Trade Unions

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated



For much of the twentieth century the outstanding feature of trade union movements in most European countries was their fragmented character. There were religious, ideological, and nationality divisions. Trade unionism flourished in boom conditions, whether in wartime or during upswings in the international economy. They lost members and influence during economic recessions and wherever state power was directed against them.


In 1914 trade unionism was strongest in the countries that had industrialized early and had large urban labor forces. It was weakest in the more agrarian societies, including those of northern and southeastern Europe such as Ireland, Iceland, Greece, Romania, and the small states later to form Yugoslavia.

In Britain, where a significant level of trade unionism had existed before the onset of industrialization in the late eighteenth century, there were 4,117,000 trade unionists in 1914, a trade union density of 24.7 percent (trade union density is the proportion of trade union members within the workforce who can legally join a union). Of these, only 436,000 were female, a density of 8.6 percent. Membership was relatively strong in coal mining, textiles, metals and engineering, printing, transport, glass, gas, and postal services but weak in agriculture, clerical work, food and drink, distribution, and clothing.

For skilled workers in Britain a major part of the appeal of trade unions had long been the medical, unemployment, and other benefits. Paying for such benefits through unions or friendly societies was an important element of what distinguished "respectable" working people from others. When the 1911 National Insurance Act allowed trade unions to administer benefits, it gave a boost to membership for a few unions, notably the Shop Assistants and the Railway Servants.

Trade unionism was also relatively strong in Germany, where it had grown quickly from a density of only 5 percent at the start of the twentieth century. In 1914 there were 2,436,000 members, a union density of 13 percent (excluding the 759,200 members in the nonindependent salaried employee associations). Members were divided between the free trade unions (81 percent), the Christian trade unions (12 percent), and the Hirsch-Duncker unions formed to provide education and mutual aid (3 percent). At the local level there were also divisions by ethnicity: for instance, Polish miners had a separate organization. Such divisions also existed in many other countries of continental Europe.

France also had a large trade union movement. Centered on the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), founded in 1895, membership before World War I peaked at an estimated 1,064,000 in 1912. Catholic unions, which also existed in Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, dated back to 1887 in France, whose first national Catholic union formed in 1913. Catholic trade unions had developed relatively late in Italy, most from the start of the century; by 1910 the country had 374 local trade union organizations and a membership of 104,600 (54 percent adult men, 36 percent adult women, and 10 percent minors). These, along with the Revolutionary Syndicalists (who claimed a prewar peak membership of 200,000, an inflated figure) and white-collar workers, were outside the Italian General Confederation of Labor (CGL), which in 1913 represented 327,312 workers. In tsarist Russia the formation of trade unions had been permitted after the 1905 revolution, but they were very restricted in their activities, confining themselves primarily to welfare issues. In 1907 there were some 245,000 members, but the numbers dwindled by 1910, then revived from 1912 onward.

Trade unionism was well established in Scandinavia. By 1914 trade union membership in Denmark was at 156,200, a density of 23.1 percent. In 1911, 16.2 percent of manual workers and 11.2 percent of white-collar workers were unionized. In Sweden membership had reached 159,100, a density of 9.9 percent, by 1914; four-fifths of these trade unionists were in mining, manufacturing, transport, and communications. In Norway by the same year, trade union membership had reached 67,600, a density of roughly 11 percent.


World War I and the postwar boom gave European trade unions a massive boost. In the belligerent countries, millions of men were taken out of the labor markets to serve in the armed forces. By the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917, some 15.3 million men had been mobilized in Russia. By the end of the war, Germany had enlisted 11.1 million men, Austria-Hungary 7.8 million, France 8.3 million, Britain 5.7 million, and Italy 5.0 million. These were large portions of the fit male population of these countries. In Britain, for instance, nearly 40 percent of the fit male labor force (that is, excluding young boys and the elderly) served in the military. Given the near unquenchable demand for workers, labor was in a potentially strong bargaining position, though this potential was limited by two factors. Many patriotic working people were willing to increase output for the war effort without substantial additional compensation in spite of inflation, and the state assumed additional wartime powers backed by the courts and ultimately by the armed forces. Strikes were banned and there were controls on the labor market. In Britain, for instance, the Munitions of War Act, 1915, not only prohibited strikes and lockouts but also severely restricted labor mobility, enforced rigorous codes of conduct in controlled workplaces with munitions tribunals (special courts), and suspended the trade unions' restrictive practices (which were intended to protect the interests of skilled male labor).

The governments of the belligerent countries needed the support of organized labor. In Germany the old bans on public sector workers joining trade unions were lifted and the imperial government consulted trade union leaders on some issues. In Britain, the leading trade unionist, Arthur Henderson, a member of Parliament, entered the coalition governments of H. H. Asquith and David Lloyd George from 1915 until 1917, when he was replaced by another trade unionist. In Britain and Germany, the governments also pressed employers to recognize the trade unions, at least in war industries.

In several countries, trade unionism grew markedly in spite of the depletion of the civilian labor force. In Britain growth came in sectors that had been weakly organized prior to that time and also in areas of strength. By the end of 1918 trade union membership as a whole had risen by 57 percent to a total of 6,461,000 (a density of 38.1 percent); female membership rose by 171 percent to 1,182,000 (a density of 22.8 percent). This growth continued in the postwar boom, with membership peaking at 8,253,000 (a density of 48.2 percent) in 1920, a density not surpassed until 1974. Female trade union membership also peaked in Britain in 1920, at 1,316,000, a density of 25.2 percent, not equaled again until 1961. In France membership in the General Confederation of Labor rose from 0.3 to 1.5 million between 1914 and 1919.

The Scandinavian countries also experienced large increases in membership. In Denmark total trade union membership rose from 138,900, a density of 15.3 percent, in 1911 to 321,000, a density of 39.8 percent, in 1921. In Norway membership in the Norwegian Federation of Labor more than doubled between 1914 and 1919 (from 67,600 to 143,900), with the total union density rising from 7.6 to 20.3 percent between 1910 and 1920. Similarly, in Sweden, total union membership rose rapidly, from 159,100 (a density of 9.9 percent) in 1914 to 350,200 (20.6 percent) in 1918 and to 470,600 (27.7 percent) in 1920.

