workers' rights to join and be represented by unions. But as the 50th anniversary of the law's passage approaches, unions have little cause for celebration. The strength of the labor movement, as measured by overall union membership, has waned appreciably in recent years. Fewer than one in five workers now belongs to a union, compared with nearly one-third of all workers in the mid-1950s. More alarming to supporters of the labor movement, the giant American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations—AFL-CIO—under the leadership of President Lane Kirkland has not kept up with the rapidly changing economic conditions of the country that are the principal cause of unions' weakness today.

Organized labor based its membership foundation on blue-collar workers concentrated in the established industrial workplaces of the 1930s: auto factories, steel mills, coal mines, railroads. But after World War II, and especially in recent years, the American economy has faced increasing competition in these sectors first from the revived economies of war-torn Western Europe and later from the developing economies of East Asia. Lower labor costs in these regions allowed foreign producers to compete successfully on both the world and American markets. American workers in highly unionized industries found that their relatively high wages and employee benefits won by their union representatives through collective bargaining carried a high price. Employers began transferring their production facilities overseas or to areas of this country, notably the South, where unions had not penetrated. With the flight of the traditional “smokestack” industries where unions had made their greatest gains in membership, union membership dropped.

As employment fell in the more heavily unionized sectors of the economy, many new jobs began opening up in others, notably service industries. But the service sector has never been as amenable to union organizing as the manufacturing, transportation and mining industries, and the labor movement has been unable to organize service workers as quickly as union jobs have disappeared in the industrial sector.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Labor Unions
Aug. 07, 2015  Unions at a Crossroads
Sep. 02, 2005  Labor Unions' Future Updated
Jun. 28, 1996  Labor Movement's Future
Jun. 14, 1985  Organized Labor in the 1980s
Nov. 06, 1981  Labor Under Siege
Mar. 24, 1978  Labor's Southern Strategy
Aug. 20, 1976  Labor's Options
Oct. 27, 1971  Organized Labor After the Freeze
Oct. 19, 1966  Labor Strife and the Public Interest
Jan. 30, 1963  Strike Action and the Law
Sep. 20, 1961  Conflicts in Organized Labor
Aug. 04, 1960  Labor, Management, and the National Interest
Dec. 16, 1959  Future of Free Collective Bargaining
Nov. 04, 1959  Featherbedding and Union Work Rules
Feb. 18, 1959  Public Intervention in Labor Disputes
Jul. 09, 1958  Suits Against Labor Unions
Nov. 13, 1957  Right-To-Work Laws
Oct. 31, 1956  Union Organizing
May 01, 1954  State Powers in Labor Relations
Oct. 02, 1953  Toward Labor Unity
Apr. 11, 1953  Industry-Wide Bargaining and Industry-Wide Strikes
Sep. 03, 1952  Labor and Politics
Mar. 25, 1950  Labor Injunctions
Jan. 25, 1950  Trade Unions and Productivity
Sep. 26, 1949  Fact-Finding Boards in Labor Disputes
Mar. 05, 1949  Closed Shop
Dec. 01, 1948  Revision of the Taft-Hartley Act
Jan. 01, 1947  Labor Unions, the Public and the Law
Oct. 09, 1946  Revision of the Wagner Act
Sep. 25, 1946  Labor Productivity
May 29, 1946  Labor Organization in the South
Jan. 30, 1946  Compulsory Settlement of Labor Disputes
May 18, 1945  Labor Policy After the War
Mar. 29, 1945  Union Maintenance
Feb. 02, 1945  Labor Relations in Coal Mining
Oct. 12, 1944  No-Strike Pledge
Sep. 16, 1944  Political Action by Organized Labor
May 30, 1944  Unionization of Foremen
Apr. 01, 1944  Dismissal Pay
Apr. 29, 1943  Labor in Government
Apr. 09, 1943  Public Regulation of Trade Unions
Nov. 19, 1941  Labor Policies of the Roosevelt Administration
Oct. 23, 1941  Closed Shop Issue in Labor Relations
Mar. 29, 1941  Labor as Partner in Production
Feb. 12, 1941  Labor and the Defense Program
Feb. 23, 1940  Labor in Politics
Jan. 17, 1939  Settlement of Disputes Between Labor Unions
Jul. 01, 1938  Three Years of National Labor Relations Act
Nov. 12, 1937  State Regulation of Labor Relations
Jul. 10, 1937  Restrictions on the Right to Strike
Apr. 28, 1937  The Labor Market and the Unemployed
Mar. 26, 1937  Control of the Sit-Down Strike
Mar. 13, 1937  Collective Bargaining in the Soft-Coal Industry
Jan. 22, 1937  Responsibility of Labor Unions
Nov. 11, 1936  Industrial Unionism and the A.F. of L.
Jul. 30, 1936  Federal Intervention in Labor Disputes
Jul. 14, 1936  Labor Relations in the Steel Industry
Apr. 17, 1934  Company Unions and Collective Bargaining
Feb. 07, 1934  Settlement of Labor Disputes
Sep. 12, 1933  Trade Unionism Under the Recovery Program
Feb. 17, 1932  Wage Concessions by Trade Unions
Oct. 01, 1929  Status of the American Labor Movement
Jul. 20, 1929  Trade Unionism in the South
Aug. 31, 1928  Organized Labor in National Politics
Feb. 04, 1928  The Use of Injunctions in Labor Disputes
Sep. 09, 1927  Organized Labor and the Works Council Movement
Oct. 12, 1923  The A.F. of L. and the “New Radicalism”
Unions and Labor-Management Relations