Labor Unions Essay, Research Paper
GROWTH OF THE FACTORY
In colonial America, most of the manufacturing was done by hand in a home. Labor
took place in workshops attached to the side of a home. As towns grew into
cities, the demand for manufactured goods increased. Some workshop owners began
hiring helpers to increase production. Relations between the employer and helper
were generally harmonious. They worked side by side, had the same interests and
held similar political views.
The factory system that began around the mid 1800’s brought great changes. The
employers no longer worked beside their employees. They became executives and
merchants who rarely saw their workers. They were less concerned with their
welfare than with the cost of their labor. Many workers were angry about the
changes brought by the factory system. In the past, they had taken great pride
in their handicraft skills, and now machines did most of the work, and they were
reduced from the status of craft workers to common laborers. The were also
replaced by workers who would accept lower wages. The Industrial Revolution
meant degradation rather than progress.
As the factory system grew, many workers began to form labor unions to protect
their interests. The first union to hold regular meetings and collect dues was
organized by Philadelphia shoemakers in 1792. Soon after, carpenters and
leather workers in Boston and printers in New York also organized unions.
Labor’s tactics in those early times were simple. Members of a union would
agree on the wages they thought were fair. They pledged to stop working for
employers who would not pay that amount. They also sought to compel employers
to hire only union members.
Employers found the courts to be an effective weapon to protect their interests.
In 1806, eight Philadelphia shoemakers were brought to trial after leading an
unsuccessful strike. The court ruled that any organizing of workers to raise
wages was an illegal act. Unions were “conspiracies” against employers and the
community. In later cases, courts ruled that almost any action taken by unions
to increase wages might be criminal. These decisions destroyed the
effectiveness of the nation’s early labor unions.
Not until 1842 was the way opened again for workers to organize. That year
several union shoemakers in Boston were brought to trial. They were charged
with refusing to work with non-union shoemakers. A municipal court judge found
the men guilty of conspiracy. But an appeal to a higher court resulted in a
victory for labor unions generally. Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw ruled that it was
not unlawful for workers to engage peacefully in union activity. It was their
right to organize, he said. Shaw’s decision was widely accepted. For many years
following this decision, unions did not have to fear conspiracy charges.
In the next two decades, unions campaigned for a 10-hour working day and against
child labor. A number of state legislatures responded favorably. In 1851, for
example, New Jersey passed a law calling for a 10-hour working day in all
factories. It also forbade the employment of children under 10 years old.
Meanwhile trade unions were joining together in cities to form federations. A
number of skilled trades organized national unions to try to improve their
wages and working conditions. The effort to increase wages brought about
hundreds of strikes during the 1850s. None was as extensive, however, as a
strike of New England shoemakers in 1860. The strike started in Lynn,
Massachusetts, when factory workers were refused a three-dollar increase in
their weekly pay. It soon spread to Maine and New Hampshire. Altogether, about
20,000 workers took part in the strike. It ended in a victory for the
shoemakers. Similar victories were soon won by other trade unions. These
successes led to big increases in union membership. Yet most American workers
were generally better off than workers in Europe and had more hope of improving
their lives. For this reason, the majority did not join labor unions.
In the years following the Civil War (1861-1865), the United States was
transformed by the enormous growth of industry. Once the United States was
mainly a nation of small farms. By 1900, it was a nation of growing cities, of
coal and steel, of engines and fast communications. Though living standards
generally rose, millions of industrial workers lived in crowded, unsanitary
slums. Their conditions became desperate in times of business depressions. Then
it was not unusual for workers to go on strike and battle their employers.
Between 1865 and 1900, industrial violence occurred on numerous occasions.
Probably the most violent confrontation between labor and employers was the
Great Railway Strike of 1877. The nation had been in the grip of a severe
depression for four years. During that time, the railroads had decreased the
wages of railway workers by 20 percent. Many trainmen complained that they
could not support their families adequately. There was little that the trainmen
could do about the wage decreases. At that time, unions were weak and workers
feared going on strike; there were too many unemployed men who might take their
jobs. Yet some workers secretly formed a Trainmen’s Union to oppose the
Then, in 1877, four big railroads announced that they were going to decrease
wages another 10 percent. In addition, the Pennsylvania line ordered freight
train conductors to handle twice as many cars as before. On July 16, a strike
began on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in West Virginia. The strike quickly
spread to other lines. On July 19, Pennsylvania Railroad workers at Pittsburgh
refused to let freight trains move. (The strikers let passenger trains move
freely because they carried United States mail.) The next day the governor sent
statemilitiamen to oust the strikers from the freight yard. But these men were
from Pittsburgh. They had many friends and relatives among the strikers. Soon
they were mingling with the crowd of men, women and children at the freight yard.
