A Primer on the Different Types of Labor Unions


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In response to decreased union density, organizers, presidential candidates, and professors have offered plans to “revitalize organized labor.” When people hear politicians like Joe Biden say, “I’m a union man, period,” a basic idea about what unions do comes to mind. From this basic idea, you can tease out three things which unions do. In essence, unions:

  1. Standardize the worker-employer relationship,
  2. Standardize how that relationship is changed, and
  3. Regulate the supply and demand for labor.

Not all unions, however, go about these objectives in the same way. To determine how well strategies for revitalizing organizing labor would work requires some understanding of the different union types. What follows is an overview of the different types of unions which are common, not just in the United States, but around the world.

Craft

Craft unions appeared in the United States and the United Kingdom before the industrial revolution, emerging out of the feudal guild system. These unions are made up of organized workers who have been trained to do a specific type of work (e.g., carpentry, painting).

Craft unions typically are composed of workers who have been hired to do a specific piece of work with a definitive endpoint. Because craft workers, at least in the past, weren’t employed perpetually, but were hired to do specific types of work, craft unions originally collectively bargained over prices for the completion of a job, not wages or benefits.

The craft union approach to labor supply is essential to their strategy for creating, standardizing, and changing workplace relationships through collective bargaining. Craft unions aim to limit labor market access to members of their union, usually by making apprenticeships one of the main avenues for skills certification.

Industrial

If craft unions emerged out of the guilds, industrial unions developed out of the factory system. Like craft unions, industrial unions are made up of workers from different firms. Unlike craft and general unions, however, industrial unions are mainly associated with one sector of the economy (e.g., the UAW, the Teamsters, the Mine Workers). Industrial unions aim to encompass every worker in a single sector.

As a union type, industrial unions have a number of strengths. Because they represent entire sectors of the economy, industrial unions are very good at shaping and changing work-employment relationships so workers can move between employers with ease. They’re also very sensitive to specific industrial issues (e.g., black lung for miners). At the same time that industrial unions bring workers together regardless of their employer, industrial unions also direct attention away from specific bosses towards a class of owners across an industry.

The way industrial unions shape and regulate the relationships between workers and bosses varies depending on whether or not craft unionism was vibrant before factories emerged. In countries like the United States, industrial unions organize employer by employer, aiming to get every firm in the sector to sign onto an all-encompassing master contract. The most famous example of this was the Teamsters’ National Master Freight Agreement. In countries with industrial unions, but without these craft union traditions, the state, employer organizations, and industrial unions engage in contract negotiations which cover every employer in an industry (sectoral bargaining). 

General

General unions standardize and change work-employment relationships through shop-specific collective bargaining. Unlike the craft and industrial unions, however, general union membership spans across industries and job titles, including a wide variety of workers who may have little, if anything, in common. Because members of general unions are highly mobile between occupations, firms, and industries, the general union strategy – at least in theory – is to organize all workers in non-craft employment so that every worker belongs to the same union.

Proponents argue that general unions increase working class solidarity by bringing disparate workers together into the same union. Their generality can also pose challenges when it comes to organizing. While having membership from diverse sectors in the economy can mean working class solidarity, it can also mean that the union’s members are workers with totally different on-the-job experiences. General unions’ uneven success organizing across the labor market can make them appear more like federations of workers in specific sectors than “One Big Union.” Nevertheless, general unionism remains a vibrant tradition. While general unions have had a prominent history in North America (e.g., the IWW, the Knights of Labor, Canada’s One Big Union), two of the United Kingdom’s larger unions, Unite and the GMB, are general unions and have ~2,000,000 members between them.

Enterprise

Enterprise unions, which are common in Japan, are company-specific (e.g., a union for McDonalds employees which excludes Burger King workers). Enterprise unions are notable mostly for the two features of Japanese employment which they try to guarantee in collective bargaining:

  1. permanent employment contracts (sometimes called “lifetime employment”) and
  2. external hiring limitations (usually all hiring is internal except entry-level hiring)

These entry-level hiring guarantees, which are a staple of enterprise unionism, tend to encourage management friendly unions and discourage sector-wide cooperation between workers. Given their limited independence from the company, enterprise unions are functionally similar to “company unions” or unions in single-party states.

While enterprise unions aspire to standardize the worker-employer relationship, doing so requires cooperation with other unions. Because each enterprise union is economically incentivized to support policies beneficial to their own company, potentially to the detriment of others, enterprise unionism lends itself more toward conflict between workers than solidarity. 

Identity-Exclusive

Sometimes unions form specifically for workers who are divided by a country’s longstanding cultural disputes. Generally, these identity-exclusive unions are religious, although sometimes they are racial or gendered.

While the US has had de facto identity-exclusive unions, as well as some deliberate ones (e.g., the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, Isaac Myers’ National Labor Union, the Women’s Protective Union), they have never been as prominent as Europe’s identity-exclusive unions. Europe’s Christian unions and labor federations, which compete with secular unions, are informed by Christian views on the relationship between labor and capital, Catholic social teaching, and/or Protestant views of solidarity. Although most scholars argue that identity-exclusive unions prefer decentralized labor movements, with lots of worker organizations, it seems like this preference depends on the organization in question. Some identity-exclusive unions try to emphasize cultural separatism, rather than working class unity. Others try to pressure labor organizations to accept their members through competition with exclusionary unions.

One of the main challenges for this type of unionism is that intentionally representing a fraction of the workforce weakens their bargaining power. This, in turn, limits their ability to compete with other unions. It is not terribly surprising, given those challenges, that some Christian unions and federations have merged with secular workers’ organizations in response to declining union density.

Public Service

Public service unions emerge historically with the advent of the welfare state and modern public administration. They differ from the rest of the union types discussed here in a variety of ways. Typically, members of public service unions work in the public sector. In countries where policymakers prefer the private delivery of social services, like the US and the UK, public service unions include lots of private sector members.

While public service unions also use collective bargaining to standardize worker-employer relationships, these unions also aim to harmonize the laws regulating the relationship between public sector workers and their employer (the state). Public sector labor laws differ significantly from private sector labor laws. Generally, the state is forbidden from doing lots of things which private sector employers are allowed to do and vice-versa. Part of standardizing and changing the worker-employer relationship in the public sector involves standardizing laws across units of government concerning:

  1. who can and cannot collectively bargain (e.g., teachers, but not firefighters?),
  2. what public sector workers can bargain over (e.g., wages, but not classroom size?), and
  3. whether local units of government should set their own labor relations standards.

Public service unions today typically come in two forms. Like industrial unions, some public service unions include all public workers, regardless of job title or employer type (e.g., AFSCME, SEIU, Unison). Other public service unions represent specific job titles, like teachers and firefighters, (AFT, IAFF, NEA). While public service unions’ strategies for regulating labor supply and demand are often similar to their analogs in the private sector, public service unions are often very vocal about increasing labor supply, partially because their members are mission driven. Social workers, teachers, firefighters, and nurses often prioritize hiring more workers, over wage or benefit negotiations, to better serve the public and make their jobs more effective (e.g., through better teacher to student ratios).

Although no union perfectly fits one of these types, these types are still useful for evaluating the different plans people are offering for revitalizing the labor movement. Some union types are better equipped than others for standardizing and changing today’s worker-employer relationships. Other attitudes toward regulating labor supply and demand are better at producing more equitable outcomes for workers. Instead of accepting current labor relations as a baseline, the types of unions we want should determine labor’s path to power.