Social Work Unions
Howard Karger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0177


The relation between social work and labor unions dates back to the late 19th century, when Jane Addams and other settlement house leaders actively supported the nascent union movement including the Chicago garment workers and meat packer strikes. Social workers helped others, notably working women, to organize into trade unions. Because social workers were largely volunteers in the early 1900s, there was little impetus to organize themselves into a union. Despite their active involvement in the union activities, early social workers were sympathizers rather than union members. Social work’s relation with organized labor can be traced to four periods: (i) the voluntary beginnings of the social work profession marked the beginning of social action and union support (Davis 1965, cited under the under the Professionalization of Social Work, 1900–1920); (ii) the professionalization of social work in the 1920s (Lubove 1965, cited under the Professionalization of Social Work, 1900–1920); (iii) the Great Depression and the halcyon days of radical social work unionization (Fisher 1980, cited under the Great Depression of the 1930s); and (iv) social work’s integration into mainstream trade union movement. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there were approximately 650,500 social workers in the United States in 2010, a number that seems exaggerated in light of the only 660 accredited bachelor and master degree programs in social work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics further estimates that 20 percent of social workers and 24 percent of community and social services workers are unionized. Despite Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates, it is impossible to gauge the actual number of unionized professionally trained social workers in the United States. First, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) does not gather information on unionized social workers. Second, most social workers are ensconced in large bargaining units that are rarely broken down into discrete employee classifications. Third, the category of “social worker” is vague. For example, many states that license social workers mandate that the title can only be used by degreed social workers; other states that license social workers exempt public sector employees that hold social work-like titles from licensing requirements. This entry focuses on social work unionization and the stages through which it has passed.

General Overviews

The literature on social work unions is modest compared to child protection, aging, multicultural practice, and so forth. Most of the literature was published in the 1930s and then again in the 1960s through the 1980s, the heydays of interest in social work unions. The only book directly related to social work and unions is Karger 1988. Other sources include Karger 2008 and Tambor 1995 in various editions of the Encyclopedia of Social Work. Karger 2009 looks at social work strikes throughout the short history of the profession. Kolko-Phillips and Straussner 1988 examines the relation between social work and labor unions, and Rosenberg and Rosenberg 2006 looks at the broader implications of social work unionization. Karger 1989 examines the challenges unionization poses to social service administrators. Finally, the National Association of Social Workers 1996 addresses social work unionization and professionalism, albeit with some conditions.

  • Karger, Howard J. 1988. Social work and labor unions. New York: Greenwood.

    The only book written exclusively about social work and labor unions. The book is divided into three headings: (i) common and conflicting goals of labor and social work; (ii) unions and social service agencies; and (iii) ethics, struggle, anti-unionism, and the future. Chapters include unions and social work licensure; the compatibility of labor and social work; labor laws and social workers; privatization and unionized social workers; and ethical dilemmas.

  • Karger, Howard J. 1989. Social service administration and the challenge of unionization. Administration in Social Work 13.3–4: 199–218.

    DOI: 10.1300/J147v13n03_10

    This article explores the challenges confronting administrators when social work personnel unionize. The article contests common stereotypes about unionization and the traditional wisdom that views management and unions as adversaries. It also explores new forms for labor–management relations. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Karger, Howard J. 2008. Unions. In Encyclopedia of social work. Vol. 4, S–Y, biographies, index. 20th ed. Edited by Terry Mizrachi and Larry Davis, 308–311. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Overview of the common goals, tensions, and obstacles around professionalism and social work unionization. The entry also looks at the incipient anti-union sentiment in social work, the impact of privatized social services on unionization, and the effects of business unionism on professional issues.

  • Karger, Howard J. 2009. Social workers and strikes. In Encyclopedia of strikes in American history. Edited by Aaron Brenner, Benjamin Day, and Immanuel Ness, 287–294. Armonk, NY: Sharpe.

    An encyclopedia entry that provides an overview of the role of labor unrest in social work history. The entry provides a sweeping examination of the major issues around social work unionization.

  • Kolko-Phillips, Norma, and Shulamith Lala Straussner. 1988. The relationship between social work and labor unions: A history of strife and cooperation. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare 15:105–118.

    This article examines the changing (and ambivalent) historical relationship between social work and organized labor. Particular emphasis is placed on the relationship among social work, private industry, and unionization. Particular focus is on the 1870s to 1940s. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • National Association of Social Workers. 1996. NASW code of ethics. Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers.

    The NASW Code of Ethics reaffirms the right of social workers to join and participate in labor union activities, albeit with some considerations.

  • Rosenberg, Jessica, and Samuel Rosenberg. 2006. Do unions matter? An examination of the historical and contemporary role of labor unions in the social work profession. Social Work 51.4: 295–302.

    DOI: 10.1093/sw/51.4.295

    This article examines the often ambivalent relationship between social workers and labor unions. Also examined is the extent to which unions represent the interests of professional social workers. The authors examine a potential collaboration between the social work profession and unions. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Tambor, Milton. 1995. Unions. In Encyclopedia of social work. Vol. 3. 19th ed. Edited by Richard L. Edwards, 2418–2426. Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers.

    A good overview of the relationship between social work and labor unions. Tambor is a social worker, activist, and former union official.

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