News / U.S. Perspective on Labor Relations

May 2023

U.S. Perspective on Labor Relations

Region: Transatlantic Perspectives: Americas

Author: Karen A. Tramontano

Are U.S. unions different from European unions? And why?

The short answer is Yes, unions in the U.S. are quite different from unions in Europe. The more complicated question is, why? Not only are there many opinions about why European and U.S. unions developed differently, but the contrast is addressed in numerous history books. This brief article simply represents a 20,000 foot overview.

U.S. unions began in the mid-1700’s when tailors protested a wage reduction. In 1794, shoemakers took action to improve working conditions. Their effort is generally recognized as the first coordinated and sustained union effort.

In the U.S., labor unions are recognized for achieving the 8-hour workday, Sundays off work, paid vacation, health and retirement benefits, end to child labor, improved working conditions, and higher wages. Moreover, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) which was formed in 1886 led, in part, to the creation of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Unlike most European governments, the U.S. Department of Labor stands alone as the federal regulator of U.S. labor unions. Most European governments have Ministries of Economy, representing industrial and other economic policies. The U.S. does not; instead it has a U.S. Department of Commerce which represents the entry point to the U.S. government for U.S. business.

When the Great Depression hit the U.S. in 1929, union membership grew and strikes, boycotts, sympathy strikes, and worker demands accelerated. By the end of World War II, when the captains of industry hoped workers would settle down, strikes in many industries and union membership continued to rise, causing greater concern for U.S. capital. Additionally, the AFL and the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) merged in 1955 to strengthen their hand in influencing policy.

In response to union strength and organizing power, the U.S. Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, limiting union economic power and outlawing boycotts, which had been legal since 1914, and outlawing sympathy strikes. The post-war anti-communist, anti-socialist rhetoric and legislation, including McCarthyism, where Senator Joe McCarthy made it his life’s work to label anyone a communist who believed in the welfare state and a social safety net. The impact on unions and union leadership with demands of loyalty oaths and the “red scare” changed unions in the U.S. for decades.

Since the 1950s, unions have set out to prove themselves loyal to the U.S. and to U.S. capitalism and have chartered a course that accepted corporate limitations on organizing and bargaining. These limitations – and corporate involvement in organizing – are experiences that are foreign to European unions.

Today, the landscape for unions is different, especially under the Biden Administration. Unions have a seat at the table and the Biden Administration is focused on creating jobs that can and should be “union jobs.”. That said, Congress has no appetite for changing the laws that long ago stripped unions of the economic power that European unions continue to have today.

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