In Germany the rapid expansion of trade union membership came after the end of World War I, though growth in previously forbidden sectors had been a feature of the war. In 1914, excluding the "unfree" salaried employee associations, trade union membership had been at 2,436,300 (a density of 13 percent), whereas by 1920 it had jumped to 9,192,900 (45.2 percent), a level that remained more or less stable for another two years. The democratic Weimar Republic provided a favorable political and legal climate for trade unionism, but that ended when it was overthrown by the Nazis. Weimar labor laws stipulated legally binding collective bargaining, state arbitration in disputes, the creation of factory councils in larger factories, and some degree of protection against dismissals for reasons of age, sex, religion, and politics.

World War I brought to the surface further ideological divisions within European trade unionism. The war economies, often with trade union leaders directly or indirectly assisting the war effort, led to splits. In many countries, metalworkers were among the most revolutionary. In Britain from 1915 on, militant shop stewards led revolts against their own trade union leadership and against the government over wartime working conditions and other issues in munitions factories and shipyards. Metalworkers across Europe displayed a similar militancy, including in Petrograd, Turin, Milan, and the industrial suburbs of Paris. Militant metalworkers were among the early members of the communist parties. In many countries, but not Britain, separate communist trade unions and national organizations were formed, thereby dividing much of each national trade union movement between democratic socialists and communists. In the aftermath of World War I, revolutions occurred in Hungary and Bavaria, while Italy experienced a wave of factory occupations by metalworkers in Turin and Milan in 1920. Such actions, however, encouraged counterrevolutionary forces, which during the interwar period brought an end to free trade unionism in Italy, Germany, Austria, and Spain (as well as in the Soviet Union, where communism also ended independent trade unionism).


Trade unionism weakened across Europe following the economic recession of 1921–1922, though it was briefly delayed in Germany by high inflation. In Britain trade union membership fell from 8,253,000 in 1920 to 4,753,000 in 1928 (the density dropped from 48.2 to 25.9 percent). It fell slightly again in 1932–1933, but the 1928 level had been surpassed by 1935 and continued to rise with rearmament and economic recovery in the run-up to World War II. British trade unionism suffered a notable defeat with the general strike of 1926 by selected groups of workers, a strike organized to express solidarity with miners and> coordinated by the Trades Union Congress (TUC). Its aim was to press the government to subsidize the coal mines. While this industrial action failed, trade unionists took some senior positions in the first two Labour governments, 1924 and 1929–1931.


Free trade unionism was severely restricted in the countries Germany and Italy occupied during World War II. Vichy France had compulsory trade unionism, but strikes and lockouts were banned and the unions were supervised by the state.

In Britain in World War II, as in World War I, trade union membership held up in spite of the large withdrawal of men to the armed forces, a total of 4,653,000 in June 1945. In addition, by December 1943, 467,500 women had joined the women's auxiliary services. Between 1939 and 1944 (the last full year of the war), trade union membership rose from 6,206,000 (a density of 31.9 percent) to 7,936,000 (40.0 percent), with female membership rising from 982,000 (16.0 percent) to 1,815,000 (28.6 percent). Winston Churchill's coalition government (1940–1945) considered working with the trade unions highly desirable, both politically and economically. Ernest Bevin, the foremost trade unionist of the period, was the most powerful minister on the home front.

After World War II and until the end of the 1980s, Eastern Europe was under communist rule and the trade unions were not free. In Spain and Portugal until the mid-1970s, the same was true under fascist or nearly fascist regimes. In West Germany and Austria, a new trade unionism was constructed after the Nazi period, with large industry-based unions. By 1950 trade union density was at 62.3 percent in Austria and at 34.7 percent in West Germany. In both countries, unionization continued to grow: trade union densities reached 63.5 percent in Austria and 37.8 percent in West Germany in 1963, and 58.5 and 39.8 percent, respectively, in 1975. The new West German trade unions tended to be moderate in their wage bargaining and managed to place many of their nominees on works councils.

Trade unionism grew rapidly across Western Europe during the "golden age" of the international economy. Steady inflation encouraged white-collar workers to unionize in order not to be left behind. Bruce Western has argued convincingly that trade union growth was greatly facilitated by working-class parties that formed governments and favored the trade unions, increasing the centralization of industrial negotiations and the trade union management of welfare schemes, which won them the support of people in weak labor market positions.

These conditions were frequently present in the Scandinavian countries. Social democratic governments were in power in Sweden, 1932–1976 and 1982–1991, in Denmark 1947–1950, 1953–1968, 1971–1973, and 1975–1982; and in Norway 1935–1965, 1971–1972, 1973–1981, and 1987–1989. Centralized collective bargaining existed in Sweden and Denmark at least until the 1980s, as did welfare benefits linked to trade union membership and a high level of industrial democracy. In Sweden trade union membership grew from 1,613,800 in 1950 (a density of 67.7 percent) to 3,287,100 in 1977 (a density of 85.5 percent). In Denmark trade union membership increased from 771,100 (58.1 percent) to 1,513,300 (71.8 percent) between 1950 and 1976. In Norway membership rose from 488,400 to 903,600 and density rose from 50.2 to 58.0 percent between 1956 and 1976.

In Britain, trade union membership expanded greatly as well, from 7,684,000 in 1945 (38.6 percent) to 9,693,000 in 1968 (42.7 percent) to its highest level ever, 12,639,000 (53.4 percent), in 1979. Its most rapid growth came in 1968–1979, during Labour governments (1964–1970 and 1974–1979) and the expansionist Heath Conservative government (1970–1974). This was a time of high inflation (it reached 24 percent in 1975) and there was much centralized wage bargaining under various incomes policies. White-collar workers were a significant factor in this growth. By 1979 about 44 percent of all British white-collar workers were in trade unions and about 40 percent of all British trade unionists were white-collar workers. In contrast, many of Britain's old industries, such as coal, cotton, and railways, had declined. Trade unionism remained very strong in these sectors, but by 1979 they represented only 4.6 percent of trade unionists, compared to 15.9 percent in 1948.

Elsewhere in Western Europe, trade union membership grew in spite of fragmentation. France had Marxist, anticommunist, Catholic, and other kinds of trade unions. As in Italy, bitter divisions existed between strong Stalinist communists and weaker democratic socialists; the communist unions often preferred trials of strength to collective bargaining. By 1950 French trade union membership had achieved a density of only just under 19 percent, and by 1963 it was still at 19.1 percent peaking at 22.5 percent in 1975. In Italy membership was higher, at 49.0 percent in 1950, dropping to 30.3 percent in 1963, but peaking at 44.3 percent in 1978. Finland's trade union movement was also deeply divided on political lines, in its case between communists, democratic socialists, and "moderates."

