The movement to initiate labor unions in the United States grew out of the need to protect American workers. Unions wanted to get higher wages for its members and better working conditions, such as fewer hours per week and more safety in their workplace. They also worked to get rid of child labor and provide benefits for sick workers or those who retired.
The Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers (shoemakers) began in 1794 in Philadelphia and was the first trade organization which lasted for any period. Eventually, in the 1800's, national unions brought together groups of workers in every state which held the same jobs. The National Labor Union was formed in 1866. The Knights of Labor became prominent in the next twenty years. They wanted reform for the workers. Sometimes they organized strikes if the management didn't want to go along with reform. A strike is a situation where the workers of a company or factory refuse to go to work until they obtain certain changes.
In December 1886, The American Federation of Labor was formed. The AFL said that it represented all workers, no matter the race, gender, skill, religion or nationality. However, the national unions which had created the AFL represented only skilled trades. Certain skills were associated with certain races and genders, so, in time, the trade unions became racist and color conscious. The AFL tried to negate that idea, but the color factor spread throughout the trade union movement.
Political activity within the unions began just after 1900. The AFL said it would campaign for friends of the union and try to have enemies defeated. In 1935, John L. Lewis and the members of the United Mine Workers broke away from the AFL and formed what became the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Beginning in 1936, the Democratic party trusted in the campaigning power of the labor movement.
In 1955, the AFL-CIO was formed. Its purpose was to better the economic condition of its members. Collective bargaining became a powerful tool after World War II. That is when members of the management of a company meet with union leaders to discuss what changes the union is asking for regarding their members. They try to find an agreement between what the union wants and what the management is willing to give, as far as higher wages, vacations and other benefits. This collective bargaining gained for workers higher wages and security against old age, unemployment and illness from 1945-1970. However, organized labor only included about one-third of all American workers, leaving out the low-skilled workers.
The labor movement had a solid commitment to equality in every area, but the leadership of companies was still closed to minorities. Certain skilled jobs had been totally held by white male workers, both in the construction trades and the industrial unions. In the 1960's, both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were able to achieve reforms in domestic programs by using the great power of the unions.
Beginning with the 1970's, the power of the unions seemed to decrease. Foreign markets opened. Non-union competition began to develop. Plant closings greatly decreased the union membership. The administration of Ronald Reagan began in 1980. President Reagan was very much anti-union. Between 1975 and 1985, membership in unions fell by 5 million members. By the end of the 1980's, only about 17% of American workers were in an organized union. Organized labor today is much more diverse. The labor movement has much less power politically, however.
To link to this Labor Unions page, copy the following code to your site: