Labor unions in united states essay

Most of these unions were local in scope, but as both labor and product markets became more national due to improvements in transportation, and as employers continued to decrease wages and de-skill jobs, workers came to believe that they would have to organize on a wider basis if they were to be effective.

But they faced enormous resistance from employers and had little success until the s. The first halting steps beyond separate craft guilds at the local level occurred between and , when workers in a wide range of skilled jobs including railroading, mining, canal building, and building construction formed citywide labor organizations in and around Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Their goal was to resist the longer hours and wage cuts that were being demanded by employers.

Union leaders from these cities met yearly under the name General Trades' Union, but in fact there was little coordination beyond the city level. However, the new labor leaders did speak out against increasingly frequent claims by publicists of the day building on the ideas of Adam Smith that the new economic conditions were simply due to abstract and neutral economic laws, which of course became a familiar refrain for employers and all those social scientists who think that it's all about free markets and not at all about power e.

In contrast to the story told by free-market advocates, the union activists asserted that they had been dispossessed, which they cast as a threat to the United States as a Republic because it stripped them of their rights and independence as free white male citizens. The defense of labor was thereby equated with the defense of American republican government Voss , pp. Although there were strikes by carpenters, shoe binders, textile workers, and tailors in defense of what they claimed to be their republican rights, the attempts to organize in any serious way ended abruptly with the onset of the nation's first industrial depression in After all, workers in a slack economy stand even less of a chance than workers in a strong economy when few people are unemployed.

Many local craft organizations were disbanded. The efforts at unionization were not revived until after the Civil War. Fast-forwarding by 35 years, the rapidly industrializing economy created in the post-Civil War boom gave skilled workers an opening to resuscitate the past craft unions and start some new ones as well, and they seemed to be building a national labor organization that might have some staying power for the first time. This national labor organization, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor usually shortened to the Knights of Labor was founded in as a secret society by a handful of Philadelphia garment cutters, who had given up on their own craft union as having any chance to succeed.

Their credo emphasized citizenship rights, action in support of general social progress, cooperative forms of organization for the society as a whole, and, significantly, the inclusion of workers of all crafts and races in one union for the first time Voss , pp. They also started reading rooms, held parades, and supported local labor parties. The top leaders were ambivalent about strikes because disruptive actions alienated both employers and the general public, so at first they tended to focus on education, persuasion, and legislative changes.

Although they emphasized their openness to unskilled as well as skilled workers, to women as well as men, and to African Americans as well as whites, they were in fact mostly white male craft workers when the union grew to a few thousand members nationwide between and Four months after a big political bargain called the Compromise of handed the Republicans the disputed presidential election, and just weeks after the last of the federal troops were removed from the former Confederate states as part of the deal that gave the presidency to the Republicans, labor relations suddenly took a violent turn.

This violence turned out to be the start of a new era that lasted for decades and reshaped the nature of the American union movement. In the face of an ongoing depression that had lingered since , other railroads had already made draconian wage cuts without major protest, but in Martinsburg, West Virginia, the announcement by the Baltimore and Ohio led to a spontaneous strike in the company's rail yards that did not end quickly. City officials called out the local militia, but its members were reluctant to use force against workers who were part of their own community.

The governor asked for federal troops, leading to a clash in which workers stopped trains and destroyed railroad property. The strike rapidly spread to other nearby cities.

- The Washington Post

The violence was especially extensive in Pittsburgh, already a growing industrial center based in the iron and steel industry. When militia brought in from Philadelphia fired at the demonstrators, killing several people, the angry mob burned down 39 buildings and destroyed locomotives and 1, freight and passenger cars. The strike became national in scope, drawing in nearly , workers and at one point stopping half the nation's rail freight from moving Bruce ; Foner In all, governors in seven different states had to call out their militia.

Traveling from city to city via trains, government troops finally quelled the uprising after two weeks of effort. In the process, over people had been killed and many more were imprisoned Stowell , for the most recent account. Based on the traditional, more tolerant responses to strikes, the extent of the violence came as a shock to both workers and employers.

The American Federation of Labor

Up until that time, as just noted, strikes usually had been called in an effort to reduce the long working hours that increasingly had been imposed upon workers, and somewhat less often to protest sudden wage cuts. Americans generally had viewed strikes as a legitimate form of action because employees had an independent stature that reflected both their valued work skills and their belief in republican values Lambert Courts had sometimes condemned strikes as conspiracies or restraints of trade, but fines were usually small and there were no imprisonments, and in any case the Massachusetts Supreme Court had rejected the conspiracy and restraint of trade charges in Dubofsky and Dulles , pp.

The only previous known deaths from strike activity -- two in number -- had occurred in New York City in when police shot into the crowd to break up a strike by tailors who were protesting wage cuts Lambert , p. But after American labor relations were the most violent in the Western world with the exception of Russia Mann It is one of those superficial paradoxes of history that the most democratic and the most despotic countries in the Western world would have the most violent labor clashes. The strongly held American belief in the right of business owners to have complete control over their property, along with business dominance of both political parties and a history of violence in dealing with Native Americans and slaves, not to mention the horrendous casualty rate in the Civil War, made the pitched labor battles seem as normal and expectable to most Americans as they were to Russians with their totally different history.

Between and , American presidents sent the U.