The trade union movement was also fragmented in Belgium and the Netherlands but was much stronger there than in other European countries. Belgium had both a strong socialist confederation (the FGTB) and a strong Christian (or Catholic) confederation (the CSC), as well as a smaller liberal trade union confederation (CGSLB). In the early 1960s the Catholic confederation became the largest body. In 1975 it had 904,672 members, whereas the socialist confederation had 800,000 and the liberal confederation 120,000. In 1950 trade union density in Belgium was at 42.2 percent, remaining almost steady in 1963 but reaching 61.3 percent in 1975. The Netherlands had strong Catholic and Protestant confederations as well as a socialist federation. These worked together in> wage bargaining by necessity, since Dutch law required collective agreements to be signed by all recognized unions. By the late 1960s, however, the state was no longer corporatist in its outlook. In 1975 the socialist federation (NVV) had 600,000 members, the Catholic federation (NKV) 400,000, and the Protestant federation (CNV) 239,000. In 1950 Dutch trade union density was at 43.0 percent, thereafter varying only slightly, with densities of 41.2 in 1963 and 39.1 percent in 1975.


With a harsher international economic climate from the late 1970s on, trade unionism was in retreat in Europe, as in the United States and elsewhere. The only exceptions were Sweden and Denmark. This substantial weakening of trade unionism was partly due to powerful global market forces, one major feature of which was severe competition at low wage rates for much work, especially unskilled. Crouch has emphasized that unions in sectors producing goods and services for international markets are vulnerable and can gain little from domestic political lobbying. Such trade unionism was greatly weakened in Austria, Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia.

While trade unionism was boosted when governments favorable to it were in power, it diminished in hostile political environments. In Britain, for example, the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher (1979–1990) and John Major (1990–1997) repeatedly introduced legislation intended to "tame the trade unions" between 1980 and 1993. The government had serious confrontations with trade unions, most notably with steelworkers in 1980 and coal miners in 1984–1985. Although these factors had an impact, trade unions elsewhere were also weakened in this period, even where governments favorable to them were in power. In Britain the arrival of Tony Blair's Labour government in 1997 stabilized trade unionism at the 1997 level; his government left much of the 1980–1993 legislation in place but introduced a legal minimum wage to protect the lowest paid. Trade union membership fell in that country from a peak of 12,639,000 in 1979 (a density of 53.4 percent) to 7,154,000 in 1997 (30.2 percent), rising numerically to 7,295,000 in 2001 (with a larger labor force, density fell to 28.8 percent, however).

Trade unionism recovered in Spain and Portugal after their fascist regimes came to an end. Both countries established trade union rights. Trade unionism flowered briefly in Spain, reaching a membership of 2.6 million in 1976 and a density of more than 40 percent, but it crumbled quickly, to a density of just under 15 percent by the early 1990s. By 2002 trade union density had recovered to about 19 percent. Trade unionism was more resilient in Portugal, with a density of about 30 percent in 2002.

Free trade unionism also grew in the former communist bloc countries of Eastern Europe. Even under communism, Poland had had the courageous independent trade unionism of Solidarity. In 2002 trade union density in Poland was at about 15 percent. Lithuania and Estonia recorded similar densities, with higher levels in Hungary (18 percent), Latvia (20 percent), the Czech Republic (25 percent), Slovakia (30 percent), and Slovenia (40 percent).

Among most Western European countries, trade unionism declined until late in the twentieth century; France, which had a low density before 1980, was the worst affected. In 2002 French trade unionism had a density of only 8 percent, while the reunited Germany's trade unionism level was at 22 percent, and the Netherlands had a density of 21 percent. At the start of the twenty-first century, trade union membership went up not only in Spain but also in Greece (a density of 25 percent in 2002), Italy (37 percent), Luxembourg (45 percent), and Belgium (58 percent). In 2002 trade union densities also remained high in Ireland (38 percent), Austria (40 percent), Finland (75 percent), Sweden (78 percent), and Denmark (80 percent).

Across Europe, trade unionism in the late twentieth century had to accommodate itself to the decline of the old industrial sectors, the expansion of blue- and white-collar work, a drop in unskilled manual labor, and increasingly flexible patterns of employment. The pressure of decline forced many trade unions to attend more to the concerns of female workers, including parttime workers, and to ensure that their organizations were no longer heavily male-dominated. In Britain, for example, by 1999 union density among women workers (28 percent) was close to the level for men (31 percent). Much of the 1999–2000 increase in British trade union membership came from the recruitment of part-time female members. Similarly, after 1979 British trade unions made a greater effort to recruit nonwhite workers.

Western European trade unionism played a major role in politics and society. In several countries, prominent trade unionists joined the government. From 1890 on, trade unionists were prominent in the often huge May Day parades, which highlighted international concerns such as the Spanish civil war, the Vietnam War, the Iraq wars, and nuclear and ecological dangers, as well as industrial concerns. Trade unions often also played a prominent role dealing with local issues in urban areas. They also often fostered music and drama. A notable example was the British TUC's support for drama and the arts through the Centre 42 movement in 1961–1970.

Involvement in politics made trade unions vulnerable to political change. From the 1970s on, the dominant free market economies in Western societies were critical of trade unions as impediments to economic growth. The combination of stiffer international economic competition beginning in the 1980s and such economic views damaged the unions. After union power had weakened, however, the economic ills ascribed to the trade unions remained, and such criticism lost at least some of its edge. If, as many commentators have suggested, the trade unions are in terminal decline, it would seem that in many parts of Europe that decline is likely to last a long time.

See alsoGeneral Strike (Britain); Labor Movements; Strikes; Unemployment; Working Class.


Baglioni, Guido, and Colin Crouch, eds. European Industrial Relations: The Challenge of Flexibility. London, 1990.

Bain, George Sayers, and Robert Price. Profiles of Union Growth: A Comparative Statistical Portrait of Eight Countries. Oxford, U.K., 1980.

Bamber, Greg J., and Russell D. Lansbury. International and Comparative Industrial Relations: A Study of Industrialised Market Economies. 2nd ed. London, 1993.

