× Theirs Is a ‘Traditional Untraditional’ Union
WASHINGTON — While many of the formal roles of unions have changed in the U.S., the majority of them don’t do nearly as much as the original, small group in 1849 represented in this latest profile of the nation’s unions.
The workforce is about three times larger now, unions represent just 8 percent of private-sector workers and about 20 percent of their supporters in the public sector.
The “traditional” union, as several researchers see it, hasn’t changed that much. But as the universe of unions expands, or changes, the labor movement has had to adapt to survive, revamp its platform or prove the effectiveness of its proposals.
“The past century has been a time of expanding union membership, significantly for women and for the non-white race,” said Brian Hale, an economics professor at Widener University. “Although our union history is interesting for this, I think today there are an even broader range of issues than the traditional union. So it’s the celebration of all of that variety of these different types of unions.”
At the time of the Boston convention, the union’s 300 members were from the textile mill workers — in that case Kentucky — and the manufacturers of the European woolen fabric. These days, unions represent two-thirds of women in the workforce; nearly all black, Hispanic and Asian-American workers; and some workers who have as little as one job.
But more than a century after the celebration of “tradition,” an increasingly independent rank-and-file calls the shots.
And some union leaders don’t shy away from at times some controversial stances.