Army into 11 strikes, governors mobilized the National Guard in somewhere between and labor disputes, and mayors called out the police on numerous occasions to maintain "public order" Archer , p. In the aftermath of the summer of violence in , a few railroad corporations began to consider the use of employee benefits, such as accident insurance and old-age pensions, to mollify workers. Instead, corporate leaders put their efforts into creating stronger military forces to control workers when necessary, starting with reorganized militias and fortified local armories.

In addition, militia units were often directly funded and supplied by corporate leaders: Cyrus McCormick, Sr. The regular army also developed close ties to the industrial companies in urban areas. Three business leaders in Chicago, for example, provided the money for a military base just twenty miles north of their city Archer , pp. The use of private security forces in labor disputes also grew. Business leaders paid for and directed the activities of deputy sheriffs and deputy marshals, regularly employed Pinkerton Detective Agency strikebreakers the company had 30, regular and reserve agents in , and attempted to establish and control their own police forces Norwood ; Smith The violence of also led to a change of strategy by many local affiliates of the Knights of Labor, which decided that the strikes had failed because they lacked the proper leadership and organization.

Reflecting the changing circumstances as businesses grew in size and power, the Knights decided to drop their semi-secret ways and take a more active role in creating the kind of organizations that could counter employers and even challenge the new industrial companies.

They also emphasized again that their doors were open to membership by both skilled and unskilled workers as well as women and people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. With the economy improving at the same time, the Knights claimed to have 50, members in It was at this point that the Knights seemed to be on the verge of major success due to highly publicized strikes by railroad shop men in and against one of the most notorious Robber Barons of the day, railroad magnate Jay Gould.

The successes only involved the restoration of wage cuts, but local activists saw them as evidence for the potential power of unions and their strike weapon, and more workers began to join: "In its wake, thousands of workers -- particularly semiskilled and unskilled workers -- joined the Order. By the summer of , membership had doubled and a local assembly [the Knights' term for a local chapter] had been established in nearly every city and mid-sized town in the country" Voss , pp.

Buoyed by their new hopes, many assemblies decided to join a general strike to force employers to grant the eight-hour day, an action first advocated by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which was another loose-knit national labor organization to which some of the Knights also belonged,. The strike was set for May 1, The top leader of the Knights opposed the idea, fearful that such a strike could not be won, but sociologist Kim Voss , p.

Lambert , p.

The Rise and Fall of Labor Unions In The U.S.

Workers across the country became members of the Knights out of sympathy for this strike, but Gould held firm this time. As the railroad strike in the Southwest dragged on, the May 1 strike for the eight-hour day began with over 1, work stoppages throughout the country, involving several hundred thousand people. But the tide turned against them just two days later when police in Chicago fired into a crowd of 30, pro-strike demonstrators and killed two people, with several more wounded.

At that point anarchists came into the picture by calling for a massive protest rally the next day, which attracted 50, people to Haymarket Square. After two hours of speeches and many reminders that the event was to be non-violent, and with the demonstrators starting to disperse, a major disaster suddenly erupted. A bomb was thrown at the police when they suddenly started to break up the gathering, killing one policeman and wounding 70 others.

The police then began shooting, which killed one worker and wounded many more Lambert ; Voss The big industrialists and their allies in city governments across the country used what was quickly labeled as the Haymarket Riot as a pretext for a major counterattack by federal troops and private business armies. They now defined all union leaders as Communists, socialists, and especially, anarchists.

The result of the corporate and government repression was a complete defeat for the Knights of Labor on both the eight-hour day and the railroad strike. Four of the anarchists involved in organizing the Haymarket demonstration were hanged from the gallows in Chicago six months after the riot, even though there was no evidence that any of them were involved in planting the bomb. A fifth committed suicide in his jail cell before he could be hanged. Although various factors seem to have contributed to the decline of the Knights, including tensions between craft and unskilled workers, Voss , pp.

These associations displayed brutal determination in combating the growth of labor unions, because they dominated local governments and political parties.


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Voss then draws an important contrast when she shows that the British and French governments in effect forced employers to compromise with workers Voss , pp. For a combination of reasons, including the continuing power of land-based aristocrats and the greater strength of their national governments, the business owners did not dominate Britain or France cf.

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Essay/Term paper: Labor unions

Guttsman ; Hamilton ; Mann The repression of led to a rapid decline for the Knights of Labor, but the events of that year also gave rise to a very different kind of union movement, the American Federation of Labor AFL , which took several lessons away from the failures of the Knights. These lessons eventually made it possible for the AFL to force business moderates to consider the possibility of collective bargaining as an acceptable compromise in the face of ongoing labor strife, which ranged from slowdowns to strikes to sabotage and the destruction of equipment.

But a possible compromise was still more than a decade in the future. The new federation was founded in early December , a few months after the strikes of the spring and summer had ended in defeat. Convinced that previous forms of unionization were too diffuse and fragmented to withstand the violence that companies could bring to bear against workers, its leaders organized as a federation of narrow, self-interested craft unions that included iron molders, miners, typographers, tailors, bakers, furniture workers, metal workers, carpenters, and cigar-makers.

It was the separate unions, not the AFL itself, that conducted the main activities of organized labor such as recruitment, bargaining, and calling strikes and the federation itself was always dependent upon its constituent organizations for finances.