Clegg, Hugh. A History of British Trade Unions since 1889. Vols. 2 and 3. Oxford, U.K., 1985–1994.

Crouch, Colin. Industrial Relations and European State Traditions. Oxford, U.K., 1993.

Fairbrother, Peter, and Gerard Griffin, eds. Changing Prospects for Trade Unionism: Comparisons between Six Countries. London, 2002.

Ferner, Anthony, and Richard Hyman, eds. Industrial Relations in the New Europe. Oxford, U.K., 1992.

Howell, Chris. Trade Unions and the State: The Construction of Industrial Relations Institutions in Britain, 1890–2000. Princeton, N.J., 2005.

Hyman, Richard. Understanding European Trade Unionism: Between Market, Class, and Society. London, 2001.

Labor Research Department. Worker Representation in Europe. London, 2004.

Lorwin, Val. R. The French Labour Movement. Cambridge, Mass., 1954.

Schneider, Michael. A Brief History of the German Trade Unions. Translated by Barrie Selman. Bonn, 1991.

Visser, Jelle. European Trade Unions in Figures. Deventer, Netherlands, 1999.

Waddington, Jeremy. "Unemployment and Restructuring in Trade Union Membership in Britain 1980–87." British Journal of Industrial Relations 30, no. 2 (1992): 287–305.

Waller, Michael, Stéphane Courtois, and Marc Lazar, eds. Comrades and Brothers: Communism and Trade Unions in Europe. London, 1991.

Western, Bruce. Between Class and Market: Postwar Unionization in the Capitalist Democracies. Princeton, N.J., 1997.

Wrigley, Chris. British Trade Unions since 1933. Cambridge, U.K., 2002.

Wrigley, Chris, ed. A History of British Industrial Relations. 3 vols. Brighton, U.K., 1982–1996.

views updated


TRADE UNIONS are associations that represent the collective interests of their employee-members in bargaining and negotiating with large employers. Trade unions generally seek to obtain higher wages, reduced working hours, and improved working conditions for employees. In addition, trade unions seek to improve workplace safety and to obtain increased benefits, such as health insurance, pensions, and disability insurance, for employees. Unions also look to protect the employment security of their members, largely by negotiating to implement seniority rules and to eliminate "at-will" employment contracts under which non-union employees traditionally have been subject to dismissal without cause.

Although trade unions did not obtain legal recognition until the 1930s, laborers first began organizing to bargain collectively with employers long before obtaining such recognition.


In addition to being the cradle of American liberty, the city of Philadelphia also served as the cradle of American labor activism. In 1786, Philadelphia printers staged America's first labor strike, successfully procuring a $6 per week minimum wage. In 1792, Philadelphia shoemakers formed America's first labor association, which lasted for one year before disbanding.

In 1834, representatives from various separate trade unions convened at the National Trades' Union (NTU) Convention, in New York City. The NTU convention, which marked the first substantial effort to create a national labor organization in the United States, set goals for the labor movement that included obtaining legal recognition for trade unions in every American jurisdiction, organizing unorganized workers, establishing universal free public education for children and adults, and eliminating child labor. Some NTU members sought to pursue their goals through political channels by creating a separate political party.

A successor to the NTU was formed in 1866, when the National Labor Union (NLU) brought together national trade organizations, local trade unions, city trade assemblies, and other reform-minded groups. The NLU's progressive agenda included equal pay for equal work regardless of race or gender, an eight-hour work day, and arbitration. Three years later, in 1869, Philadelphia tailors formed the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor (KoL), an organization that included skilled and unskilled labor and promoted arbitration over strikes. Inspired by the socialist movement, the KoL proposed to replace capitalism with workers' cooperatives.

In the following decades, however, these organizations went into decline. First, in 1872, the NLU dissolved after local issues came to overshadow national efforts. Then, a decade later, the KoL lost influence and membership after loosely organized labor was implicated in Chicago's violent Haymarket Riot of 1886.

1880s–1930s: Labor Gains Momentum

In 1886, a KoL splinter group formed the American Federation of Labor (AFL), electing cigar-maker Samuel Gompers as its first president (1886–1924, except 1895). The AFL organized skilled craftsmen by trade, but excluded unskilled workers. Stressing economic rather than political goals, the AFL under Gompers promoted the use of labor strikes and boycotts, and emphasized the need for written contracts with employers. The AFL's focus was national; Gompers discouraged involvement with local or international issues. Gompers worked within existing political parties, dampening support for a separate labor party.

In the early twentieth century, a series of statutes enacted by Congress secured legal protection for labor organizing and union activity. In 1914, the Clayton Anti-trust Act made clear that peaceful combinations of workers in labor organizations were not criminal conspiracies. In 1932, the Norris-LaGuardia Act stripped federal judges of power to enjoin strikes, making it easier for workers to strike and picket. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (Wagner Act or NLRA) recognized the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively. The NLRA also created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), whose three members were charged with supervising union elections and stopping employers' unfair labor practices.

In 1935, President John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers of America urged the AFL to begin organizing unskilled industrial workers, in addition to skilled workers. When the AFL refused, Lewis formed the Committee on Industrial Organization (CIO) within the AFL. By late 1938, however, the CIO ratified its own constitution (becoming the Congress of Industrial Organization), and split from the AFL. During Lewis's tenure as the CIO's first president (1936–1940), unskilled steel and automobile production workers were organized.

1939–1945: War Economy

After Pearl Harbor, the AFL and CIO promised to refrain from utilizing labor strikes for the duration of the war. Without the power to strike, workers lost their most important tool to offset employer power. Further, accelerated wartime productivity increased workplace accidents and injuries.

To support workers, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a 12-member National War Labor Board in 1942, with four members each representing business, organized labor, and government. No constituency was satisfied. Workers disliked the Little Steel Formula of 1942, which restricted wage increases in order to check inflation. Business leaders chafed under Board rulings that presumed new workers at union plants to be union members, and that required employers to terminate workers who failed to pay union dues. Labor, however, remained loyal to Roosevelt, hopeful that their loyalty would pay off politically at the war's end. Japan's surrender in August 1945 ended the AFL-CIO No-Strike Pledge, and was followed by a six-month tidal wave of strikes.

1945–1960: Gains in Collective Bargaining, Stability, Affluence

In the postwar period, labor unions consolidated successes including the institutionalization of collective bargaining, the development of employee benefits packages, and the adoption of grievance procedures and unionsponsored seniority systems for individual employment decisions. These union successes improved the lot of non-union workers as well. Per capita U.S. wages rose 45 percent in the 1940s, and 56 percent in the 1950s. For many, the urgency of the worker's struggle diminished.

