Are Industrial Unions Better than Craft?  Not Always.


Which is better — craft unions or industrial unions?  The debate is as old as the labor movement itself, and one that resists simple answers.

Craft unions organize workers along occupational lines.  Industrial unions join everyone who works for one employer, or one industry, into one union.

The argument surfaces in the dispute between the Service Employees and the California Nurses Association.  SEIU asserts that the only way to take on the giant hospital firms is to have everyone organized together in one union.  CNA says only a union of, by, and for nurses can give the proper focus to the needs of nurses.

Similarly, when the Teamsters and the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association battled recently at United Airlines, the Teamsters charged that AMFA was a craft union interested only in mechanics and not cleaners or baggage handlers.

In cases of competition, like these, other factors trump the craft versus industrial debate.  Which union is more democratic, which has bargained better contracts, which has more potential power?  Those are and should be the factors workers use when deciding between two unions.

Still, looking carefully at the craft versus industrial question, we find that no one form is best suited to dealing with all the issues facing workers.


No one disagrees that in the 1930s, industrial unionism represented a qualitative step forward for workers.  The CIO shoved aside the hidebound craft unions of the AFL to organize the mass production industries that were central to the economy and thus to workers’ power.

Then and now, industrial organization stresses the common interests of workers.  It can partially overcome the racial and gender divisions that are reinforced by job classifications and hiring discrimination.

In addition, the larger size of industrial unions and their density in some communities makes mass political action easier, compared to the lobbying, special-interest politics that fit with narrow craft interests.

Yet craft unionism was not swept away by industrial unionism.  When the CIO was organizing millions, the AFL grew by even larger numbers.


There were many reasons why craft unions carried on and continue today.  In the 1930s, their conservative policies made them less of a threat to employers than the industrial unions, which were demanding sweeping political change.

In addition, craft unions have used control over apprenticeships and other procedures to erect barriers to new workers entering the craft.  The resulting shortage of workers naturally pushes up wages and gives the union greater leverage.  This entry control means that crafts are riddled with networks of extended families and systems of mutual obligation.

Control over training also gives the union power over both the content of jobs and who can do them.

These sources of leverage are two-edged swords.  Training, family connections, and cultural homogeneity helped when the unions needed to resist attacks from the Pinkertons and other management spies.

But, more important, these same qualities were also barriers to Black workers and even to various white ethnic groups as well as to women.  Craft unions, protecting “their own,” have often opposed social change and social movements.

Control over job content is another two-edged sword: it has often made unions resistant to absorbing new technologies.  Such technologies then become the employers’ weapon to smash a once powerful union.  Typesetting is an example.


The craft approach persists, however, because for some workers it more directly addresses the work experience.  Central to the craft union are the specifics of the work, pride in the job, and a sense of professionalism.

In an auto plant, for example, most production workers think of their jobs as nothing more than a way to make decent money.  Many skilled tradespeople, though, think of their job as a profession and take pride in their skills.  Many people become nurses, teachers, mechanics, electricians, organizers, or actors because they feel a calling to that work.

Not only are the “professional” issues central to these workers, their knowledge and skill give them tools in the battle to control the workplace.  Craft unions lend themselves more naturally to on-the-job organization.  Industrial unions that ignore these issues may see members leave to form their own craft unions, as Emergency Medical System workers and electrical technicians in SEIU did in the Bay Area.

At the same time, focus on craft issues can become a diversion or obstacle in periods of rapidly expanding class consciousness and sweeping social movements that capture the imagination and drive change in the labor movement as well as in the society at large.

This is not to say that industrial unionism solves any of these problems automatically.   An industrial union, too, may fight only for its own members rather than for workers as a whole.

The United Auto Workers (UAW), for example, fought for decades against fuel-economy standards in order to defend the Big Three’s gas-guzzlers.  On the other hand, the nurses-only CNA fights for single-payer health care.


Both the craft and industrial models address important parts of our work experience.  Any union movement that wants to win power for workers needs to address both.

In principle, it shouldn’t be so difficult to pay attention to both kinds of issues.  An industrial union can have subdivisions that address the specific needs of its craft sectors.  Within the UAW, for example, skilled workers have their own stewards and elect their own representative to the executive board.  People with technical jobs such as engineers have their own locals.  In West Coast longshore, dockworkers, clerks, and warehouse workers have their own locals.

Likewise, craft unions can form councils to deal with a common employer.  A bargaining council at a university, for example, could bring together separate unions for professors, teaching assistants, lab techs, clerical workers, and maintenance.

Central labor councils in theory represent the common class interests of all the workers in an area.

But it turns out that these solutions don’t work as well as they should.  Anti-labor laws make it hard to take solidarity action across union lines.  It could be an unfair labor practice, for example, for a union to refuse to settle its own contract because other unions bargaining with the same employer have unresolved issues.

More important, cross-union bodies, relying primarily on voluntary participation, are notoriously weak and underfunded.  They usually restrict themselves to the least common denominator — activities that don’t antagonize any of the constituents.  Rarely does a bargaining or geographic council take on the racial or gender biases that tend to be reinforced in craft unionism.

While industrial unions more readily solve some of these problems, they also pose different ones.  As Detroit labor historian Steve Babson points out, industrial unions pose special problems in hierarchically organized workplaces where some workers have a degree of authority over the work process.


Nurses typically provide direction for nursing assistants.  RNs themselves often take assignment from one of their own — a “charge nurse.”  In almost any kind of workplace these days, some workers are “team leaders.”

Such power relations can influence work assignments and scheduling.  Being at the top of a work hierarchy can reinforce arrogance and a sense of power, and if these workers also dominate within the workers’ “industrial” union, the problem is magnified.  Those at the bottom may feel they need their own union to protect them.

What is needed is unions that pay attention to life on the job and the advancement of craft skills as well as to common issues and common mobilization against the employer — indeed, to the issues common to all workers.

Organizational forms are not magic.  There is no single form that protects against self-serving bureaucracy nor that guarantees solidarity.  These stances come only from struggle, education, vision, and the continuous development of new leaders.

Mike Parker co-authored Democracy Is Power.  To order, see <>.  This article first appeared in the September 2008 issue of Labor Notes.

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