Labor Unions

History & Current State of Unions in Wisconsin & the U.S.

Pre-Union Conditions

  • In factories, employees worked long hours and all week.
  • Speed of work was set by how fast the machines went.
  • Women, children and immigrants received lower wages than white men.
  • Injuries were common in factories, and many people kept working. Worker compensation was not common at the time.
  • Workplace was an "impersonal environment",because workers rarely saw who they were working for.

Why Did Unions Form?

  • Workers didn't like workplace conditions, so they began to form unions. Many unions worked to achieve a eight-hour work day.
  • Industrialized America didn't feel the need to help the common needs of workers.
  • Workers needed support to fight against long hours, little pay, unclean working environments and, sometimes, child labor.

The National Labor Union

  • The NLU, National Labor Union, began in 1866.
  • In favor of eight-hour work day-but didn't support strikes to get what they wanted.
  • Tried to establish women equality and worker cooperatives.
  • The NLU wasn't as popular after 1873.

Post Union Formation Conditions

  • Eventually, an eight-hour work day was established.
  • Bosses didn't like their workers being members of Unions. Workers had trouble with their bosses.
  • Strikes became common in the workplace. Early strikes were almost never successful.
  • Workplace conditions began to slowly improve.
  • Women, for the most part, still received less pay than white men.

Wisconsin Union History

  • Agriculture, mining, and lumber industries were the main industries that started to change working conditions.
  • Unlike the rest of the country, Wisconsin workers didn't partake in many boycotts or strikes.
  • Grouped workers by industry instead of skill unlike many parts of the country.
  • First unions in Wisconsin were formed in Milwaukee (first, bricklayers, then carpenters).
  • The first national trade union organization, The Knights of St. Crispin, grew to be one of the largest in the nation.
  • When white men did go on strike, employers hired women, African Americans, and immigrants to take their place. After the strike, these "minorities" got to keep their jobs-but still received less pay than men.
  • To help reach the goal of an eight-hour work day, the Milwaukee Labor Reform Association was created.

Current State of Unions in Wisconsin & the United States


  • 49 unions currently.

United States:

  • 11.8 % of people who earn a salary in the U.S. are in unions.


-"Labor Movement." A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.
-"Labor Unions Seen as Good for Workers, Not U.S. Competitiveness." Pew Research Center for the People and the Press RSS. N.p., 2 Feb. 2011. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.
-"Turning Points." The Birth of the Labor Movement. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.
-"U.S. History II: The Rise of Organized Labor." U.S. History II: The Rise of Organized Labor. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.


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