At the same time, new postwar legislation sought to limit union power. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act gave individual workers a right to refuse union membership (strikinga blow against "closed shop" facilities). It also required unions to provide advance notice of strikes; reauthorized federal courts to enjoin strikes affecting national health or safety for eighty days; restricted unions' financial contributions to political candidates; defined unfair labor and union practices; outlawed mass picketing; and neutralized the NLRB's former labor advocacy position.

Labor leaders responded to Taft–Hartley by intensifying political action. Both the AFL and the CIO backed the Democratic Party, effectively ending any lingering support for a separate labor party. In the late 1940s, labor unions began expunging communists from their ranks. In 1952, staunch anticommunist George Meany became head of the AFL. Three years later, to increase labor's clout, Meany and CIO president Walter Reuther orchestrated an AFL-CIO merger. While Meany assumed the new joint AFL-CIO presidency, Reuther continued to serve as United Auto Worker (UAW) president until his death in 1970.

In 1957, Congress enacted the Landrum-Griffin Act to control union corruption, while the AFL-CIO expelled the 1.5 million-member Teamsters Union for corruption. Between 1957 and 1988, three Teamster presidents were convicted and sentenced to prison terms for corruption (Dave Beck, Jimmy Hoffa, and Roy Williams). The Teamsters Union was not readmitted to the AFL-CIO until 1987.

1960s–1970s: Labor Looks Conservative and Bureaucratic

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy issued an executive order encouraging union representation and collective bargaining on behalf of federal employees. Consequently, union membership ballooned among public sector employees during the 1960s. However, with the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters serving as the public face of the labor movement, unions' liberal image changed. In particular, these organizations' pro–Vietnam War positions caused declines in new union membership among America's youth.

The AFL-CIO also was widely perceived in the 1960s as being insufficiently supportive of civil rights. In particular, unions suffered from a dearth of African American union officials and from ongoing segregation and unequal treatment in the locals. In 1960, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters president A. Philip Randolph (then the only African American AFL-CIO official) formed the Negro American Labor Council (NALC) in order to advance the interests of African American laborers. In 1966, however, Randolph resigned from NALC after its public criticisms of the AFL-CIO intensified.

The labor movement's public reputation was also marred in 1964, when it was revealed that Teamsters' pension funds had been loaned by union officials to organized crime figures. The ensuing scandal caused the downfall of Teamsters' president Jimmy Hoffa, who began serving a thirteen-year federal prison term in 1967, but remained president of the Teamsters Union until 1971.

Differences between AFL head Meany and UAW (and former CIO) head Reuther on issues of civil rights, political activity, funding of organizing activities, and eventually Vietnam, all led to the UAW's thirteen-year withdrawal from the AFL-CIO from 1968 to 1981. In 1972, the pro-war AFL-CIO declined to endorse pro-labor Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, because of McGovern's antiwar stance.

Even while the established organs of organized labor were facing difficult times, however, at least one new union was gaining strength in the 1960s and 1970s. During that period, the United Farm Workers of America (UFWA), led by Cesar Chavez, organized Hispanic and Filipino migrant farm workers in California and Arizona. Utilizing both labor strikes and boycotts, the UFWA eventually won collective bargaining agreements from California grape and lettuce growers. In 1971, the UFWA joined the AFL-CIO.


In 1981, organized labor suffered a major setback when President Ronald Reagan responded to a federal air traffic controllers strike by firing the striking employees. By illustrating the ability of employers to recruit replacement workers, this episode chilled unions from calling for future labor strikes. Instead, unions in the 1980s and 1990s looked increasingly to legislatures for protection in such areas as minimum wage, family and medical leave, workplace safety, and pension protection. However, organized labor suffered a major legislative defeat in 1994 when the North American Free Trade Agreement was implemented despite heavy union lobbying against it. Since then, however, unions have successfully sponsored campaigns for a Living Wage, which have been enacted by several local governments throughout the United States.


Bernstein, Irving. The Lean Years. Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, Riverside, 1960.

Bernstein, Irving. A Caring Society: The New Deal, the Worker, and the Great Depression. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Craver, Charles B. Can Unions Survive?: The Rejuvenation of the American Labor Movement. New York: New York University Press, 1993.

Frankfurter, Felix, and Nathan Greene. The Labor Injunction. New York: MacMillan, 1930.

Geoghan, Thomas. Which Side are You On? Being for Labor when Labor is Flat on its Back. New York: Plume, 1992.

Goldfield, Michael. The Decline of Organized Labor in the United States. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987.

Zieger, Robert H. American Workers, American Unions, 2d ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.


See alsoAmerican Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations ; International Brotherhood of Teamsters ; United Automobile Workers of America andvol. 9:Ford Men Beat and Rout Lewis ; The Pullman Strike and Boycott .

views updated

Trade Unions

Trade unions in southern Ireland have undergone ten phases of development, characterized by illegality up to 1824; violent militancy; atrophy after the Great Famine; three waves of agitation influenced by new unionism from 1889, Larkinism from 1907, and syndicalism from 1917; internecine strife from 1923 to 1945; national free collective bargaining from 1946; centralized bargaining from 1970; and social partnership from 1987. The story of unions in Ulster conforms more to the British periodization.

The 1841 census enumerated 240,000 male artisans and 1.2 million male unskilled workers, the bulk of them agricultural laborers. (There were also more than one million working women, mainly in clothing and domestic service, who were not members of trade unions.) Despite the enactment of anticombination laws prescribing trade union laws beginning in 1729, journeymen artisans formed secret societies as the guilds lost their role in trade protection. With the repeal of the combination acts in 1824, local craft unions formed in the main cities. These new unions had a militant conception of their role initially, but following violent episodes and an economic slump in the late 1830s, they adopted a "moral force" strategy in the 1840s and pursued their demands through campaigns for public support. Unskilled rural laborers were afforded some protection by the Whiteboy movements that emerged in 1760 to defend tenant farmers and others. In Leinster in particular, Whiteboyism extended to unskilled urban workers through Ribbon lodges, another variant of the secret societies which used violence or intimidation to protect laborers from employers or landlords.

