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US Labor Unions History


US Labor Unions History: US Labor Unions began forming in the 1860's in response to the social and economic impact of the Industrial Revolution and Industrialization in America.

Definition and Summary of the US Labor Unions History
Summary and definition:
US Labor Unions began forming in the 1860's in response to the social and economic impact of the Industrial Revolution and Industrialization in America. It was the era in US history that saw the emergence of important industries in agriculture, oil, mining, the railroads, steel, textiles and manufacturing.

Mechanization, the invention of electricity and new mass production methods saw the emergence of factories and the Factory System. Industrialists amassed great wealth which saw the rise of Big Business and Corporations headed by the men called the Robber Barons. The greedy, unethical and ruthless 'Robber Barons' who used unfair business practices exploited their workers which led to Riots, Strikes and the emergence of the Labor Unions. This article contains interesting facts and a Timeline of US Labor Unions History detailing the formation of the Labor Unions and the riots and strikes that occurred in an attempt to improve the wages and working conditions of American workers.

US Labor Unions History for kids: Free Enterprise and Laissez-Faire
The Robber Barons became rich and successful due to the economic system of Free Enterprise that operated in the United States by which Big Business and Corporations operations were largely free of state control or federal regulations. The Free Enterprise economic system was combined with the idea of 'Laissez-Faire' economics that relied on supply and demand, rather than government intervention, to regulate prices and wages. Great for the Industrialists, whose wealth and power enabled them to exercise powerful influence over the government, but bad news for the workers who lacked any form of representation.

US Labor Unions History for kids: The Legacy and Ideals of Americans
The US Labor Unions History was fueled by the emergence of "two distinct classes, the rich and the poor". The people of America adhered to the ideals of the War of Independence and the American Constitution, which had fostered the ideals of fairness, liberty, democracy, social equality, order, justice, fraternity and independence. Workers began to believe that their basic rights were being eroded by the often unethical, unprincipled and unchecked actions of the powerful industrialists. The men who started the US Labor Unions History were not just motivated by improving working conditions and wages, many were motivated by a cause.

US Labor Unions History for kids: Conflicts of Interest
The US Labor Unions History saw conflict between the industrialists and the workers due to their opposing beliefs and views. The industrialists, the Robber Barons, believed in the right to run their businesses as they saw fit and employ working practices to increase productivity and produce maximize profits. They believed that labor was a commodity, that wages were based on supply and demand with the right to hire and fire at will and their right to set working hours and establish working conditions. The opposing viewpoint was that workers were not just a 'commodity' and deserved the right to have a say in their working conditions, their health and safety, the hours they worked and their rates of pay.
The US Labor Unions History was based on these conflicts of interest and beliefs.

US Labor Unions History for kids: Socialism
Many American workers advocated the principles of Socialism.  The concept of Socialism is based on the idea that the government should own and operate industry for the nation as a whole. Socialists wanted the federal government to buy up the Big Businesses and large corporations, especially those that operated in essential industries that affected everyone, such as services like the railroads and utilities like coal.

US Labor Unions History for kids: Working Conditions
The US Labor Unions History was strongly influenced by the need to gain improved working conditions for workers.

  • Factory Machines eradicated the need for many skilled workers and work was repetitive, boring and monotonous and gave no sense of satisfaction or pride in work

  • The mechanization of industries provided new, heavy machines that lacked safety devices causing high numbers of injuries. Injured workers received no compensation and the sick were not paid

  • Many industries, like the mining industry, were extremely dangerous. Other industries were also hazardous with workers breathing toxic fumes

  • The Panic of 1873 was a serious economic crisis that led to a hard hitting depression. Wages were cut and working hours were increased - workers were paid less for more work

  • Child Labor. Children as young as 5 years of age worked in every industry for up to 12 hours per day and made up 20% of the workforce

    • According to the 1900 US Census, a total of 1,752,187 (about 1 in every 6) children between the ages of 5 and 10 were engaged in "gainful occupations" in the United States

  • Depersonalization of workers. The workforce increased so the workers became just numbers

US Labor Unions History for kids: Forming Labor Unions
US Labor Unions History originally started with skilled workers and limited membership (trade union) but as the number of unskilled workers and laborers increased other unions for unskilled were established. There was considerable opposition and problems to the establishment of labor Unions.

  • There were no laws that gave workers the right to organize a union

  • There were no laws that required employers to negotiate with a union

  • Workers who tried to organize a union were fired and placed on a blacklist -  'trouble makers' or complainers could be easily replaced

  • Courts of law often ruled that strikes were "conspiracies in restraint of trade"

  • Courts of law fined or jailed Union labor leaders

  • Secrecy surrounded the early union, members were required to sign an oath and participate in secret rituals. Secret codes was also used by members

US Labor Unions History for kids: Industrialist Opposition to the Labor Unions
US Labor Unions History was paved with difficulty and the actions of the wealthy industrialists and employers in the late 1800's employed various tactics to prevent the formation of a union.

