About 144,863,000 persons constituted the country's civilian labor force in 2002. In July 2003, the unemployment rate was6.2%. As of July 2003, agriculture engaged 1,126,000 Americans. Earnings of workers vary considerably with type of work and section of country. In the first quarter of 2003, the national average wage was $15.27 per hour for nonagricultural workers, with an average workweek of 33.8 hours. Workers in manufacturing had a national average wage of $15.64, (including overtime), with the longest average workweek of all categories of workers at 40.4 hours in the first quarter of 2003.
In 2002, 13.2% of wage and salary workers were union members—16.1 million US citizens belonged to a union that year. In 1983, union membership was 20.1%. In 2002, there were 34 national labor unions with over 100,000 members, the largest being the National Educational Association with 2.7 million members as of 2003. The most important federation of organized workers in the United States is the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO), whose affiliated unions had 13 million members as of 2003, down from 14.1 million members in 1992. The major independent industrial and labor unions and their estimated 2002 memberships are the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, 1,398,412, and the United Automobile Workers, some 710,000 (the majority of whom work for General Motors, Ford, and Daimler-Chrylser). Most of the other unaffiliated unions are confined to a single establishment or locality. US labor unions exercise economic and political influence not only through the power of strikes and slowdowns but also through the human and financial resources they allocate to political campaigns (usually on behalf of Democratic candidates) and through the selective investment of multibillion-dollar pension funds.
The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (the Wagner Act), the basic labor law of the United States, was considerably modified by the Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947 (the Taft-Hartley Act) and the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (the Landrum-Griffin Act). Closed-shop agreements, which require employers to hire only union members, are banned. The union shop agreement, however, is permitted; it allows the hiring of nonunion members on the condition that they join the union within a given period of time.
As of 2003, 23 states had right-to-work laws, forbidding the imposition of union membership as a condition of employment. Under the Taft-Hartley Act, the president of the United States may postpone a strike for 90 days in the national interest. The act of 1959 requires all labor organizations to file constitutions, bylaws, and detailed financial reports with the secretary of labor, and stipulates methods of union elections. The National Labor Relations Board seeks to remedy or prevent unfair labor practices and supervises union elections, while the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission seeks to prevent discrimination in hiring, firing, and apprenticeship programs.
The number of work stoppages and of workers involved reached a peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s, declining steadily thereafter. In 2002, there were 19 major stoppages involving 46,000 workers resulting in 660,000 workdays idle, compared with 1995, when there were 31 major stoppages involving 191,500 workers resulting in 5,771,000 days idle; a major stoppage was defined as one involving 1,000 workers or more for a minimum of one day or shift.