After the famine, unions in southern Ireland were weakened by demographic and economic decline. In the industrializing north, craft unions developed with the growth of engineering and shipbuilding. In the textiles and clothing industries, unions of skilled and semi-skilled men emerged in the 1870s, and some progress was made in organizing women in the 1890s. Although unions in Ulster remained secular, victimization of Catholic workers regularly accompanied political crises from the 1860s to the 1920s.

The waves of industrial unrest between 1889 and 1923 called attention to the difficulty of building bargaining power for a movement in an undeveloped economy with a craft elite too small to take the lead in trade unionism. Though new unionism was largely crushed by 1891, it gave rise to the Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC) in 1894. Modeled on its British namesake, the ITUC was an inappropriate form of confederation for Ireland, as it was based on industrial organization, where labor was weak. The alternative of creating an essentially political confederation linked to the national movement was rejected. The only rationale for the ITUC format was the British example, and it reflected labor's mental colonization. British unions, often called "amalgamateds," had been extending themselves to Ireland since the 1840s. By 1900, out of some 900,000 Irish waged workers, fewer than 70,000 were organized, and 75 percent of these belonged to British unions. The ITUC provided no leadership to unions until 1918 (O Connor 1992).

Anglicization affected labor politics profoundly. From the repeal movement in the 1830s until the fall of Parnell in 1890, trade unions had endorsed successive nationalist movements in the hope that self-government and tariffs would reverse the deindustrialization that accompanied Ireland's integration into the British economy. The ITUC, however, took the view that unions should restrict themselves to purely labor politics. Despite the reverence accorded to James Connolly after his execution in 1916, labor leaders never lost the sense of socialism and nationalism as dichotomous.

Anglicization was partially reversed by the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU), which was founded in 1909 by James Larkin as "an Irish union for Irish workers." In addition, Larkin and Connolly encouraged the ITUC to constitute itself as a Labour Party in 1914. After traumatic defeat in the 1913 lockout, ITGWU membership mushroomed from 1917. The ITUC was radicalized by revolution at home and abroad, and Labour assisted in the struggle for Irish independence without allying with Sinn Féin, a policy variously interpreted as skillful or a wasted opportunity to shape the new Ireland. When the boom years of 1916 to 1920 yielded to a slump, Labour's radicalism was gutted in a series of major strikes. The Labour Party entered parliamentary politics in 1922 but averaged only 11.4 percent of the vote until 1987. Congress and the Labour Party separated in 1930, though many unions continued to affiliate with the party. By 1923 Irish labor had assumed its modern form: The southern movement was substantially Irish-based, and unions in the North were overwhelmingly British. By default the ITUC retained its all-Ireland jurisdiction because the British Trades Union Congress was reluctant to engage with Ulster.

Unions were not important to Irish state policy until Fianna Fáil's industrialization drive in the 1930s; henceforth, the state would be an increasingly significant determinant of trade union strategy. Interunion disputes in the 1930s led the government to press for an end to the multiplicity of unions. The ITGWU especially wanted to replace sectionalist trade unionism with industrial unionism, and blamed the ITUC's failure to reform on resistance from British-based unions. Union membership in the North grew substantially during World War II, especially among general workers and women. The ITUC redressed its neglect of the North by establishing in 1944 a Northern Ireland Committee—in effect, a regional congress. Mounting friction between Irish- and British-based unions culminated in a split in 1945, when many private-sector Irish unions formed the Congress of Irish Unions. Their expectations of a more positive relationship with the state and of legislation to eliminate the British unions were disappointed. The two congresses united as the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) in 1959.

Nineteen forty-six marked a watershed in labor history with the introduction of the Labour Court, which enabled workers to win wage increases without first establishing bargaining power through militancy, and with the introduction of national rounds of wage bargaining. Membership rose significantly from 1946 to 1951 and again in the 1960s. Renewed industrialization, accelerating inflation, and strikes in the 1960s brought government calls for centralized bargaining, and the first National Wage Agreement was struck in 1970. During the mid-1970s the government became a partner in the agreements, turning employer-labor bipartism into tripartism. Tripartite "national understandings" followed in 1979 and 1980. The failure of tripartism to address rising unemployment, inflation, and unofficial strike actions prompted a return to free collective bargaining in 1982, but the government brokered a deeper tripartism in the Programme for National Recovery in 1987. Four more social partnership programs were signed between 1990 and 2000.

Centralized bargaining became the most controversial issue in trade unionism in the 1980s and 1990s. Craft and British-based unions usually opposed central agreements, arguing that they eroded union democracy and amounted to wage restraint. General unions, which included all grades but represented a high proportion of low paid workers with a weak bargaining power, were the most supportive, claiming that the agreements contributed to the "Celtic Tiger," the label often given to the Republic's high economic growth rates since 1994. They kept the Republic free of the anti-union policies adopted by many other European countries. While union density (the proportion of employees that belong to unions) shrank in the early 1980s, and the number of unions was reduced through mergers, density in the Republic in 2001 was relatively high, at almost 50 percent. By contrast, union density in Northern Ireland fell from a peak of 61 percent in 1983 to 36 percent in 2001 (ICTU 2001; Labour Force Survey 2001).

After 1968 the Northern Ireland government's traditional suspicion of unions gave way to a friendlier understanding between the unions and the state. Partly because unions were valued as allies in the propaganda war against paramilitarism, the Conservative government's labor legislation, which weakened trade unions by, for example, making the "closed shop" and secondary picketing illegal, was not fully applied to Northern Ireland until 1993. In 1972 the ICTU decided that it would be "inappropriate" to comment on Northern Ireland's constitutional question, and in addressing the "Troubles," unions gave priority to avoiding controversy, citing the absence of serious workplace sectarian conflict to justify their stance; critics accused them of reticence on oppression and inequality. In the 1990s, the consensus behind the peace process encouraged the ICTU to become more assertive, and it campaigned for the Belfast Agreement.

SEE ALSO Celtic Tiger; Conditions of Employment Act of 1936; Connolly, James; Economies of Ireland, North and South, since 1920; Irish Women Workers' Union; Labor Movement; Larkin, James; Lockout of 1913; Political Parties in Independent Ireland; Whiteboys and Whiteboyism


Boyle, John W. The Irish Labor Movement in the Nineteenth Century. 1988.

D'Arcy, Fergus, and Ken Hannigan, eds. Workers in Union: Documents and Commentaries on the History of Irish Labour. 1988.

