The Rise and Fall of Labor Unions


TheRise and Fall of Labor Unions



The paper seeks to describe the structural factors affecting theorganizational difference in labor unions. The study will examineEmerson’s power dependence theory to explain how well a unionmonopolizes the supply of workers to employers. The paper attempts torelate theoretically organizational structure and power using some ofthe examples of real world examples. The paper argues that technologyadvancement and globalization have rendered unions without bargainingpower hence making worker vulnerable to exploitation.

Some labor unionssucceed while others fail. The Justice for Janitors (JFJ) campaign of1985 demonstrated how organized strategy results to success. Thecampaign was initiated by Service Employees International Union(SEIU) with the aim of attaining better wages, minimal health carecoverage and full-time job status. These conditions were consideredessential for janitors to step up towards the middle class. In 1990,JFJ had succeeded in organizing its first strike in Los Angeles. Fromthe LA strike, it extended to other cities including Denver (1998),New Jersey and Philadephia (2001), Boston (2003), Miami (2006) andHouston (2006) (SEIU). Despite the challenging circumstances of lowwages, immigration and religion, the janitor’s union made asignificant breakthrough. What makes such union strong while othersweak? This study will examine a structural approach of explainingorganization power differences in the union. The study demonstratesthe effects of dependence and cohesion on the activities of a laborunion by examining Emerson’s power dependence theory. Consequently,the paper will determine the factors that drive the difference inefficacy among labor unions.


Emerson (1962) theearly theorist observed that power is derived from dependencesettings that are a function of the availability of alternatives andthe importance of the performance. Emerson (1962) noted that “thedependence of actor A upon actor B is (1) directly proportional toA’s motivational investment in goals mediated by B, and (2)inversely proportional to the availability of those goals to Aoutside of the A-B relation” (p.32). Using Emerson`s definition ofpower, there are several means of balancing power relationshipbetween two actors. One of the methods is to reduce the alternativesource of relationship by forming a coalition with others situated inthe same position. This approach explains the emergence of acollective actor. For instance, assume that there are three actors:A, B and C. the pairs of B and C are both partnered with A and arerelated. So as to balance the power, Emerson recommends that arelationship would be developed between A and C. forming a coalitionbetween B and C makes A lose an alternative, which once made A morepowerful. This process demonstrates how weaker actors can elevatetheir position with a stronger actor through forming a coalitionbetween them.

Alabor union is an instance of the coalition forming tactics. If laborworkers require setting contract with individual employers, they willbe valuable to the decision of the employers. This is becauseemployers mostly have alternative employees who can fill in for oneworker’s absence. Employers might threaten a worker with a lay offif the do not agree with unsatisfying contract. Consequently,employers have more alternatives compared to a worker, which makesthe worker dependent on the employer. The existence of alternativesis critical. A weaker actor might be excluded from exchangeactivities when the number of exchange activities if fixed. Applyingthis incidence, exclusion in the context of the labor marketindicates the loss of a job, which is the most serious threat to aworker. The power is distributed unevenly in the favor of theemployer. Since the worker fears to lose a job, a worker is unable toclaim their rights. So as to prevent this problem, workers can forma coalition and practice power balance against employers. Formationof groups enables the labor unions to control the availability ofalternatives workers while reducing competition among workers.

Before JFJ, most ofthe janitors in L.A were not organized as a group. Besides, thegeneral market environment was hostile to workers. As more cleaningcompanies opened, the market became more competitive. The only way tosurvive in this competitive market environment was to lower the laborcost. This made companies reticent to allow union organizing. Theyfeared building owners might terminate the contract once the buildinghad been unionized. Due to the unfriendly working environment forjanitors, union leaders chose to organize all the janitors in thecleaning industry and lead them to make one master contract thatcovered the whole local market. The bargaining structure standardizedthe overall labor condition in the local market. Through organizingall possible workers in the industry, the union-monopolized thesupply of workers. Consequently, the union was able to eliminate wagedifferences from the competition.


