What are the roles of labor unions?

September 9th, 2011by Peter AlterFiled under: Collections

In the “City that Works” and with Labor Day just past, I’ve been thinking a lot about Chicago’s labor union history. Lately, it seems, every time we look, there’s a new dispute between organized labor and a government or a company somewhere in the country. Even pro sports—both athletes and owners—recently got involved. Many Americans wonder what role labor unions should play in society. Some say unions are no longer important. Others argue that unions are as significant now as they have ever been.

Chicago Federation of Labor, Labor Day letter, 1927
ICHi-64215, ICHi-64216

The Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL), a major union, hosted some spectacular Labor Day celebrations at Soldier Field in the 1920s. Edward N. Nockels, the CFL’s secretary, wrote this letter advertising the 1927 festivities. For $1, people could see soccer and boxing matches, a circus, and airplane stunts all at Soldier Field. Kids, adults, and even a few elephants sometimes marched into Soldier Field for the Labor Day revelry.

Circus enters Soldier Field for Labor Day, c. 1927

Girls representing the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union enter Soldier Field, c. 1927

Earlier in the 1900s, Chicagoans often marked Labor Day with a parade. CFL leaders thought, though, that employers and company-dominated unions controlled these celebrations. The CFL unionists wanted something different. In 1926, Nockels and others created the nation’s first labor radio station, WCFL. Among many other things, station managers used it to promote and broadcast the massive Labor Day parties at Soldier Field. CFL leaders, like Nockels, hoped these events and their radio broadcasts would show workers the positive sides of organized labor. Workers would then, Nockels expected, join the CFL.

Crowd awaiting start of the Labor Day celebration, Soldier Field, c. 1927

Today, Chicago’s Labor Day celebrations might be smaller and more dispersed, but we still are left wondering how to move the country forward in the face of economic and labor unrest. What purpose do you think labor unions should serve?

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4 Responses to “What are the roles of labor unions?”

  1. Alan Says:

    Labor unions only care about those in their club and not a whit about everyone else. This myopia is a key reason they are declining and losing public support.

  2. Wilmette Says:

    Labor unions have their place and an important part of American history. They just need to be aware of the present economic situation.

  3. Peter Says:

    Union membership has declined over the last several decades.

  4. Beverly Says:

    “Labour unions only care about those in their club and not a whit about everyone else. This myopia is a key reason they are declining and losing public support.”

    Labour unions are required by law to work in the best interest of their members.

    Ironically benefits won by labour union through collective bargaining, spill over into the non-unonized sector in competitive job markets as employers have to compete to recruit and retain their employees. So in reality others do benefit by the work that is done by labour unions.

    Many social benefits that are now available to non unionized workers came about first through the efforts of labour unions (health and safety, maternity leave, sick time, long term disability benefits, pensions etc). As labor won these benefits for union members, over time they became the standard for all workers not just the ones who belonged to unions.

    And labour unions are essential in the public sector. It should never be possible for an employer to direct the workers to do a bad job in the interests of cost cutting. The public sector employees have to be able to speak out about what is necessary to retain the services they provide to the public and what is necessary to keep those services running efficiently for the public good. The public is best served when public sector employees can do this with without fear of reprimand or losing their job. Labour unions are essential to protect this aspect of public sector employment.

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