The next day 600 militiamen arrived from Philadelphia. They were ordered to
clear the tracks at the freight yard. The soldiers advanced toward the crowd
and shooting erupted. In the aftermath, 20 people in the crowd lay dead. Many
more were wounded. News of the killings triggered rioting and fires in the
Pittsburgh railyards. President Rutherford Hayes ordered federal troops to
Pittsburgh to end mob violence. When they arrived, the fighting had already
ended. In the smoking ruins, they found the wrecks of more than 2,000 railroad
cars. Dozens of buildings lay in ashes.
Many strikers were sent to jail and others lost their jobs. A large part of the
public was shocked by the violence in Pittsburgh and other cities. Some people
were convinced that miners, railroad workers and other laborers were common
criminals. Legislatures in many states passed new conspiracy laws aimed at
suppressing labor. But the Great Railway Strike of 1877 helped the workers in
some ways. A few railroads took back the wage cuts they had ordered. More
important was the support given to the strike by miners, iron workers and
others. It gave labor an awareness of its strength and solidarity.
KNIGHTS OF LABOR
The Railway Strike led many workers to join a growing national labor
organization. It had a grand name–the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of
Labor. It was founded in 1869 by a small group of Philadelphia clothing workers.
Their union had been unable to organize effectively. The reason, they believed,
was that its members were too well-known. Employers fired them and then put
their names on a “blacklist.” Other employers would not hire anyone whose name
appeared on the list. The garment workers came to two conclusions:
Secrecy was needed to protect union members against employer spies.
Labor organizations would fail if they were divided into separate craft unions.
Instead, labor should be organized in one big union of both skilled and
Membership in the Knights of Labor was open to wage earners over 18 years of age
regardless of race, sex or skill. New members had to take an oath of secrecy.
They swore that they would never reveal the name of the order or the names of
The program of the Knights of Labor called for: an eight-hour working day, laws
establishing a minimum weekly wage, the use of arbitration rather than strikes
to settle disputes, laws to protect the health and safety of industrial workers,
equal pay for equal work, an end to child labor under 14 years of age and
government ownership of railroads, telegraphs and telephones.
It was impossible for the Knights to operate in complete secrecy. Rumors of
their activities reached the press. Newspaper stories usually exaggerated the
strength of the order. Under pressure from public opinion, the Knights began to
operate openly. But they were still forbidden to reveal the name of any member
to an employer.
Membership in the Knights increased slowly. By 1884, the order had only 52,000
members. But that year workers led by Knights of Labor organizers went on
strike against two big railroad companies. Both strikes ended in complete
victories for the Knights. Now workers everywhere rushed to join the order.
Within two years membership in the Knights rose to 150,000. Newspapers warned
their readers about the power of the Knights. One of them said, “Their leaders
can shut most of the mills and factories, and disable the railroads.” Many
people associated the order with dangerous radicals.
Later railroad strikes by the Knights met with defeat. The order was not nearly
as powerful as it had seemed. Workers began to leave it in great numbers.
Within 10 years of its greatest victories, the Knights of Labor collapsed.
“BREAD AND BUTTER” UNIONISM
As the Knights declined, a new labor organization began to challenge it for
supremacy. This was the American Federation of Labor (AFL). It was formed in
1886 by Samuel Gompers, a leader of the Cigarmakers’ Union.
Gompers believed that craft unions of skilled workers were the best kind.
Unskilled workers were easily replaced when they went on strike. Craft workers
could not be replaced easily. Gompers had no use for the Knights of Labor,
which combined all workers in one big union.
The American Federation of Labor began with a core of six craft unions. They
were cigarmakers, carpenters, printers, iron molders, steel molders and
glassmakers. The new organization was not an immediate success. For 10 years,
the AFL and the Knights battled each other. They invaded each other’s territory,
encouraged revolts and welcomed each other’s members into their own ranks. They
even supplied strikebreakers against each other. But the tide was running
against the Knights. The AFL, led by Gompers, grew steadily in size and power.