Department of Trade and Industry, London. Labour Force Survey. Organization for National Statistics. 2001.

Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU). Web site available at

McCarthy, Charles. Trade Unions in Ireland, 1894–1960. 1977.

Mitchell, Arthur. Labour in Irish Politics, 1890–1930: The Irish Labour Movement in an Age of Revolution. 1974.

Nevin, Donal, ed. Trade Union Century. 1994.

O Connor, Emmet. A Labour History of Ireland, 1824–1960. 1992.

Rumpf, E., and A. C. Hepburn. Nationalism and Socialism in Twentieth-Century Ireland. 1977.

Emmet O Connor

views updated


The trade union movement in Russia had its origins in the strike movements of the nineteenth century. Labor organizations, originally modeled on village institutions, spontaneously formed around particular grievances, but proved temporary in nature. More permanent labor representation in the form of delegates, starostas, eventually took hold at the factory, local, and industry levels. By the late nineteenth century local broad-based organizations gave way to associations by industry or occupation, along with the adoption of more institutionalized negotiation methods between labor and capital.

Trade unions first gained legal recognition after the Revolution of 1905. Unions adopted principles of class identity (membership being restricted to workers) and independence from state institutions and political parties. During the period immediately following the Revolution, attempts to establish central labor organizations produced both soviets of workers' delegates and trade union councils, which sought to unite extant unions and provide support for new ones. Unions remained relatively weak, with union activity declining significantly during World War I in response to governmental restrictions.

The period from 1917 to 1920 saw the reemergence of the old trade unions in competition with autonomous factory-level worker councils. Unions eventually secured power over the councils, but only as they underwent their own transformation. As a result, three features were to characterize trade unions throughout the Soviet period: branch unionism, union subordination to both the state and Bolshevik Party, and the assumption of dual functions on the part of all unions. This meant that every employee in a particular industry or branch of the economy belonged to one union and that trade unions as state organizations were to fulfill a twin purpose: to mobilize workers to meet production targets and to defend workers' rights, as defined by the state, against arbitrary managerial actions. The particular methods employed by unions shifted over time, with emphasis on discipline and punishment in the 1930s giving way to positive incentives and greater job protection rights by the 1950s.

At the enterprise level, union activity was integrated into a larger triangular relationship, known as the union-management-party troika. The union worked chiefly with management to increase labor productivity. Its control over the distribution of nonwage benefits to the workforce ensured labor cooperation, while its control over the grievance process and its mandatory participation in all personnel decisions provided the means to defend workers' legal rights. Simultaneously, the union coordinated efforts with party officials to direct the cultural life of the factory. In this capacity, the union acted as a transmission belt between party and society, orientating the workforce to the goals of the state.

At the national level, the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions (AUCCTU) was the supreme agency within a complex trade union bureaucracy. In its role as administrator, it maintained control over two parallel hierarchical structures, one based on branch-level union committees, with the central committee of each union as the leading institution, and an all-union hierarchy organized geographically, with the republican all-union councils as the governing bodies. The primary union agency, the factory-level committee, was responsible to both groups. Union resources came from three critical sources: membership dues, the national social insurance fund, and considerable property holdings associated with the social and welfare benefits distributed to the workforce.

The post-Soviet period has been marked by two important developments: the plurality of trade union organizations and the declining power of unions in general. Alternative trade unions, organized along occupational and professional lines, have challenged the monopoly of the traditional union bureaucracy, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR), the successor to AUCCTU. Although FNPR remains by far the dominant institution, the alternative unions function as catalysts for organizational change. In addition, trade unions have lost considerable power, deepening their subordination in practice to management and the state. Declining union membership and the loss of income and important administrative duties have undermined the traditional base of union power.

See also: trade statutes of 1653 and 1667


Ashwin, Sarah, and Clarke, Simon. (2003). Russian Trade Unions and Industrial Relations in Transition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan Press.

Ruble, Blair. (1981). Soviet Trade Unions: Their Development in the 1970s. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Turin, S. P. (1968). From Peter the Great to Lenin: A History of the Russian Labour Movement with Special Reference to Trade Unionism. New York: A. M. Kelley Press.

Carol Clark

views updated

trade unions, retaining some of the benefit functions of the old craft guilds, emerged in the 18th cent. as conflicts between capital and labour increased and state protection collapsed before the rise of the factory system. More intensive exploitation occurred in the factory, but factory workers were in a minority for most of the period 1780–1900, and skilled handicraft societies set the style of unionism. They were subject to prosecution under English common law as combinations in restraint of trade. Fear of revolution led to the combination laws of 1799–1800; this legislation was ineffective, forcing unions underground. Eventually, unions were given legal recognition under the Act of 1825. Most unions were local, small, and based on public houses or ‘houses of call’, but some of them had a primitive national organization.

Owenite utopianism stimulated the rise of general unions. Older unionism existed alongside attempts to found a Grand National Consolidated Trade Union; when this grandiose organization collapsed in 1834–5, continuity was maintained by ‘the aristocracy of labour’. After the depression of the early 1840s national unions of skilled trades either revived or were founded. There is little justification for using the term ‘New Model Unionism’ about the formation of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (1851); there was no radical reorganization and no new characteristics. The ASE was merely one successful example of a process proceeding from the 1820s. Skilled unions had always insisted upon efficient organization, strikes being a last resort, collective bargaining the norm, and death, sickness, or unemployment benefits provided. Trades councils were created by unions; from the London Trades Council emerged the Trades Union Congress (1868).

Legal recognition and protection of funds became an issue after the Hornby v. Close decision revealed that unions lacked these basic rights; hence the pressure for the Acts passed in the 1870s. The revival of socialism in the 1880s coincided with depressions and the creation of new unions for the semi-skilled and the unskilled, paying lower entry fees and prepared to be militant. Membership of unions rose from about 750,000 in 1888 to over 4 million by 1913. Individual unions increased in size. Some grew organically, others as a result of amalgamation. Industrial strife was widespread in the years before 1914, provoked by falling living standards and a growing radicalism associated with syndicalist ideas. The Triple Alliance of transport workers, miners, and railwaymen was in existence by 1914 and had a strategy of sympathy strikes in place. Thus the ground was drawn for the sharp class conflicts of the 1920s including the General Strike of 1926. Trade union membership declined during the Great Slump, only reviving in the late 1930s.

