Labor History in the United States

By Troy Muenzenberger

Working Conditions before Unions

  • At least 10 hour work days
  • Dangerous work conditions
  • Less then $10 dollars a week paid
  • Child Labor
  • No effort by employers to improve conditions
  • There were no forms of workers insurance if a worker would be hurt

The Creation of Unions

Unions were created by the working class in an attempt to force employers to give the workers better conditions and better pay. The earliest recorded strike occurred in 1768 when New York journeymen tailors protested a wage reduction (Dulles 1). The formation of the Federal Society of Journeymen shoemakers in Philadelphia in 1794 would be the first organized union. From that time on local craft unions would defend their trades against diluted and cheap labor and would start to demand for a shorter workday. Unions by the 1800s were created to prevent child labor, set a limit on the workday, and better conditions for workers. Where one worker standing alone could be removed by an employer, hundreds or even thousands at one factory could spell the doom for a company. This theory led to union strikes in an attempt to acquire rights for workers that they deemed necessary.

The Knights of Labor

The Knights of labor were formed in 1869 by Uriah Smith Stephens as a secret society of tailors in Philadelphia. The organization grew slowly at first through the 1870s, but after the great railroad strike of 1877 the Knight's membership rose exponentially. Grand Master Workman Terence V. Powderly took office in 1879. The Knight's of Labor were vertically organized, which is including all the workers in a given industry regardless of trade. (Foner 1). Powderly believed in boycotts and arbitration, but he opposed strikes. Powderly only have marginal control over union membership, so strikes were led without his consent. On May 1, 1886, a strike was held over Powderly's objections and would lead to a bomb going off in Hay Market square on May 4. This would lead to mass arrests and a general setback for all unions. The Knights of labor would take the blame, and by 1890 the membership dwindled to some 100,000 compared to 700,000 4 years previous (Foner 1).

The Effect of Unions

Unions were a hit and miss group of organizations. On one hand you had a successful strike in Chicago one year, but a failed strike the next. The success of unions directly depended on how far the employer would cooperate with strikers. Many failed strikes resulted in the majority of the strikers loosing their jobs, yet it was not all doom and gloom. Many unions were successful in negotiating with employers which led to improvements in pay and working conditions. Unions as a whole would be successful just because many employers were scared that if they did not preemptively give their workers decent conditions and pay, that their factories would be put on strike within the year. Unions fought for and won rights for workers, but for every concession from employers there was another scheme to try to try to make the most money off of the backs of the workers Because of this, there will almost always be a need of unions for the work force.

Timeline of Important dates in Wisconsin Labor History

1848 – First successful strike in Milwaukee -Ship Carpenters
1867 – Knights of St. Crispin — union of shoemakers — founded in Milwaukee – became nation’s largest union, became defunct in Panic of 1873
1886 - Bay View Tragedy: 7 workers killed by State Militia while on peaceful march for establishing the 8-hour day (State’s worst labor violence)
1893 – State Federation of Labor founded – predecessor of Wisconsin State AFL-CIO
1897 – Formation of Socialist Party in Milwaukee, forming basis for much progressive action in City and State of Wisconsin
1898 – City-wide strike of Woodworkers in Oshkosh – conspiracy charges beaten back after dramatic trial led by famed Defense Atty. Clarence Darrow
1900 – 1905 – Strikes by paper workers to have Saturday night “off” first won, then lost in mills as employers bust union efforts 1911 – First Workers Compensation Law in U.S. established in Wisconsin
1932 – First Unemployment Compensation Law in U.S. passed in Wisconsin
1935 - American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union founded in Madison; now one of largest unions in the nation
1936 -1939 – Workers organize into unions after passage of Wagner Act; hundreds of thousands join in factories, workplaces from Kenosha to Superior, making Wisconsin one of most heavily unionized states, bringing top wages and benefits to all workers in state
1939-1947 – Strikes at Allis-Chalmers Mfg. Co. in West Allis become national symbols of struggle for shop floor rights and debate over role of communism in unions
1958 – State AFL-CIO created through merger of State Federation of Labor and Wisconsin CIO
1959 – Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act passed in Wisconsin — one of first in nation
1954 – 1965 – Long strike by UAW at Kohler Co. ends with union and company establishing peace
1963 – 1970 – Migrant farmworkers organize in state, aided by widespread support of unions, AFL-CIO

(Germanson 1)

Unions in the United States Today

The nature of work in America is changing. Employers now are trying to shed responsibility for providing health insurance, good pension coverage, reasonable work hours and job safety protections. Unions are needed today just as they were in the past. Labor unions now represent the interests of their members in labor-management relations within the workplace. There are specific labor unions that represent workers who are employed in the trades and occupations such as communications workers, health care professionals, stage and theatrical employees, and employees in the hospitality industry (Mayhew 2). Labor unions start with the international union, which is the highest level of union organization, followed by district councils across every geographic region in the U.S. Today current unionization rate is dramatically below that of other countries, including Canada. There remains great interest in unions among American workers, but only where employers do not resist do unions thrive. I predict seeing a growth in union membership after our economy stabilizes. The current unemployment rate forces many workers to just be content with the fact that they currently have a job. Many workers won't look towards better worker's rights until the country is in an economic boom and the work force is greatly strengthened.


Worked Cited

Dulles, Foster, and Melvyn Dubofsky. "Labor Movement." A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.

Foner, Eric, and John Garraty. "Knights of Labor." A&E Television Networks, 2012. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.

Germanson, Ken. "Milestones." Wisconsin Labor History Society RSS. Wisconsin Labor History Society, 2012. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.

Mayhew, Ruth. "Define Unions & Labor Relations & Their Impact on Organizations." EHow. Demand Media, 23 Jan. 2011. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.