The Origins of the Union Shop

Published on, by Tom Wetzel, January 2012.

Article about the practice and limitations of union (closed) shops in the US workers’ movement in the 1930s and 40s. In particular it examines how they helped unions act as a tool of discipline over workers as opposed to a tool for defending their interests.  

The concept of “union security” or “maintenance of membership” — more commonly called the “union shop” 1 — means that being a union member “in good standing” becomes a condition for continued employment. If you cease to be a member of the union, the company is required to fire you. In the postwar era this is usually implemented by the company simply deducting union dues from one’s paycheck.

“Union security” had long been an idea advocated by “business union” leaders as a way of maintaining their cherished dues income despite the ups and downs of member enthusiasm. Top CIO leaders were certainly as fond of this concept as were their brethren in the AFL — but in the early days the companies were, in most cases,(1) simply not willing to agree to this demand in the late ’30s.

Though the typical union contract nowadays contains some sort of union shop provision, union membership was voluntary under almost all CIO contracts prior to 1942. The dues “check off” was virtually unknown in the late ’30s and dues were collected on the shop floor by shop stewards and committeemen.

Critics of the earlier industrial union organizing efforts of the Industrial Workers of the World have long pointed to the fact that membership in an IWW branch would often drop dramatically after a period of intense struggle had passed and union membership was reduced to a more committed hardcore.

Yet, the early CIO was subject to the same dynamic. Workers had poured into the CIO industrial unions during the sitdown strike wave of 1937 but many dropped out when the recession of the late ’30s made it difficult for unions to make gains against the employers. For example, 8,027 workers had joined the UAW local at the Fisher Body plant in Lansing by late 1937, after the sitdown strikes and the first GM contract. But a year later only 1,078 were still paying UAW dues. The entire membership of the CIO had dropped to a mere 1.35 million just prior to Roosevelt’s military buildup on the eve of the U.S. entry into World War II. “To remain solvent,” writes Nelson Lichtenstein, “SWOC had to resort to monthly dues picket lines that cajoled or threatened delinquent workers to pay up before they could enter the mill. Often steelworkers balked, and absenteeism ran as high as 25% on the days dues pickets patrolled mill gates.”(2)

These fluctuations in worker membership are probably inevitable in any mass workers movement that is autonomous, genuinely controlled by the workers themselves, since their participation would reflect their perceptions of what is needed and winnable at the moment.

American leftists typically assume that the “union shop” is definitely a valuable asset to workers. It could be argued that this position implicitly accepts the bureaucratic outlook. For, it assumes that the union has a value independent of its usefulness to the workers themselves and that it should be maintained no matter whether the workforce is sufficiently motivated on its own to keep it going. Moreover, the favorable view of the union shop ignores the role that it played in converting the unions into organs of employer discipline over the workers (see below) … (full long text, Notes 1-8 and comments).


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