Labor History. Overview. Labor History. Labor history is a broad field of study concerned with the development of the labor movement and the working class.
This article tells the story of an often-forgotten attempt to unionize the United States armed forces in the 1970s, The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), an AFL-CIO-affiliated union representing federal employees, voted to allow military personnel to join its union in 1976. Military personnel proved far more open to the bid than expected. Nursing grievances from threatened congressional cuts to their institutional benefits, between one-third and one-half welcomed the union. Though a worried Congress, a powerful military leadership, and skeptical public opinion quashed unionization within the year, the brief episode nevertheless left an influential legacy. Coming just after the difficult transition from the draft to the volunteer force, the union bid forced military leaders, soldiers, and supporters in Congress to defend both military service and military benefits from encroachments of an "occupational" model symbolized by unionization. Their successful distinction between military service and employment elevated the former as uniquely honorable and arduous-and thus deserving of unwavering congressional support. Public unions, the embodiment of the occupational threat to military service, emerged bruised by the comparisons to vaunted military service and endured a decades-long decline in membership and congressional protection.