The labor movement in the United States grew out of the need to protect the common interest of workers. For those in the industrial sector, organized labor unions fought for better wages, reasonable hours and safer working conditions. The labor movement led efforts to stop child labor, give health benefits and provide aid to workers who were injured or retired.
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The last major holiday of summer, Labor Day celebrates the American worker.
The minimal role of child labor in the United States today is one of the more remarkable changes in the social and economic life of the nation over the last two centuries.
Strikes are organized events in which workers stop production and refuse to return to their jobs until their demands are met.
Starting in Britain in the 1700s, the Industrial Revolution was a change from an agrarian to an industrialized society.
Did You Know?
In 2009, 12 percent of American workers belonged to unions.
The origins of the labor movement lay in the formative years of the American nation, when a free wage-labor market emerged in the artisan trades late in the colonial period. The earliest recorded strike occurred in 1768 when New York journeymen tailors protested a wage reduction. The formation of the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers (shoemakers) in Philadelphia in 1794 marks the beginning of sustained trade union organization among American workers. From that time on, local craft unions proliferated in the cities, publishing lists of "prices" for their work, defending their trades against diluted and cheap labor, and, increasingly, demanding a shorter workday. Thus a job-conscious orientation was quick to emerge, and in its wake there followed the key structural elements characterizing American trade unionism--first, beginning with the formation in 1827 of the Mechanics' Union of Trade Associations in Philadelphia, central labor bodies uniting craft unions within a single city, and then, with the creation of the International Typographical Union in 1852, national unions bringing together local unions of the same trade from across the United States and Canada (hence the frequent union designation "international"). Although the factory system was springing up during these years, industrial workers played little part in the early trade union development. In the nineteenth century, trade unionism was mainly a movement of skilled workers.
The early labor movement was, however, inspired by more than the immediate job interest of its craft members. It harbored a conception of the just society, deriving from the Ricardian labor theory of value and from the republican ideals of the American Revolution, which fostered social equality, celebrated honest labor, and relied on an independent, virtuous citizenship. The transforming economic changes of industrial capitalism ran counter to labor's vision. The result, as early labor leaders saw it, was to raise up "two distinct classes, the rich and the poor." Beginning with the workingmen's parties of the 1830s, the advocates of equal rights mounted a series of reform efforts that spanned the nineteenth century. Most notable were the National Labor Union, launched in 1866, and the Knights of Labor, which reached its zenith in the mid-1880s. On their face, these reform movements might have seemed at odds with trade unionism, aiming as they did at the cooperative commonwealth rather than a higher wage, appealing broadly to all "producers" rather than strictly to wageworkers, and eschewing the trade union reliance on the strike and boycott. But contemporaries saw no contradiction: trade unionism tended to the workers' immediate needs, labor reform to their higher hopes. The two were held to be strands of a single movement, rooted in a common working-class constituency and to some degree sharing a common leadership. But equally important, they were strands that had to be kept operationally separate and functionally distinct.
During the 1880s, that division fatally eroded. Despite its labor reform rhetoric, the Knights of Labor attracted large numbers of workers hoping to improve their immediate conditions. As the Knights carried on strikes and organized along industrial lines, the threatened national trade unions demanded that the group confine itself to its professed labor reform purposes; when it refused, they joined in December 1886 to form the American Federation of Labor (afl). The new federation marked a break with the past, for it denied to labor reform any further role in the struggles of American workers. In part, the assertion of trade union supremacy stemmed from an undeniable reality. As industrialism matured, labor reform lost its meaning--hence the confusion and ultimate failure of the Knights of Labor. Marxism taught Samuel Gompers and his fellow socialists that trade unionism was the indispensable instrument for preparing the working class for revolution. The founders of the afl translated this notion into the principle of "pure and simple" unionism: only by self-organization along occupational lines and by a concentration on job-conscious goals would the worker be "furnished with the weapons which shall secure his industrial emancipation."
That class formulation necessarily defined trade unionism as the movement of the entire working class. The afl asserted as a formal policy that it represented all workers, irrespective of skill, race, religion, nationality, or gender. But the national unions that had created the afl in fact comprised only the skilled trades. Almost at once, therefore, the trade union movement encountered a dilemma: how to square ideological aspirations against contrary institutional realities? As sweeping technological change began to undermine the craft system of production, some national unions did move toward an industrial structure, most notably in coal mining and the garment trades. But most craft unions either refused or, as in iron and steel and in meat packing, failed to organize the less skilled. And since skill lines tended to conform to racial, ethnic, and gender divisions, the trade union movement took on a racist and sexist coloration as well. For a short period, the afl resisted that tendency. But in 1895, unable to launch an interracial machinists' union of its own, the Federation reversed an earlier principled decision and chartered the whites-only International Association of Machinists. Formally or informally, the color bar thereafter spread throughout the trade union movement. In 1902, blacks made up scarcely 3 percent of total membership, most of them segregated in Jim Crow locals. In the case of women and eastern European immigrants, a similar devolution occurred--welcomed as equals in theory, excluded or segregated in practice. (Only the fate of Asian workers was unproblematic; their rights had never been asserted by the afl in the first place.)
Gompers justified the subordination of principle to organizational reality on the constitutional grounds of "trade autonomy," by which each national union was assured the right to regulate its own internal affairs. But the organizational dynamism of the labor movement was in fact located in the national unions. Only as they experienced inner change might the labor movement expand beyond the narrow limits--roughly 10 percent of the labor force--at which it stabilized before World War I.
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