Skip to Main Content

Labor Union Business Agents


The idea of workers or craft workers banding together for their mutual benefit has existed for centuries. In the Middle Ages, groups such as blacksmiths and carpenters organized themselves into guilds, which established product and wage standards, set requirements for entering the trade, and erected barriers to outside competition. The first guilds in the United States were organized around the time of the Revolutionary War.

Unions were first organized in both England and the United States by workers in response to the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. In 1886, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was founded. Through collective bargaining tactics, the AFL was able to get higher wages, shorter hours, workers' compensation, and child labor laws. In the beginning of the 20th century, there was a huge growth in union membership, which jumped from less than 800,000 in 1900 to more than 5 million by 1920. Unionism got a further boost from such New Deal federal legislation as the Wagner Act in 1935, which established the National Labor Relations Board. In the same year, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was created to bring about a separation between unions representing factory workers and those representing skilled craftsmen. The two groups eventually merged together forming the AFL-CIO, which still exerts a powerful influence on improving working relations today.

Most unions are essentially organized into two types: the craft union, whose members are all skilled in a certain craft, such as carpentry or electrical work; and the industrial union, whose members work in the various jobs of a certain industry, such as automobiles or steel manufacturing. (Today, these two categories are not as clear cut because many professional workers, such as teachers and nurses, have also formed unions or been integrated into existing unions.) Companies began to reorganize around the existence of unions. A company that hired only union members was called a closed shop, while a union shop was one that requires newly hired workers to join a union after a certain time period. The closed shop was outlawed in 1947 with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act. Since then, more than half of all states have also outlawed the union shop by passing "right to work" laws.

Economic recessions in the early 1980s and in more recent years have caused a weakening of many unions' power, as employers in financially troubled industries asked unions for contract concessions in order to save the jobs of existing employees. In 2018, 10.5 percent of wage and salary workers were represented by unions, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Related Professions