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An organization of workers in the same skilled occupation or related skilled occupations who act together to secure for all members favorable wages, hours, and other working conditions.
Trade unions in the United States were first organized in the early nineteenth century. The main purpose of a trade union is to collectively bargain with employers for wages, hours, and working conditions. Until the 1930s trade unions were at a severe disadvantage with management, mainly because few laws recognized the right of workers to organize. With the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) of 1935 (29 U.S.C.A. § 151 et seq.), the right of employees to form, join, or aid labor unions was recognized by the federal government.
Trade unions are entitled to conduct a strike against employers. A strike is usually the last resort of a trade union, but when negotiations have reached an impasse, a strike may be the only bargaining tool left for employees.
There are two principal types of trade unions: craft unions and industrial unions. Craft unions are composed of workers performing a specific trade, such as electricians, carpenters, plumbers, or printers. Industrial union workers include all workers in a specific industry, no matter what their trade, such as automobile or steel workers. In the United States, craft and industrial unions were represented by different national labor organizations until 1955. The craft unions that dominated the american federation of labor (AFL) opposed organizing industrial workers.
During the 1930s several AFL unions seeking a national organization of industrial workers formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). The CIO aggressively organized millions of industrial workers who labored in automobile, steel, and rubber plants. In 1938 the AFL expelled the unions that had formed the CIO. The CIO then formed its own organization and changed its name to Congress of Industrial Organizations. In 1955 the AFL and CIO merged into a single organization, the AFL-CIO.
Membership in U.S. trade unions has fallen since the 1950s, as the number of workers in the manufacturing sector of the U.S. economy has steadily declined. Union membership in 1995 comprised just 14.9 percent of the workforce, compared with a high of 34.7 percent in 1954.