The U.S. labor movement represents the collective actions of workers to improve their wages and working conditions. The driving force behind the U.S. labor movement has traditionally been labor unions. A labor union is a formal association of workers designed to improve the condition of labor in the workplace. The main power of a labor union is collective bargaining. Collective bargaining empowers union representatives to negotiate on behalf of the entire membership, in effect increasing the market power of workers in negotiations with the firm's management. Traditionally, the wage and benefit packages negotiated under a union banner have outpaced wages and benefits negotiated in comparable nonunion workplaces. Labor unions have also influenced labor reforms and labor legislation at the state and national levels. Labor unions became a countervailing power to the growth of large and powerful manufacturers during America's industrialization process.

U.S. Labor Movement: The Early Years

The origins of the American labor movement can be traced to the first glimmers of worker consciousness, which occurred more than 200 years ago. In the late 1700s, long before the Industrial Revolution took root in the United States, conflicts between employers and their workers were already taking place in certain trades.

By the mid-1800s the first national unions in the United States were formed. One shortlived union was the National Trades Union (1834–1837), or NTU, which was founded in New York City. The NTU recruited members from local crafts unions, mainly from eastern cities located between Boston, Massachusetts, and Baltimore, Maryland. The union supported bread-and-butter reforms such as the 10-hour workday and equal pay for equal work.

Shortly thereafter, William H. Sylvis organized the National Labor Union (1866– 1872), or NLU. The NLU was a loose confederation of skilled and unskilled unions. Sylvis believed that union power was best achieved through mass membership. The NLU supported the eight-hour workday, immigration restrictions, the creation of a federal department of labor, and improved working conditions for women. Neither the NTU nor NLU made much progress in achieving their goals.

The American labor movement was bolstered by the creation of the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor by Uriah H. Stephens in 1869. At first the Philadelphiabased Knights was organized as a secret society of wage earners. Secrecy was necessary to avoid reprisals, such as blacklisting, by employers. In 1879 Terence V. Powderly assumed leadership of the Knights. He removed the veil of secrecy from the organization. His vision was to create a mass union for nearly all workers—skilled and unskilled, black and white, men and women. By 1886 membership in the Knights, now renamed the Knights of Labor, swelled to more than 700,000 workers. The Knights demanded the eight-hour workday, equal wages for women, and prohibitions against child labor, convict labor, and contract labor. On a broader scale, the Knights also sought reforms to promote a more equitable distribution of wealth and the introduction of a federal progressive income tax. A series of unauthorized and unsuccessful strikes, and violence at a union-sponsored rally

Sweatshop in a New York City tenement, 1889

Sweatshop in a New York City tenement, 1889. Photograph by Jacob Riis. (Library of Congress)

in Chicago in 1886, crippled the reputation of the Knights. During the 1890s the Knights of Labor faded into obscurity.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was founded in 1886 by Samuel Gompers as a federation of skilled craft unions. Within a few years the AFL replaced the Knights of Labor as the chief voice of the American labor movement. As a craft union, the AFL restricted membership to unions comprised of skilled workers such as carpenters, masons, or printers. Unskilled workers, African Americans, and women were systematically excluded from the AFL. Gompers and the AFL supported “pure and simple” unionism to improve workers' wages, working hours, and working conditions. AFL membership topped 4 million in 1920, which accounted for about 80 percent of all unionized workers. By the mid-1920s unionized workers' average wages had outpaced nonunionized workers in similar occupations. In addition, the average workweek was shorter for unionized than nonunionized workers.[1] The AFL struggled to maintain membership levels during the 1920s and 1930s due to a generally unsympathetic political environment, internal squabbles, and the ravages of the Great Depression.

In 1935 an industrial union originally called the Committee for Industrial Organization was founded as an alternative to the crafts-dominated AFL. Three years later, in 1938, this union's name was changed to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). As an industrial union, the CIO recruited all workers within an industry regardless of their skills, gender, or race. John L. Lewis, the CIO's first president, saw great potential for industrial unions as a means to expand worker power in the United States, particularly in the growing mass-production industries such as automobiles, textiles, rubber, and steel. Despite some labor unrest during the Great Depression and the bitter rift between the newly formed CIO and its rival, the AFL, union membership grew rapidly from the

Table 6.5 Union Membership in the United States, 1910–2010

Union Membership in the United States


Total Number (1000s)

Percentage of Labor Force

AFL (1000s)

CIO (1000s)

Indep. Unions (1000s)



































Source : Ben J. Wattenberg, Statistical History of the United States: From Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Basic Books), 1976, 127, 176–177; U.S. Bureau of the Census, “No. 628,” Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2002 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office), 2001, 411; U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Table 644,” Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office), 2011, 429.

1940s to the 1960s, as shown in Table 6.5.[2] In 1955 a merger between the AFL and CIO created the AFL-CIO, an action that restored some unity to the American labor movement.

Pro-labor legislation during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–1945) gave crucial support to the American labor movement. The National Labor Relations Act (1935), more commonly called the Wagner Act, secured workers' right to form unions and to bargain collectively with employers. This act also created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to prevent unfair labor practices by employers or by labor unions. In addition, the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) established a minimum wage of $0.25 per hour for some workers, a maximum workweek of 44 hours, and overtime pay for hours worked beyond this maximum.

ECONOMICS IN HISTORY: The Mollies and the Wobblies: The Radical Fringe of the Labor Movement

Labor radicalismoccurredmainly at the fringes of the American labormovement. Two of themostmilitant of these fringe groups were the Molly Maguires and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

The Molly Maguires, often called the Mollies, was a secret society comprised of Irish immigrants. The Mollies had a long and stormy history marked by violence against the British and the propertied classes in Ireland. The first Mollies arrived in United States in the mid-1840s, and many congregated in the coal mining regions of Pennsylvania. Here they worked in company towns—towns owned and operated by the mine owners. Low wages, dangerous working conditions, and abusive bosses mobilized the Mollies, who resorted to sabotage and physical violence against mine owners. In the early 1870s dozens of Mollies were tried and convicted for their crimes, but little was done to alleviate the horrific working conditions in the mines.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or Wobblies, was a revolutionary labor organization founded in Chicago in 1905. The Wobblies grew in strength during the early 1900s under the leadership of William (Big Bill) Haywood. The Wobblies directly challenged the capitalist economic system, including private property rights and the practice of wage labor. Under the slogan “One Big Union,” the Wobblies supported an extreme version of industrial unionism and scored some labor victories in the mining and lumbering regions of the Pacific Northwest. The Wobblies’ influence soon faded due to internal disputes, government opposition, their opposition to American participation in World War I, and the antiunion climate of the 1920s.

  • [1] Ben J. Wattenberg, “Series D 765-778: Average Hours and Average Earnings in Manufacturing, in Selected Nonmanufacturing Industries and for ‘Lower-Skilled’ Labor 1890 to 1926,” Statistical History of the United States: From Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 1976), 168.
  • [2] Ben J. Wattenberg, “Series D 11-25: Labor Force Status of the Population, 1870 to 1970,” “Series D 927-939: Labor Union Membership, by Affiliation, 1935 to 1970,” “Series D 940-945: Labor Union Membership, by Affiliation, 1897 to 1934,” “Series D 946-951: Labor Union Membership and Membership as Percent of Total Labor Force and of Nonagricultural Employment, 1930 to 1970,” Statistical History of the United States: From Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 1976), 127, 176-178; U.S. Bureau of the Census, “No. 628: Labor Union Membership by Sector, 1983 to 2001,” Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2002 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office), 411. U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Table 664. Labor Union Membership by Sector: 1985 to 2010,” Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office), 2011, 429.
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