By 1904, it had 1.75 million members and was the nation’s dominant labor
At this time, many workers in Europe were joining revolutionary labor movements
which advocated the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of a new
socialist economic system. Most American workers, however, followed the lead of
Gompers, with his highly pragmatic approach to problems of labor. They strove
to organize strong unions so that they could demand a greater share in the
wealth that they helped to produce. They were not interested in destroying the
economic structure of the country but in making it work more effectively for
Gompers believed that unions should be primarily concerned with the day-to-day
welfare of their members and should not become involved in politics. He also
was convinced that socialism would not succeed in the United States but that
practical demands for higher wages and fewer working hours could achieve the
goal of a better life for working people. This was known as “bread and butter”
There was one outstanding exception to the pragmatic “bread and butter” approach
to unionism which characterized most of American labor. This was the Industrial
Workers of the World (IWW), a revolutionary labor union launched in Chicago in
1905 under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs. The IWW the overthrow of
capitalism through strikes, boycotts and sabotage. Particularly strong among
textile workers, dock workers, migratory farmers and lumberjacks, the union
reached its peak membership of 100,000 in 1912. The IWW had practically
disappeared by 1918, because of federal prosecutions and a national sentiment
against radicalism which began in 1917.
In the early years of the 20th century, a powerful reform movement called
Progressivism swept the country. Its leaders were college professors, ministers,
journalists, physicians and social workers. Their goal was to improve
conditions for all Americans. They wanted to make the political system more
egalitarian. They also wanted to make the nation’s economic system more
democratic. Those who owned the nation’s resources, they said, should share
some of their wealth with the less fortunate. The movement appealed to farmers,
small businessmen, women and laborers. It cut across political party and
regional lines. The Progressive Movement had the support of three United States
presidents: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson.
The Progressives were concerned about labor’s problems. They were alarmed by the
growing use of court rulings to halt strikes. In 1890, for example, Congress
passed the Sherman Anti-trust Act. Its purpose was to punish big business
corporations that combined to prevent competition. Yet more and more it was
being used as a weapon against unions. The Progressives were unhappy about the
use of federal troops and state militia against strikers. They were outraged by
inhuman conditions in factories and mines.
The Progressives and the AFL pressured state governments for laws to protect
wage earners. Almost all states passed laws forbidding the employment of
children under 14 years old. Thirty-seven states forbade children under 16
years old to work between 7p.m. and 6a.m. Nineteen states established the
eight-hour day for children under 16 in factories and stores.
The Progressives were also concerned with the hours worked by women in industry.
Forty-one states wrote new or improved laws to protect women workers. Most
limited the work day to nine hours, or the work week to 54 hours.
One of the greatest concerns of the Progressives was the problem of industrial
accidents. They wanted workers to be paid for accidents regardless of cause.
The cost of insurance to cover accidents, they said, should be paid by
employers. By 1917, 13 states had passed workers’ compensation laws. Many
states passed laws to improve safety regulations.
The alliance of Progressives and the AFL also campaigned for federal laws to aid
labor. In response, Congress passed laws to protect children, railroad workers
and seamen. It established a Department of Labor in the president’s Cabinet.
Most important of all, Congress passed the Clayton Act of 1914. Its purpose was
to halt the use of antitrust laws and court injunctions against unions.
During World War I, organized labor made great advances. The federal government
created the War Labor Board to settle disputes by arbitration. Generally the
Board was favorable to wage increases, the eight-hour day and collective
bargaining. This led to a big increase in union membership. In January 1917,
the AFL had 2,370,000 members. By January 1919, it had 3,260,000 members.
RED SCARES AND DEPRESSION
As the 1920s began, organized labor seemed stronger than ever. It was successful
in getting Congress to pass laws that restricted immigration to the United
States. Unions believed that a scarcity of labor would keep wages high. But
events that took place in Europe were already threatening labor’s gains. In
1917, a communist revolution overthrew the government of Russia. Communists also
attempted revolutions in Germany, Hungary and Finland.
Immigrants entering the United States at this time were primarily from southern
and eastern Europe. Many of them, in response to the economic hardship and
social inequality which they found in America’s industrial cities, were
attracted to the utopian promises of socialist, communist and other radical
political groups which advocated a drastic change in American society. There
was widespread fear–almost hysteria–among more established Americans that a
revolution might break out in the United States. In response to this fear, the
federal government launched a series of raids which resulted in the arrest and
sometimes the deportation of aliens who were members of socialist, anarchist or
communist organizations. About 500 aliens, including Russian-born anarchist
“Red Emma” Goldman, were deported during this period. A number of them, like
Goldman, rejected Bolshevism as they experienced it in the Soviet Union and
later returned to the United States.
