Unions are organizations of wage earners designed to better working conditions and give laborers a collective voice in the contract bargaining procedure.
Unions emerged from the early trade associations built by workers confronting the effects of the industrial revolution. In 1790, New York City was a center of commerce, but not yet an industrial city. It was also a city divided by class, property, and power. On the one hand, a wealthy class of traders and financiers had developed during the pre-revolutionary period and controlled the city’s international commerce. They were merchant capitalists who made their money through import and export, buying commodities cheaply in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas, and selling them dearly in the United States; or they bought native-made products and exported them for profit to the rest of the world. Through this process they accumulated wealth, or capital, that they then reinvested in their businesses.
On the other hand, there were artisans, skilled craftsmen (including printers, blacksmiths, brick-layers, and carpenters) who produced many of the commodities necessary for early urban life. These artisans inhabited a world of tradition inherited from the guild systems of Europe. Rather than hiring employees, the master craftsmen took on apprentices who worked for a given period of years (usually six or seven), receiving room and board as recompense rather than a wage or salary. After the apprenticeship ended, workers became journeymen. After several years of wage labor, the journeymen, in turn, expected to become master craftsmen. Finally, there were unskilled laborers who worked for a wage. During this early republican period, craft workers created trade associations. Carpenters organized together, print-makers, and bricklayers. These early trade associations included masters, journeymen, and apprentices; and all three groups of skilled workers felt a unity of purpose, a community of art, and a common social bond. But these associations were not yet trade unions.
Modern trade unions emerged only after the industrial revolution began to take shape. Because of New York’s pivotal place as a trading center in the world economy, the merchant class began to accumulate capital. With their coffers enriched by the import-export trade, some of these merchants began to set up their own workshops to manufacture the goods usually made by skilled craftsmen. These workshops proved to be efficient and highly profitable. Thus, some of the wealthier artisans followed suit, transforming their own tradition-bound workshops into early modern versions of the manufacturing plant. While in the older craft workshops, the apprentice and the journeyman were bound to the master by traditional ties and communal associations, in these new proto-industrial workshops, the relationship between the master and the journeyman or apprentice was increasingly governed by a wage. The master hired the men he needed, paid them by the hour, and dismissed them if they were unnecessary. As masters became increasingly wealthy, the social and economic space between masters and journeymen likewise increased.
Soon the journeymen were organizing their own associations; and by the 1820s, journeymen associations began to strike against their masters for higher wages, better working conditions, and rudimentary social benefits. From these early journeymen associations, the modern trade union movement was born.
At the same time, as a direct result of these new economic forces, poverty increased, male laborers found their livelihoods increasingly precarious, and women began to enter the formal workforce. Excluded from the all-male craft associations, New York women worked in occupations generally associated with the household labor that they had done for centuries. They became street corner vendors, provisioners selling prepared foods, prostitutes, midwives, nurses, and seamstresses. As the workshop system advanced, and as technological change and new machines transformed textile labor, women textile laborers increasingly worked in early factories. In New York, in Baltimore, in Philadelphia, and in Massachusetts, women in various trades began organizing their own trade unions. And in 1825, New York seamstresses organized the first all-women’s strike in the United States.
At first, these women trade unionists enjoyed considerable support from male wageworkers and male dominated trade unions. But that soon changed. Between 1834 and 1836, one of the first attempts to affiliate all trade unions within the borders of the United States took place with the conventions of the National Trades’ Union (NTU). The NTU addressed the issue of women wage earners. While many of the conventions’ delegates were labor radicals who advocated the abolition of the wage system and a rudimentary notion of economic democracy, these male trade unionists also objected to the “degradation” of women in factory work. Constructing a discourse based upon what one labor historian has called “a species of radical paternalism,” the NTU delegates sought to “protect” women from the ravages of capitalism. But that “protection” amounted to nothing less than an exclusion of women from union activity, except in a supporting or auxiliary role, as the wives, mothers, and daughters of good union men. The brief moment of inter-gender trade union cooperation ended and would not reappear in full force for another hundred years.
Despite early attempts at a national organization, such as the NTU, it was not until 1869 that laborers were able to come together in a truly effective national trade union, the Knights of Labor. During this period, employers and the state attempted to repress union organization through legal and extralegal means, including blacklisting, court injunctions, labor spies, and firings. Thus the Knights were originally a quasi-secret organization. But by the 1880s, with almost one million members, the Knights shed much of their secrecy and became one of the most influential labor organizations of the late nineteenth century. The Knights actively recruited women, African American, and Hispanic workers. They fought for and helped effect the abolition of child labor, the eight-hour workday, equal pay for equal work, women’s rights, and the Labor Day holiday. They advocated combining all craft associations into one big union that would protect the rights of all working people.
