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Business unionism

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Title: Business unionism  
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Subject: Trade unions, Canadian Union of Public Employees, Open-source unionism, Independent union, Vigilance committee (trade union)
Collection: Trade Unions
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Business unionism

A business union is a type of trade union that is opposed to class or revolutionary unionism and has the principle that unions should be run like businesses.

Business unions are believed to be of American origin. and the term has been applied in particular to phenomena characteristic of American unions.[1] Hyman (1973) attributed the term "business unionism" to Hoxie, but Michael Goldfield (1987) notes that the term was in common usage before Hoxie published in 1915.[2]

According to Goldfield, Hoxie used the term to describe trade-consciousness, rather than class-consciousness; in other words, according to Hoxie, business unionists were advocates of "pure and simple" trade unionism, as opposed to class or revolutionary unionism.[3] This sort of business unionism is what Eugene Debs often referred to as the "old unionism".[4]


  • Characteristics of business unionism 1
    • Internal organization 1.1
    • Craft unionism 1.2
    • Economic interests 1.3
    • Rights vs. powers 1.4
    • Source of workers' problems 1.5
    • Politics 1.6
  • Examples of Business Unions 2
    • Canada 2.1
    • United States 2.2
  • See also 3
  • References 4
    • Bibliography 4.1

Characteristics of business unionism

Internal organization

One major characteristic of "business unionism" is the principle that unions should be run like businesses. These unions would be organized as top-down hierarchies, with dedicated employees paid in a stratified way.[5] Business unionism creates a centralized bureaucracy that is independent from and unaccountable to the union rank and file.[6] The "union rep", who earns more than the union workers, is a key element of this structure.[7]

According to this model, the main 'battleground' for organized labour moves from the shop floor to the boardroom, where well-paid business leaders of the union negotiate with well-paid bosses of the company.[8]

Craft unionism

The members of a union's identity is defined by their craft. They feel a solidarity towards their fellow co-workers as opposed to the greater working class. The unions adopt an exclusive policy as opposed to inclusive one. This can cause a fragmentation of workers. The unions are more inclined to fight against reorganization of work by their employers.[9] Business unions are sometimes not inclined to expand their membership and organize outside workers.[10]

Economic interests

The unions only view their goal to protect immediate economic interests. These economic interests are restricted to getting higher wages, better working conditions, and job security. "In other words, the horizon of union action is straight-forward and short-term: to produce constant and immediate improvements in the material conditions of union members' lives."[11] Business unions also do not seek worker input into technological changes that change the structure of the companies that imply workers.[12] The result is an intense focus on the collective bargaining process, conducted according to rigid specifications.[13]

This outlook can be contrasted with social unionism, a union movement which seeks to improve life overall for workers—for example by struggling against racial discrimination in the workplace.[14]

Rights vs. powers

Centrally-controlled business unions tend to advocate for workers' "rights", a set of enumerated conditions to which workers are entitled. If these rights are violated, the worker may begin a process of complaints that ultimately yields compensation. A consequence of this outlook is that instead of simply organizing and demanding power on the shop floor, workers follow a pre-determined system that does not allow major changes in the workplace.[15]

Source of workers' problems

The unions define the problems of the members' as being from the particularly greedy employers. They also blame the unfair distribution of the surplus through the work process. They are not radical in their outlook and do not blame the capitalist system as a whole for these problems. They also do not believe in a radical change to the system. The solution for business unionists is to negotiate a fair distribution of the surplus and reduce social inequality not eliminate it.[16][17]


Business unionism is also viewed as being non-partisan, although members tend to be "liberal" politically.[18] It is believed that to adopt political allegiances would divide union members. The unions would make political allegiances based on pragmatism, supporting different parties on an issue by issue basis. But refused to make permanent allegiances.

There is an tendency to think business unionism is automatically non-militant but that is not true. Business unions have used direct action to get results for their members. But business unions use strikes and direct actions differently then social unions. Business unions tend to only use strikes to exert and maintain their bargaining position. Business unions though tend to be more cooperative with management and identify workers' interest as being with the employers' success.