Meanwhile, workers were striking for higher wages all over the United States.
Many Americans believed that these strikes were led by communists and
anarchists. During the Progressive era, the public had sympathized with labor.
Now the public became hostile to it. Employers encouraged anti-union movements,
or created company unions that they sought to control. Courts found legal
openings in the Clayton Act and issued rulings against union activity. The
courts also found ways to use the Sherman Anti-trust Act against unions.
Opposed by public opinion, business and the courts, union membership fell. The
number of AFL members dropped to 2,770,000 by 1929. This decline took place even
though the number of workers in industry rose by almost seven million.
For most Americans, the 1920s were prosperous years. But in October 1929, the
New York stock market “crashed,” and the value of stocks went way down. The
crash, part of a worldwide economic decline, led to the worst economic
depression in the nation’s history. People lost their jobs, their farms and
their businesses. By 1932, 13 million men and women were unemployed. This was
one out of every four in the work force. Many more workers had only part-time
jobs. In the cities, jobless men stood on long lines for a handout of bread and
soup. Many of them lived in shanties near garbage dumps. Men and boys roamed
the country, hoping to find work.
In the past, depressions had usually hurt unions. Unemployment meant a sharp
drop in workers’ dues. Then unions became almost powerless to prevent decreases
in wages or long working hours. But in the Great Depression of the 1930s,
unions actually benefited. In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, promised
Americans a “New Deal.” He pledged to help the “forgotten man”–the worker who
had lost his job, or the farmer who had lost his land.
Under Roosevelt, Congress passed laws to revive business and create jobs. To
help labor, Congress passed the Wagner Act. It guaranteed workers the right to
join unions and bargain collectively. The law created a powerful National Labor
Relations Board (NLRB). The Board could order elections in which workers voted
for the union they wanted to represent them. (Workers could vote against joining
any union, if they wished.) The NLRB could also order a stop to unfair
practices used by employers against unions.
Union leaders hailed the Wagner Act. It provided a great opportunity to increase
union membership. But the drive was delayed at first by a dispute within the
American Federation of Labor. The AFL was made up mainly of skilled workers
organized into craft unions. But millions of unskilled workers were in giant
industries like steel, autos, rubber and textiles. Some labor leaders believed
that a single union should represent all the workers, skilled and unskilled.
One big industrial union would be much stronger than a dozen different craft
unions, they said.
FROM THE CIO TO TAFT-HARTLEY
Most leaders of the AFL were opposed to the idea of industrial unions. They made
no effort to organize them. Finally Lewis and other union leaders broke away
from the AFL. They formed a new labor organization that became the Congress of
Industrial Organizations (CIO).
One of the first targets of the CIO was the auto industry. Workers at the
General Motors factories in Flint, Michigan, eagerly joined the CIO’s United
Automobile Workers (UAW) union. They demanded that the company recognize the
UAW. But officers of General Motors refused to meet with union representatives.
This was a violation of the Wagner Act. In January 1937, the UAW called a strike
against the company.
The tactics used by the auto workers took the company by surprise. The workers
refused to leave the factories. Instead, they put away their tools and sat down.
They did this to prevent strikebreakers from taking their jobs. At night the
men slept on the seats of new cars. Food was passed to them through windows by
General Motors tried to force the workers out. The company shut off the heat in
the factories. It was winter, but the workers stayed. Police tried to break
into one of the factories. The strikers drove them back by throwing soda
bottles, coffee mugs and iron bolts. Then the police charged with tear gas bombs.
This time the workers drove them back by turning fire hoses on them.
Finally General Motors went to court and got a ruling against the strikers. The
workers were ordered to leave the GM factories by February 3. The National
Guard (militiamen) was alerted to enforce the order. Everyone expected a big
battle on February 3, but it didn’t happen. Governor Frank Murphy refused to
order an attack on the strikers. Instead, he ordered General Motors officers to
hold peace talks with the UAW. President Roosevelt also asked for a peaceful
end to the strike. A week later General Motors recognized the union and agreed
to bargain with it. The UAW and the CIO had won a major victory.
Within two years, the CIO organized 3,750,000 industrial workers. The AFL met
the challenge of the CIO with an organizing drive of its own. By the end of
1937, the AFL had 3,400,000 members.
