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Only about one-fifth of the American labor force is unionized. With certain important exceptions, therefore, no formal machinery exists to resolve the various disputes that arise between a majority of the country's workers and their employers. The exception, which will not be treated in detail in this study, relate to (1) the right to organize into unions, which has been protected in most of the private sector since 1935 by the National Labor Relations Act and in the public sector since the 1960s by federal law and regulation covering U.S. Government employees and by statutes in about thirty states covering state and municipal employees; (2) the right to be free from discrimination on such grounds as race, color, religion , sex, national origin, and age, which has been guaranteed since the 1960 by federal law and by many state statutes and local ordinances; (3) the constitutional rights of public employees to free speech, due process, and so on; and (4) the civil service and ' tenure' rights of many government workers and school teachers, who cannot be dismissed except for serious cause and after appropriate procedures have been followed. Otherwise, the standard American legal doctrine is that an employment arrangement of indefinite duration is a contract 'at will', which may be terminated by either party at any time for any reason. That means, in practice, most employers unilaterally set all the terms and conditions of employment, and individual employees have no choice but to conform or leave.

Despite their relatively low percentage of the total labor force. American unions exercise an influence out of proportion to their numbers because of their high concentration in five key industries - heavy manufacturing. construction, transportation. mining, and government service. American labor law has traditionally dealt not with the relations between employers and employees as such, but with the relations between unions and the employers they have organized or are trying to organize. For the most part, as exemplified by the National Labor Relations Act, government has only sought to circumscribe the parties' mode of combat and to lend occasional assistance, usually upon request. in their negotiations. There has generally been a strict hands-off attitude toward the actual substantive terms of any settlement reached. Thus, the American system for resolving industrial disputes is characterized by two distinctive features, voluntarism and diversity. Solutions are the product of the parties own devising, without the intervention of government, and those solutions are as varied as the different industrial settings from which they have emerged.


Reprinted from Industrial Conflict Resolution in Market Economies: A Study of Australia, the Federal Republic of Germany, Italy, Japan, and the USA. 2nd ed., edited by T. Hanami and R. Blanpain, 255-77,1989, with permission of Kluwer Law International.