Impact of Business Unionism

M1A1: Essay – Impact of Business Unionism
Before you begin this activity, be sure that you have:
 Read Chapters 1 and 2.
 Reviewed the PowerPoints for:
o Chapter 1 [PDF file size 6.9 MB]
o Chapter 2 [PDF file size 10.9 MB]
 Reviewed the videos:
o Ford and Taylor in the 1920s – Part 1 (Links to an external site.)Links to an
external site. [Video, 5:08 minutes]
o Ford and Taylor in the 1920s – Part 2 (Links to an external site.)Links to an
external site. [Video, 6:17 minutes]
o Ford During the Slide into the Great Depression (Links to an external
site.)Links to an external site. [Video, 8:27 minutes]
o Unionization at Ford During the 1930s and 1940s (Links to an external
site.)Links to an external site. [Video, 7:12 minutes]

This assignment requires you to reflect on the concept of business unionism adopted by
the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the impact that this philosophy has had
on U.S. labor relations. By the end of this activity you should better understand the
benefits and limitations of the business unionism approach of the U.S. labor movement.
The American Federation of Labor succeeded in part because it adopted a “business
unionism” approach that accepted the economic system based on capitalism and
sought to secure gains for its members through negotiation with management. As part
of the business unionism philosophy, the union bargained for better “bread and butter
issues” – pay, benefits and working conditions.
In a 2-3 page essay, discuss the benefits and limitations of this approach for
the U.S. labor movement today. In your essay, be sure to consider the differences in the
economic environment of the late 1800s and the economic environment today. Also,
you must support your analysis with information from the readings and other sources,
as appropriate.

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Impact of Business Unionism

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Business Unionism

It is often assumed that workplace democracy is easily achievable through unionization. This is often not the case since unionization, at least in the United States, does not establish a representative democracy in the workplace (Taft, 1964). The only thing that unionism in the United States creates is a participatory democracy. The main aim of the framework that controls union-management relations is to ensure that workers are controlled and that they accept that they are subordinates in the workplace. Since the industrial revolution, employees in the United States have not been enjoying a good working environment. In the century that followed the industrial revolution, employees worked and lived in conditions that were dreadful. They were ruthlessly exploited by the company owners who viewed themselves as being a better class. In the 1800s, opposition began in the form of collective action, with employees protesting their poor wages, unsafe working conditions, long working hours, and the hierarchical management system.

During the 19th century, the economy of the United States was centered on the business owners, with employees being stuck in poor living conditions and poor working conditions. Workers continued to form unions pressing for better working conditions throughout the 1800s. However, division started to arise on what the main focus of unions ought to be. Some workers wanted an agenda that would include employee control of the workplace while others only wished for shorter working hours and equitable work rules. The tradesmen’s unions advocated for shorter working hours and better workplace rules, an approach commonly referred to as business unionism (Hattam, 2014). The unions were better organized and more powerful than the unions that are there today. This was mostly because the members possessed marketable skills, as compared to unskilled employees and the fact that they were more accommodative of capitalism. Business unionism became dominant in the United States labor movement, which was led by the American Federation of Labor, throughout the 19th century.

Even though some worker unions continued to advocate for employee control and workplace democracy, their efforts were continuously repressed and vilified by the government agencies and unions that were business-oriented. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) became a key advocate of business unionism (Lorwin & Flexner, 1933). This approach was beneficial in some ways. For instance, the approach ensured that factory owners had their way in the management of their firms. The firm owners were more willing to negotiate with unions for better working conditions and pay. The success of the AFL can be attributed to the business unionism approach that was welcomed by the business community and the government agencies since it supported the interests of the business people (Greene, 1998). Even though the approach had a number of benefits in the 1800s, the approach has multiple negative effects, especially in today’s business and economic environment. In the 19th century, the U.S. population was largely composed of farmers. The non-farming population was involved in exports handling.

Factories were the dominant businesses, employing small numbers of employees (Taft, 1964). Today, however, the economy of the United States has largely developed, with many industries being established and more people working in large organizations. With increasing employees and rapid industrialization, there is a need for more than just better wages and shorter working hours. Employees today wish to be more involved in decision making and other management activities, issues that business unionism failed to address in the formation of the labor relations and activities foundation in the 19th century. If the AFL had advocated for workplace democracy, the labor unions today would not have a difficult time advocating for equal treatment of employees in the workplace.


Greene, J. (1998). Pure and Simple Politics: The American Federation of Labor and Political Activism, 1881–1917. Cambridge University Press.

Hattam, V. C. (2014). Labor visions and state power: The origins of business unionism in the United States (Vol. 141). Princeton University Press.

Lorwin, L. L., & Flexner, J. A. (1933). The American Federation of Labor: History, Policies, and Prospects (No. 50). Brookings institution.

Taft, P. (1964). Organized labor in American history. New York: Harper & Row.

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