Emerson’s powerdependence theory has a several implication. When an employer opts analternative organization or an individual employee to make acontract, the labor organization needs to compete with each other toattain access to the employer. Therefore, the power of the uniondepends on the ability to monopolize the supply of workers toemployers. The most favorable position for workers is for theiremployers to lack any alternative except negotiating with thecurrently hired labor union.

On the other hand,if the union chooses to make contracts with other employers, it willincrease the power on the workers’ side since employers becomedependent on currently employed workers. For instance, one union andthree employers. If one employer refuses to agree to the contractthat a union suggests, workers might not work with that employer asworkers have alternative places to work. In such instances, unionscan prohibit employers from easily breaking the table. Workers canclaim their demands more strongly.

Not only alternativeunions but the existence of alternative individual employees alsomake an employer not dependent on the union. The logic of powerdependence theory applies to this case in the same way. Employershave alternative labor sources when they can hire nonunion workersoutside of the currently unionized workers. This structure permitsmore freedom for employers in choosing with whom to hire because theycan substitute the unionized workers with other people who need ajob. In contrast, currently hired worker need to make themcompetitive by lowering their labor cost in the labor market to becontinually employed.

The number ofreplaceable workers tends to increase as bot the capital and labormove more freely in the society. For instance, due to globalizationand industrialization, the advancement of technological communicationhas made it possible for companies to hire workers for calls fromPhilippines or India at a lower cost than at the expense of Americanworkers. This broadened pool of replaceable workers restrictsAmerican labor unions from effectively raising their demands toemployers.

There exists a wideargument on whether inter-organizational competition is helpful forunion power. This is demonstrated by the case of membership growth intwo large labor federations, AFL, and CIO, from the mid-1930 to1950s. According to Hannan and Freeman (1987), the membershipincrease in industrial unions inhibited the growth of craft unions.Although the number of organizations in the population is limited,unions are competing against each other for the same resource:workers skilled in certain craft (Hannan &amp Freeman, 1987).Contrary, proponents of inter-organizational competition believe thatit contributed to the growth of both the competing union and laborforce as whole by stimulating the dominant Federation to develop neworganizing strategies and smoothly adapt itself to the new economiccircumstances (Stephen-Norris &amp Southworth, 2010). Both argumentsacknowledge the significance of exogenous factors in the massiveincrease in union membership in the current world. These factorsinclude favorable political circumstances and economic development inindustries.


Although Emerson’smodel explains why workers in unionized workplaces are offered bettercontracts compared to workers in non-unionize workplaces, it does notexplain why some labor unions does better in winning concessions fromemployers compared to others. Based on Emerson’s theory, all unionsis equally powerfully powerful at the bargaining table. Sinceachievement of one’s goal is the definition of power, differentunions are different powers. Therefore, these need for a more complexexplanation for the situation that consists of multiple actors. Thecurrent world has made the Emerson’s model to appear outdated. Asthe characteristics of industry changes in the process of time,affiliated union power is also transitioning. Recently, capital hasbecome more movable and undeterred by regional limitation. Thedevelopment of technology and means of transportation has causedresources to move across borders. Advances in technology have made iteasier for employers to replace workers. Besides, big employers arenow choosing locations with employer-friendly tax laws and laborpolicies. Although the labor unions have kept their previoussuccessful strategies, it is hard to prevent an employer fromexpanding the boundary of alternative workers. Without the support ofbargaining power from the union, workers are left vulnerable toexploitation and the unfriendly working environment.


Emerson, R. M. (1962). Power-dependence relations. Americansociological review, 27(1): 31-41

Hannan, M. T., &amp Freeman, J. (1987). The ecology oforganizational founding: American labor unions, 1836-1985. AmericanJournal of Sociology, 92(4): 910-943

Service Employees International Union. Retrieved from

Stepan-Norris, J., &amp Southworth, C. (2010). Rival unionism andmembership growth in the United States, 1900 to 2005: A special caseof inter-organizational competition. American Sociological Review,75(2): 227-251