Labor Unionism (Issue)

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A modern U.S. labor union is an organized body of workers banded together to better their standard of living by seeking higher wages and improved working conditions. Workers authorize their union representatives to negotiate with their employers in a process known as collective bargaining. If negotiation fails, the workmen often attempt to achieve their goals through strikes (withholding their labor) or by persuading others to boycott their employer's products.

Unions first appeared in the 1820s. They were usually small, local, and short-lived. As the factory system grew in the mid-19th century so did the need for workers' organizations. Before the Civil War (186165) such groups remained small and localized. But after the war efforts were made to form labor unions on a national scale.

The first such effort began in 1866 when several trade unions sent delegates to a convention in Baltimore. Under the leadership of William H. Sylvis this group formed the National Labor Union. The organization grew rapidly and by 1872 it claimed 600,000 members. Its main issue was the eight-hour day, a demand that was regarded as extremely radical. The National Labor Union experienced success for a short time, but numerous factors combined to destroy it: Sylvis' death in 1869, the union's conversion to a political party in 1872, and the panic of 1873.

The next major effort began in Philadelphia in 1869. Under the leadership of garment maker Uriah S. Stephens six men founded the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor. Their platform called for the eight-hour day, an income tax, and workmen's compensation. Stephens maintained that such tactics as strikes were counter-productive, and advocated "education" as the proper means for workers to achieve their goals.

The Knights were structured on the "one big union" concept; all workers were welcome to join. The membership could include the skilled and unskilled, men and women, and people of all races. This broad inclusion policy was a radical idea at the time and eventually led to serious internal tensions.

Because Stephens feared counter-measures by employers, the organization was secret at first and growth was slow. By 1873 there were only three assemblies, all in Philadelphia. Ten years later the Knights had only 52,000 members. However they expanded rapidly after this initial period. By 1886 membership neared one million. This remarkable change occurred because the union veered away from Stephens' original principles and authorized its members to strike. Its reputation was enhanced when it won several of them, especially against railroad companies in Texas.

The Knights of Labor had no sooner reached their peak of growth than they fell into a rapid decline. Unsuccessful strikes undermined their prestige, which was further damaged by factional differences and financial problems. In addition the Knights faced competition from a new organization known as the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

The origins of the AFL go back to November 1881 when delegates representing the carpenters, cigar makers, printers, merchant seamen, and steelworkers gathered in Pittsburgh. They formed a new organization called The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. Their purpose was to work for pro-labor legislation. One of the most prominent among the founders was Samuel Gompers of the Cigar Makers Union, who was now beginning his long career as head of the U.S. labor movement. At first, the Federation did not accomplish much, but after it reorganized in 1886, a new era in the history of the labor movement began.

The modern U.S. labor movement started with the reorganization of American Federation that took place in Columbus, Ohio on December 8, 1886. Samuel Gompers was elected as president, and the union was structured according to his wishes. Gompers insisted that the organization represent skilled workers only, that it be built as a federation of autonomous trade unions, that it stay out of politics, that it avoid radical economic themes, and that it devote itself to working for attainable goals. These goals included the eight-hour day, child labor legislation, workplace safety, immigration restriction, and workmen's' compensation.

The AFL grew slowly at first. By 1890 it claimed only 100,000 members, but by 1900 membership had risen to 548,000, and by 1914 it was approaching two million. Along the way the AFL attracted some very large unions such as the United Mine Workers (UMW, founded in 1890). But there were other large organizations that did not affiliate. Most notable among these were the Railroad Brotherhoods: the Engineers formed in 1863 and the Firemen formed in 1869.

During its early years of growth the AFL faced considerable opposition. Employers were not required by law to bargain with unions and some refused to even recognize their existence. Strikes were often met with a violent response and many court decisions went against labor. The public tolerated such actions because unions were successfully portrayed as un-American and the law tended to uphold property rights more often than human rights.

Still led by Samuel Gompers, organized labor in the United States generally cooperated with the government during World War I (191418). Union membership continued to grow, reaching nearly four million. After the war however there was a decline of 25 percent, which resulted mainly from a recession between 1921 and 1922 that cost jobs and lowered wages. As the decade of the twenties continued, employers tended to fight the union movement more vigorously. One of their chief weapons was the "company union," an in-house organization that provided benefits but did not allow bargaining. Such "unions" became very popular in the 1920s and contributed to the decline of the labor movement. By 1927 AFL membership had fallen to 2 million, 11.6 percent of the work force.

The Great Depression of the 1930s brought major changes. Between 1929 and 1933 the effects of the economic collapse on labor were catastrophic. But when Franklin Delano Roosevelt (193345) became president he inaugurated the New Deal; many New Deal programs were designed to benefit workers. The most important of these was the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which required employers to bargain collectively with union representatives chosen by the workers. This law triggered a boom in union membership, which by 1941 reached 27 percent of the total work force.

At the same time there were other major changes within the labor movement. Head of the United Mine Workers John L. Lewis demanded that the AFL begin organizing campaigns in the major non-union industries such as steel, automobiles, rubber, glass, textiles, and meat packing. Lewis wanted to organize these industries on the industrial or "vertical" basis. This meant that all the workers regardless of skill would be in one union. The majority of AFL leaders presided over craft or "horizontal" unions, and they opposed Lewis's views.

In November 1935 Lewis announced the creation of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) to carry on the effort for industrial unions. Lewis and his colleagues were expelled from the AFL in 1936. At this point the CIO became the Congress of Industrial Organizations. They continued their work and successfully organized unions in many mass production industries including steel, autos, rubber, glass, and meat-packing. These successes contributed to the rapid growth of the labor movement. The AFL and the CIO however remained separate and did not reunite until 1955.

World War II (193945) caused a labor shortage and strengthened the labor movement once again. During the war union membership rose fifty percent, until it reached 35.3 percent of the total work force, the highest it would ever be. Beginning in the 1950s the labor movement entered a long but gradual period of decline, which was caused by a leadership that no longer recruited aggressively, a loss of interest in social reform, technological and structural unemployment, and growing public animosity. Technological and structural employment were perhaps the most important reasons labor unions became less popular. Because of increased use of machines the number of available jobs declined in many industries. A majority of jobs shifted from the industrial sector to white collar and service sectors. By the 1990s only 16.1 percent of workers worked in factories whereas in the 1970s it was 25.8 percent. Fewer people on corporate payrolls meant fewer people in unions because these are the workers most likely to sign industry-wide contracts.

By the 1990s the labor movement had changed considerably. Only 14.1 percent of the work force belonged to unions. Of these the vast majority held non-industrial jobs: 41.9 percent were in the public sector and only 16.3 percent were in the manufacturing sector. The chances that these trends will reverse again any time soon are very small.

See also: American Federation of Labor, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Congress of Industrial Organizations, Industrial Workers of the World, Knights of Labor, Labor Movement


Aronowitz, Stanley. From the Ashes of the Old: American Labor and America's Future. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

Dubofsky, Melvin, and Van Tine, Warren. John L. Lewis: A Biography. New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Book Company, 1977.

Faulkner, Harold U. American Economic History. New York: Harper, 1954.

Hirsch, Barry T. and Macpherson, David A. Union Membership and Earnings: Data Book. Washington: Bureau of National Affairs, 1998.

Kaufman, Stuart. Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor, 18481896. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1973.

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Labor Unionism (Issue)

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