Examples of Business Unions


In 1982 a group of construction unions covering approximately 200 000 members united to form a new Canadian Federation of Labour. These unions had been suspended from the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) for nonpayment of per capita tax. The two bodies differed on matters of representation at CLC conventions, dual unionism and the CLC standard that Canadian officers of affiliated unions be elected by the Canadian membership. The CFL philosophy is summed up in the statement of its president, James McCambly: "We are committed to leaving politics to the politicians and to concentrating on being effective representatives of labour's interest within the political system." By 1996 CFL membership had shrunk to 140 000 as some of its affiliates rejoined the CLC. In 1997 merger discussions were taking place between the two labour centrals.

United States

See also


  1. ^ Goldfield, Decline of Organized Labor in the United States (1987/1989), p. 49
  2. ^ Goldfield, Decline of Organized Labor in the United States (1987/1989), p. 49
  3. ^ Goldfield, Decline of Organized Labor in the United States (1987/1989), p. 49
  4. ^ Goldfield, Decline of Organized Labor in the United States (1987/1989), p. 49
  5. ^ Moody, An Injury to All (1988), p. 57. "The idea of the union as a business led in turn to the conclusion that it should be run like one - from the top down. As Teamster President Dave Beck asked in the 1950s: 'Unions are big business. Why should truck drivers and bottle washers be allowed to make big decisions affecting union policy? Would any corporation allow it?'"
  6. ^ Moody, An Injury to All (1988), p. 64. "The routinization of bargaining through the establishment of the three-year contract and the administrative centralization of pattern bargaining brought with it a vast expansion of administrative apparatus that supported the power of the top leadership and increased its independence of rank-and-file leadership."
  7. ^ Moody, An Injury to All (1988), pp. 64–65. "In unions where debate was dead and information the monopoly of the bureaucracy, the rep became not only the enforcer but the sole source of information. In this capacity the rep served as the unopposed tribune of modern business unionism."
  8. ^ Moody, An Injury to All (1988), pp. 84. ""
  9. ^ Ross, Rethinking the Politics of Labour in Canada, (2012), p. 35
  10. ^ Moody, An Injury to All (1988), p. 125.
  11. ^ Ross, Rethinking the Politics of Labour in Canada, (2012), pp. 35–36
  12. ^ Moody, An Injury to All (1988), p. 84.
  13. ^ Moody, An Injury to All (1988), pp. 62–65.
  14. ^ Moody, An Injury to All (1988), pp. 58–59. "Unlike the AFL business unionists, the leaders of the CIO saw labor as a force for broad social and political change. The changes they envisioned were not revolutionary or even anticapitalist, but the idea that unions had a social responsibility beyond improving their members living standards was itself a break with AFL business unionism. [...] The social unionism of the CIO also involved a different attitude toward the Black community than of the AFL."
  15. ^ Moody, An Injury to All (1988), p. 84. "The general business unionist response to the proliferation of grievances was to increase the specificity of the contract's language. As David Brody has pointed out, the growing specification on worker rights in the contract actually narrowed the freedom of the shopfloor union to work these matters out and hence restricted its power. What had previously been a matter for negotiation was now strictly one of interpretation. The steward ceased to be a leader and became increasingly a shopfloor lawayer - and shopfloor organization suffered from this 'Perry Mason syndrome'."
  16. ^ Ross, Rethinking the Politics of Labour in Canada, (2012), p. 36.
  17. ^ Moody, An Injury to All (1988), p. 15. "Business unionism as an outlook is fundamentally conservative in that it leaves unquestioned capital's dominance, both on the job and in society as a whole. Instead, it sees only to negotiate the price of this domination. This it does through the businesslike negotiation of a contractual relationship with a limited sector of capital and for a limited portion of the working class."
  18. ^ ref>Moody, An Injury to All (1988), p. 56. "Business unionists were more likely to be political liberals than the employers they dealt with, but in normal times they did not see the union as a vehicle for social change."


  • Goldfield, Michael. The Decline of Organized Labor in the United States, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987/1989. ISBN 9780226301037.
  • Moody, Kim. An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism, San Francisco, CA, & Chelsea, MI: Verso, 1988. ISBN 0860919293.
  • Ross, Stephanie, and Larry Savage. Rethinking the Politics of Labour in Canada, Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2012. ISBN 9781552664780.
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