Labor unions are legally recognized as representatives of workers in many industries in the United States. Their activity today centers on collective bargaining over wages, benefits, and working conditions for their membership, and on representing their members in disputes with management over violations of contract provisions. Larger unions also typically engage in lobbying activities and electioneering at the state and federal level. Most unions in America are aligned with one of two larger umbrella organizations: the AFL-CIO created in 1955, and the Change to Win Federation which split from the AFL-CIO in 2005. Both advocate policies and legislation on behalf of workers in the United States and Canada, and take an active role in politics. The AFL-CIO is especially concerned with global trade issues.
In 2010, the percentage of workers belonging to a union in the United States (or total labor union “density”) was 11.4%, compared to 18.6% in Germany, 27.5% in Canada, and 70% in Finland. Union membership in the private sector has fallen under 7% — levels not seen since 1932. Unions and many observers allege that employer-incited opposition has contributed to this decline in membership. The most prominent unions are among public sector employees such as teachers and police. Members of unions are disproportionately older, male and residents of the Northeast, the Midwest, and California. Union workers average 10-30% higher pay than non-union in America after controlling for individual, job, and labor market characteristics.
Although much smaller compared to their peak membership in the 1950s, American unions remain an important political factor, both through mobilization of their own memberships and through coalitions with like-minded activist organizations around issues such as immigrant rights, trade policy, health care, and living wage campaigns. To fight employer anti-union programs, unions are currently advocating new “card check” federal legislation that would require employers to bargain with a union if more than 50% of workers signed forms, or “cards,” stating they wish to be represented by that union. The current procedure involves waiting 45 to 90 days for a federally-supervised secret-ballot employee referendum on the subject, during which time employers are able to target pro-union employees.
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