The power of the Knights of Labor ended in 1886, during the Haymarket Affair. After the Knights helped organize a general strike in Chicago, police fired into a large protest rally held by workers, killing four people. The next day, a group of anarchists held a rally in Haymarket Square protesting police actions. Someone— it is still unclear whether it was a police spy or an anarchist protester—threw a bomb into a group of police officers, killing eight. In turn, the police fired into the crowd of protesters, killing another eight and wounding more than one hundred others. In the following days, radicals, anarchists, and unionists were rounded up by state and local authorities; some were indicted and tried for conspiracy. The age of the Knights of Labor came to an end with one of the first “Red Scares” in American history. This was a pattern that would be repeated over and again for the next sixty years.
As the twentieth century approached, the Knights of Labor left an ambiguous legacy for the American labor movement. On the one hand, their repression by the government led to the moderate craft unionism of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). On the other hand, the forms of radical solidarity promoted by the Knights found a new life in the syndicalism of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known as Wobblies.
Samuel Gompers founded the American Federation of Labor in 1886 as a craft union federation that organized skilled workers. In other words, the AFL attempted to protect the privileges of a small segment of the American working class, often at the expense of less privileged, unskilled wage-workers. When the First World War began, the AFL issued a no-strike pledge, promising to keep industry working for the war effort. In return, the Woodrow Wilson administration began to actively support union organizing efforts. Between 1915 and 1920, union membership in the United States doubled. But the AFL’s increasing reliance upon governmental support further encouraged the moderate, responsible unionism that already distinguished this organization from the more radical efforts of the Knight of Labor.
In contrast, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), founded in 1905 by a group of radical activists and Socialist Party leaders, had a vision of unionization far different from the moderate program advanced by Gompers’s AFL. While the AFL sought to organize and protect the privileges of skilled craft workers, the Wobblies promoted the organization of all industrial workers, skilled and unskilled, into one big union. Further, the Wobblies were influenced by the European syndicalist tradition. A close cousin of anarchism, syndicalism was a set of political ideologies that sought to transform capitalism through direct action at the point of production. With slow-downs, work-to-rules actions, sabotage and strikes, syndicalists argued that workers themselves could challenge the control of industry by capitalists. And for the syndicalists in the IWW, unions that utilized these tactics were a means toward the broader end of social transformation. While the AFL sought to win higher wages and benefits for its members, the IWW attempted to overthrow capitalism itself. Although the IWW participated in or led important strikes in Lawrence, Massachusetts; Patterson, New Jersey; and throughout the lumber camps of the Northwest, it never had the influence or power of the American Federation of Labor. Because of its radical politics and unconventional tactics, the IWW was a target for constant surveillance and repression and was eventually destroyed by the forces arrayed against it.
But in the political environment of the early twentieth century, even the moderate AFL was a target of state-sanctioned repression. Because of government support, the AFL came out of the First World War stronger than ever before. And after the war ended, workers who had sacrificed much for the national effort sought some recompense for their troubles. During the summer of 1919 a strike wave washed across the United States, paralyzing industry on a national scale. Beginning just two years after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, what became known as the American Red Summer provoked profound fears among American capitalists and within the U.S. government. This Red Summer led directly into a new red scare. After his house was bombed, he claimed, by anarchists, U.S. Attorney General Alexander Palmer ordered the round-up and arrest of thousands of immigrant unionists. What followed was a series of legal and extralegal forms of political repression and in the years directly following 1919, there was a 30 percent drop in overall union membership.
The union movement went into retreat. But that changed after the stock market crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression. Because of its moderate, craft orientation, the AFL proved incapable of taking advantage of the economic downturn to expand its base of support. A series of general strikes (in San Francisco, Toledo, and Minneapolis), a national textile strike, militant street actions, rent strikes, and general protests led the Roosevelt administration to enact the National Labor Relations Act (or Wagner Act) in 1935. This law gave legal support to labor’s right to organize and bargain collectively. Buoyed by new legislative openings, John L. Lewis, Philip Murray, Sidney Hillman, and other labor leaders already dissatisfied with the limits of the AFL’s craft unionism founded the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO). Like the Knights of Labor and the IWW before it, the CIO set out to organize workers along industrial lines and had early success unionizing the steel and rubber industries. The early phase of this movement culminated in a 1936–1937 wave of sit-down strikes, beginning at the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan. At the GM plant and elsewhere across the country, unionists sat down at their machines and occupied factory floors.
Following the sit-down wave, the CIO became increasingly close to the Roosevelt administration. When the United States entered the Second World War, the CIO offered a no-strike pledge in return for continued support from the government apparatus. While this no-strike pledge could not stop the many wartime wildcat work actions, it did have the effect of alienating the more militant and energetic local workers and leaders from the national CIO. If the government apparatus were to continue to support union efforts, the militancy of the early CIO had to be surrendered to the quest for industrial order. In place of class conflict, the CIO had to pursue a path of business-government-labor cooperation. This path, however, necessarily led to the decline of internal democracy, as unions increasingly became mechanisms for disciplining the shop floor. As one contemporary observer, C. Wright Mills, put it in his The New Men of Power, unions increasingly became “shock-absorbers” for both management and workers (p. 224).
