A closed shop refers to a business or organization in which all employees are required to become union members as a precondition of employment. A related term, a union shop, refers to businesses or organizations in which employees are not required to be union members when they are initially hired but must become union members shortly after being hired in order to maintain their jobs. In contrast to a closed shop, an open shop is a business or organization that does not provide any preferential treatment to union members in the hiring process. This entry looks at the history of closed shops, which have been illegal for several decades, and current union-related hiring practices.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, closed shops were popular in the United States, particularly among construction craft unions and other unions representing employees largely hired on a temporary basis, as a means to protect union standards and reserve job opportunities for specific union members. For example, because there was often high employee turnover in the construction industry, union control would have been minimized if employers could replace their unionized workforce with nonunion employees. In fact, some unions insisted on closed shops as a way to gain more control over the labor market as well as secure job opportunities for their members.
In 1935, Congress passed the Wagner Act, a federal law protecting the legal rights of workers to organize labor unions, to take part in collective bargaining, and to strike in support of employee workplace issues and concerns. Additionally, the passage of the Wagner Act created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent government agency responsible for conducting and monitoring labor union elections as well as investigating unfair labor practices. Shortly after the passage of the Wagner Act, the majority of federal courts briefly upheld the legality of closed shops. However, by the early 1940s, many states, either by legislation or court decision, banned the use of closed shops across the country.
In 1947, the passage of the Taft-Hartley Labor Act officially declared closed shops illegal throughout the country. More specifically, the act gave states the legal authority to create “right-to-work” laws and allowed the federal courts jurisdiction over the enforcement of collective bargaining agreements between employers and employees. It was not until 1959 that Wisconsin became the first state to pass legislation legalizing collective bargaining for public sector employees, including public school teachers. While closed shop practices did not impact schools directly, the rise of legalized collective bargaining in their aftermath were significant in the ultimate ability of teachers to unionize or collectively negotiate with their school boards in the majority of states.
While closed shops were officially declared illegal under the Taft-Hartley Labor Act in 1947, the hiring practices associated with closed shops still operate unofficially in certain industries in the United States. While no requirement to hire union workers is explicitly written into contracts, some employers in select industries, including construction and others that are characterized by temporary employment, still rely disproportionately on union members when hiring employees. For instance, some employers actively recruit employees from labor union halls, but it is entirely legally allowable for them to recruit these employees at other locations.
Moreover, there are many modern variations of union arrangements in the United States. By way of illustration, in agency shops, employees pay union membership dues or fees but are not required to join unions. In the years since the enactment of the Taft- Hartley Labor Act, unions across the country have repeatedly attempted to repeal this act and eliminate laws restricting union control over the hiring process, such as state right-to-work provisions. Yet, to date, none of the legal efforts to overturn the act have been successful.
Kevin P. Brady
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- DeMitchell, T. A., & Cobb, C. D. (2006). Teachers: Their union and their profession: A tangled relationship. West’s Education Law Reporter, 212, 1–18.
- Johnsen, J. E. (1942). The closed shop. New York: H.W. Wilson.
- Kerchner, C., & Koppich, J. (1993). A union of professionals: Labor relations and educational reform. New York: Teachers College Press.