During the 1930s, Congress enacted other reforms that benefited labor:
The Social Security Act of 1935 created a system of government-sponsored
unemployment insurance and old-age pensions.
The Fair Labor Standards Act regulated wages and hours. Minimum wages were
established to help workers maintain a decent standard of living. Hours were
shortened to give them more time for leisure. The law also forbade the labor of
children under 16 in most occupations.
Unemployment in the United States remained high until the United States entered
World War II in 1941. Then, defense industries boomed, and millions of men
entered the armed forces. By 1943, unemployment ended and industry was faced
with a shortage of labor. During the Great Depression, women were urged not to
take jobs. Now they were encouraged to go to work. Before long, one out of four
workers in defense industries was a woman.
During World War II, labor cooperated with government and industry. Its spirit
was expressed by John L. Lewis, president of the CIO. “When the nation is
attacked,” he said, “every American must rally to its defense.”
When peace came, a wave of strikes for higher wages swept the nation. Employers
became alarmed. They said that the Wagner Act had given labor too much power. A
majority in the United States Congress agreed with them. In 1947, Congress
passed the Taft-Hartley Act. It contained a number of provisions to limit
organized labor. One of them outlawed the “closed shop” agreement which required
employers to hire only union members. It also permitted the states to pass
“right to work” laws. These laws forbade agreements that required workers to
join a union after they were hired.
Labor leaders bitterly denounced the Taft-Hartley Act. They said it was meant to
destroy unions. Despite their fears, membership in unions continued to grow. By
1952, it had increased to 17 million.
Leaders of the AFL and the CIO merged their organizations in 1955. The combined
organization became the AFL-CIO.
In recent years there has been a steady decline in the percentage of workers who
belong to labor unions. In 1945, 35 percent of the work force were union
members. In 1988, less than 17 percent of the labor force–or 17 million
workers–were unionized. There are several reasons for this, including:
The decline of heavy industry (once a stronghold of unionism) and the increase
of advanced-technology industries.
Automation and other technological changes that have displaced many blue-collar
workers. Foreign competition, which has depressed some United States industries
and increased unemployment.
The transition to a “post-industrial” economy in the United States. Ever
increasing numbers of workers are employed in service-providing businesses,
such as hotels, restaurants and retail stores.
Despite the decline in members, organized labor in the United States remains
strong and conditions of America’s labor force have steadily improved. The
length of the work day has been shortened. Many agreements between employers
and wage earners now call for less than 40 hours of work a week. Most agreements
have generous “fringe” benefits. These include and seasonal farm workers.
By the early 1990s, the work force was changing. First. the pool of workers was
no longer expanding as rapidly as in the past. And, second, the composition of
the labor force was different, consisting of a larger percentage of minorities
and women than before. Employers are adapting to this work force diversity in
several ways. Some sponsor education and training programs for potential
recruits. Many, in an attempt to attract and accommodate insurance, pensions and
health care plans. As the number of union members has decreased as a percentage
of the total work force, unions have responded by broadening their organizing
efforts to include employees of federal, state and local governments as well as
other professionals. Organizers have also waged long campaigns to unionize and
win better conditions for such diverse groups as public school teachers women
workers, provide on-site child care, and flexible hours. Others make special
arrangements so they can hire more handicapped workers. One hotel chain, for
example, uses lighted telephones and vibrating beepers so they can hire more
As the work force has changed, so have some–but not all–labor-management
issues. Unions now want laws to strengthen their right to strike by prohibiting
companies from hiring permanent replacements for striking workers. Employers
want the right to test workers for drug use. There is also growing sentiment
that all employers should be required to provide adequate health insurance to
their workers–which most, but not all, already do. Many workers are fighting
for the right to take unpaid leave when they have babies or when a family member
is ill and needs extensive care. And, as the unemployment rate has climbed
(over 6 percent in 1990), there is growing sentiment that the government should
help create jobs–through public works programs, job training programs and tax
credits for employers in areas of high unemployment.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Brody, David. Workers in Industrial America: Essays on the Twentieth Century
Struggle. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Fink, Gary M., ed. Biographical Dictionary of American Labor. 2nd ed. Westport,
CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.
Fink, Gary M., ed. Labor Unions. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977.
Kessler-Harris, Alice. Out to Work: A History of America’s Wage-Earning Women.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Morris, Richard B., ed. A History of the American Worker. Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1983.