After the war, workers and returning soldiers had confidence in their union strength and a sense of entitlement derived from having sacrificed so much for the national cause. This led to another postwar strike wave. In a now familiar pattern, this postwar strike wave was followed by a new red scare, political repression, and, most importantly for labor, the passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley law. Taft-Hartley bureaucratized union grievance procedures, outlawed secondary boycotts, and required all union leaders to sign an oath that they were not Communists. This last provision forced the federation to expel many militant and radical organizers and to disaffiliate radical unions. Taft-Hartley made the militant actions that characterized the early days of the CIO extremely difficult.
Despite this latest wave of government-sponsored repression, almost 35 percent of the American industrial workforce was unionized by mid-century. Because the new, moderate unionism of the CIO no longer differed in character from the AFL, the two unions affiliated in 1955. The AFL-CIO had considerable power between 1955 and 1973, making possible the formation of an American blue-collar middle class. Union workers bought houses, automobiles, and sent their children to college. And union prosperity benefited many American workers left out of direct unionization campaigns through pattern bargaining and by setting an ideal American standard of living that pressured non-union firms to provide better pay and benefits to their employees. But often, this American standard of living came at the expense of non-American workers. Now integrated into the government apparatus, the AFL-CIO supported American anticommunism around the world, working with the CIA to undermine radical unions in the Third World and helping to prop up right-wing dictators.
Beginning in the 1970s, new laws and new trade agreements that made capital increasingly mobile ushered in the age of globalization. In order to remain competitive with international firms, American companies increasingly sought out cheaper labor sources, moved production operations to the Third World, and, when they remained within the United States, demanded concessions and give-backs from their union workers. American unions were decimated, declining to the point that in 2007 approximately 8 percent of American workers were in a union. Although the AFL-CIO attempted to deal with this setback through a new emphasis upon organizing communities of previously unorganized workers in the service sector (janitors, hotel staff, and restaurant workers), its lack of success resulted in another split in the movement. Led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a group of dissatisfied labor organizations formed a new federation, the Change To Win (CTW) coalition. Like the AFL-CIO, CTW promised a new emphasis upon organizing and militant action; and, most significantly, it has set out to organize Wal-Mart workers. To date, CTW has shown little progress in that direction, but its efforts continue.
At the same time, as American corporations increasingly outsourced production, they produced industrial zones in formerly underdeveloped nations. For instance, throughout the twentieth century RCA sought sources of cheaper labor. When its plant in Camden, New Jersey, organized, RCA opened a new production center in the non-union town of Bloomington, Indiana. When the Bloomington plant unionized, RCA opened a new manufacturing facility in the open-shop town of Memphis, Tennessee. When the Memphis plant organized, RCA outsourced production to Ciudad Juarez, in Mexico. Soon afterward, the Juarez plant began organizing. In each case, as production relocated, unionization movements followed. In the early twenty-first century, many Third World countries became hotbeds of union activity. And in 2002, a former union leader, Luiz Ignatio “Lula” DeSilva, was elected president of one of the largest democracies in the Americas, Brazil. In these industrializing nations, union movements have successfully adopted tactics similar to those used by unions in the United States and Europe. But one important constraint on union activity remains. In these new industrial regions, unions have prospered under democratically elected governments. But authoritarian regimes continue to repress union activity through imprisonment, the murder and torture of union activists, and various other state-sanctioned methods. Consequently, the future of the international union movement may well hinge on the ability of activists and organizers to penetrate rapidly industrializing authoritarian countries such as China; and whether such a possibility exists under current political conditions is an open question.
SEE ALSO Blue Collar and White Collar; Capitalism; Class Conflict; Great Depression; Industrialization; Labor; Labor Demand; Labor Supply; Labor Union; Middle Class; Organizations; Social Movements; Socialism; Syndicalism; Wages; Work; Work Week; Working Class; Working Day, Length of
Barrett, James R. 1999. William Z. Foster and the Tragedy of American Radicalism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Chan, Anita. 2001. China’s Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.
Cowie, Jefferson. 1999. Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Foner, Philip S. 1965. The Industrial Workers of the World, 1905–1917. Vol. 4 of History of the Labor Movement in the United States. New York: International Publishers.
Klein, Jennifer. 2003. For All These Rights: Business, Labor, and the Shaping of America’s Public-Private Welfare State. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Lichtenstein, Nelson. 2002. State of the Union: A Century of American Labor. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Mills, C. Wright. 2001. The New Men of Power. Introduction by Nelson Lichtenstein. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. (Orig. pub. 1948).
Montgomery, David. 1979. Workers Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles. Cambridge, U.K. and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Murray, R. Emmett. 1998. The Lexicon of Labor. New York: New Press.
Roediger, David. 1991. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. New York: Verso.
Shorrock, Tim. 2003. Labor’s Cold War. Nation 276 (19): 15–22.
Silver, Beverly J. 2003. Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization since 1870. Cambridge, U.K. and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Stansell, Christine. 1987. City of Women: Sex and Class in New York 1789–1860. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Wilentz, Sean. 1984. Chants Democratic: New York City & the Rise of the American Working Class 1788–1850. New York: Oxford University Press.