  • Workers required to sign contracts stating they would not join a Union - these were called a 'Yellow-dog contract'

  • Pinkerton Detectives were hired to infiltrate a union to help break a strike and inform on the identities of members

  • Lockouts: Companies used lockouts to break a union by preventing workers to enter a premises and stopping wages

  • Blacklists: Trouble makers were fired and put on list that prevented their future employment

  • Immigrants and Strike-Breakers: Companies employed vast numbers of immigrants who were just glad of the jobs and were paid less than Americans. Immigrants were used as strike-breakers

US Labor Unions History for kids: Strikes - State and Government action
Union protests, rallies and demonstrations turned violent and riots occured. US Labor Unions History saw state militia and government action taken against strikers and rioters.

  • Local militia were sent out to quell the riots - but many of the militia openly sympathized with the strikers

  • Federal troops consisting of infantry, cavalry and artillery were sent in

  • There were deaths and serious injuries

  • Properties were set on fire

  • Labor leaders and strikers were arrested, fined and imprisoned

US Labor Unions History for kids: Social Opposition to the Labor Unions
US Labor Unions History also faced opposition from ordinary Americans.

  • The ideas of Karl Marx had become highly influential in Europe. Marxism was a form of communism, an economic and political philosophy that advocated revolution and anarchy and American feared that this was a goal of the unions and that members were anarchists

  • Many Americans believed that the strikes and terrifying riots that occured in the 1880's were organized by anarchists and became increasingly suspicious of unions

US Labor Unions History for kids: Opposition to Immigrant Labor
During the period of early US Labor Unions History there was a massive influx of immigrants. The immigrants were competing for jobs with Americans and accepted lower wages.
A wave of Nativism in America during the 1880's was fueled by labor unions. Nativism encompassed the belief that the interests of established US residents should be given a favored status compared to new immigrants. Union members were opposed to the employment of immigrants would work for lower wages or would become strike-breakers and undermine American workers and Labor Unions. For more facts refer to US Immigration History.

US Labor Unions History: Riots, Strikes and Unions
The impact and effect of Industrialization in America,
poor working conditions, dangerous safety issues, wage cuts and the economic depression led to violent strike action, riots and the emergence of the Unions. Interesting facts and a timeline about US Labor Unions History are detailed below. The information on US Labor Unions History is told in a factual sequence consisting of a series of short facts providing a simple method of relating the history and events of US Labor Unions History.

1866: The National Labor Union was formed, it was the first national labor federation in the US who pressed for labor reforms and an 8 hour working day

1869: The Colored National Labor Union (CNLU) was established by African Americans

1869: The Knights of Labor was founded as a secret organization of tailors in Philadelphia

1874: The Tompkins Square Riot erupted involving the unemployed in New York City

1875: The Molly Maguires were a secret society of Irish coal miners in Pennsylvania. 20 men were hanged following the 'Long Strike of 1875'.

1876: Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, an American labor union was established to represent iron and steel workers.

1877: Great Railroad Strike o f 1877 was the first nationwide strike in the United States which resulted in riots across the country that were quelled by Federal troops

1886: The Haymarket Riot involving a bombing in Chicago

1890: The United Mine Workers of America (UMF) was founded on January 22, 1890 merging the Knights of Labor and the National Progressive Miners Union. The UMF was more open to compromise and arbitration than the wfm.

1892: The Homestead Steel Strike near Pittsburgh

1893: The Western Federation of Miners (WFM), a more radical labor union was founded in 1893. The WFM had strong ties to socialism and was far more radical than the UMF.

1894: The Pullman Strike a widespread railroad strike caused by the Panic of 1893.

1897: The 1897 national strike by the soft-coal (bituminous coal) miners, resulted in a victory with wage increases and a significant growth in Union membership

1898: The Erdman Act prohibited discrimination against railroad workers because of union membership and provided for mediation of railway labor disputes .

1902: The Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902 was one of America's largest industrial strikes and saw President Roosevelt act as a mediator.

Social unrest gave rise to reformers in the Progressive Movement. The 1916 Keating-Owen Child Labor Act was passed limiting how many hours children were allowed to work.

During WW1, the number of American workers in Labor Unions increased dramatically. Workers had been given the right to strike but industrialists were determined to break the power of the Unions.

The period between 1917 - 1920 gave rise to the First Red Scare in which socialists and communists were all dubbed as 'Reds' or 'Bolshies' and perceived as being unpatriotic.

FDR's New Deal introduced the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in 1933 to establish codes to address many issues including working hours, productivity, minimum wages and union membership. The Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional

In response to the ruling FDR pushed through new labor legislation in 1935 known as the Wagner Act, or National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The law guaranteed workers the right to organize Unions and to bargain collectively

The Wagner Law set up the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to enforce legal rights and established an arbitration process

The effects of NLRA, or Wagner Act prompted a burst of labor activity that resulted in the formation of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) that organized labor into unions. The founding of the CIO marked the beginning of a movement away from “trade” unionism, which divided workers according to their jobs, all workers in a particular industry - both skilled and unskilled were included in the same union. The first Sit Down strikes began in 1936

Union membership increased from just over 2 million in 1933 to just under 14 million by 1943

The Taft Hartley Act was passed in 1947 to curb the power of the Unions by outlawing the 'closed shop' and 'featherbedding' systems and banned unions from using their funds to support political campaigns.

US American History
1881-1913: Maturation Era

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