The Second World War (1939–45) led to the direction of labour and full employment. Trade union membership increased from about 6,250,000 in 1939 to nearly 8 million in 1945. By 1979 there were about 13,500,000 members or 58 per cent of those in work. More industrial unions were created at the expense of traditional craft unions, but demarcation disputes and unofficial strikes were frequent.

After 1979 trade union membership fell to under 10,250,000 by 1988 or 37.6 per cent of the labour force, and the number of unions declined 453 in 1979 to 330 in 1987. Hostile legislation designed to remove union power over the labour market beginning with Acts of 1980 and 1982 was a feature of the policies of Thatcherite Conservatism. Single union agreements with ‘no strike’ clauses were common, as plant bargaining began to replace national negotiations. A significant change was the Labour Party's distancing itself from the union movement, with which it had been closely associated since its birth.

John Butt

views updated


The transformation of economic enterprise that began after the American Revolution (17751783) was the major cause for the development of U.S. labor's most significant institution: permanent trade unions. With the rise of U.S. industry came the rise of a management class seeking to pay lower wages. During the late 1700s working men with trades (carpenters, shoemakers, typesetters, cabinetmakers, machinists, masons, coopers, tailors) created organizations to conduct their struggles, known often as "associations" or "societies." The membership of these early unions were confined to journeymen of a single craft, and they joined together not only to obtain better wages for themselves, but also to keep out of industry inferior untrained workmen known as "runaway apprentices" who worked for lower wages than the skilled tradesman or craftsman.

In 1886, a national organization, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was created and rose to dominate the U.S. labor movement for the next 50 years. It was a federation of most of the early trade and craft unions scattered throughout the many states of the union, bringing together under the umbrella of the AFL most of the trade and craft unions. The AFL, a consolidation of separate trade unions, was first led by the father of the U.S. labor movement, Samuel Gompers (18501924). The focus of the AFL was largely aimed at short-term objectives, like higher pay and shorter hours of work. The AFL maintained that trade unions should restrict their membership to skilled and qualified craftsmen in specific trades, believing that a trade union composed of many different kinds of workers, including unskilled laborers, would lack the cohesiveness essential to hard-hitting business-like unionism. Trade unions ignored unskilled workers in the mass-production industries who eventually were unionized by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In the 1960s, the AFL and the CIO pursued a cautious merger, under the name AFL-CIO.

See also: American Federation of Labor, Congress of Industrial Organizations, Samuel Gompers, Labor Unionism

views updated


An organization of workers in the same skilled occupation or related skilled occupations who act

together to secure for all members favorable wages, hours, and other working conditions.

Trade unions in the United States were first organized in the early nineteenth century. The main purpose of a trade union is to collectively bargain with employers for wages, hours, and working conditions. Until the 1930s trade unions were at a severe disadvantage with management, mainly because few laws recognized the right of workers to organize. With the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (wagner act) of 1935 (29 U.S.C.A. § 151 et seq.), the right of employees to form, join, or aid labor unions was recognized by the federal government.

Trade unions are entitled to conduct a strike against employers. A strike is usually the last resort of a trade union, but when negotiations have reached an impasse, a strike may be the only bargaining tool left for employees.

There are two principal types of trade unions: craft unions and industrial unions. Craft unions are composed of workers performing a specific trade, such as electricians, carpenters, plumbers, or printers. Industrial union workers include all workers in a specific industry, no matter what their trade, such as automobile or steel workers. In the United States, craft and industrial unions were represented by different national labor organizations until 1955. The craft unions that dominated the american federation of labor (AFL) opposed organizing industrial workers.

During the 1930s several AFL unions seeking a national organization of industrial workers formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). The CIO aggressively organized millions of industrial workers who labored in automobile, steel, and rubber plants. In 1938 the AFL expelled the unions that had formed the CIO. The CIO then formed its own organization and changed its name to Congress of Industrial Organizations. In 1955 the AFL and CIO merged into a single organization, the AFL-CIO.

Membership in U.S. trade unions has fallen since the 1950s, as the number of workers in the manufacturing sector of the U.S. economy has steadily declined. Union membership in 1995 comprised just 14.9 percent of the workforce, compared with a high of 34.7 percent in 1954.


Collective Bargaining; Labor Law.

views updated

trade union Any organization of employees established in order to substitute, or attempt to substitute, collective bargaining for individual bargaining in the labour-market. Unions seek generally to ensure that earnings and conditions are governed by rules applied consistently across their membership—although many unions also have broader social and political aims. Some are also professional associations.

It is customary to classify unions into types, according to the constituency from which they recruit, in the following way: craft (exclusive to skilled workers); occupational (all workers in an occupation regardless of industry); industrial (all workers in an industry regardless of occupation); general (amalgamations of occupational and industrial organization); and enterprise (all workers in a single company or plant). However, in practice, the typology breaks down in the face of the complexities of actual trade unionism. Numerous controversies surround unions. Can they, in the long run, raise labour's income-share in the face of market forces? How far are they an expression of a limited trade-union consciousness as against a common class consciousness oriented towards the pursuit of the interests of the labour movement as a whole? How are they affected by the particular goals, traditions, and political culture of their leaders, and of the rank-and-file? Do they embody an inherent contradiction between their democratic or populist origin and the oligarchy necessary to effective leadership? There are extensive sociological literatures addressing all of these questions. See also CORPORATE SOCIETY; LENIN; MICHELS, ROBERT; PROFESSIONS; UNIONATENESS.

views updated

trade union Group of workers organized for the purpose of improving wages and conditions of work. The first trade unions were founded in Britain around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Although some craft and agricultural unions developed before industrialization, the growth of trade unionism paralleled the growth of industry. In 1825, trade unions were given restricted legality in Britain. In 1871, the Trades Union Act put the unions on a firm legal basis and, over the next 150 years, the movement grew steadily. Their rights were progressively curbed in the 1980s through Conservative legislation under Margaret Thatcher. In the USA, the labour unions and their members have generally accepted the capitalist system. The movement had become firmly established by 1886 with the founding of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL primarily represented skilled workers, and it was not until the creation (1930) of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) that unskilled labour gained some form of representation. In 1955, the two organizations merged to form the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). See also Tolpuddle Martyrs

views updated

trade un·ion • n. an organized association of workers in a trade, group of trades, or profession, formed to protect and further their rights and interests.