by Vicki Spevacek

Labor unions designate the banding together of workers for the purpose of improving their social, political and working conditions. An essential institutional element in industrialized nations, unions have organized key manufacturing sectors of the labor force, giving workers greater opportunities for control over the conditions influencing their work lives. Labor unions, as found today, have been developing for centuries.

Labor unions have their origins in craft societies. In the 1790's, craft societies were organized by groups of craftsman, such as shoe makers. These societies were aimed at increasing wages, and organizing strikes and boycotts. As these groups developed, they came together, forming trade unions. In 1830, the National Trades Union was formed. It changed the role of unions by publicly advocated free public schooling, the retraction of voting qualifications, as well as improvements in the workplace.

The efforts at unionization during the 1840s and after were largely responses to the emerging conditions of wage labor. As E.P. Thompson has written, the adjustment of workers to the dictates of the time-clock and the conditions of time-work did not come easily. During this period of time, laborers -- sometimes known as mechanics -- often spoke derisively of the newly emerging arrangement of urban labor as wage-slavery. During this time, trade union membership lay primarily in East coast industrial cities. In the next half-century, the agitation of labor would continue to be located primarily in the Eastern industrial cities along with the upper Mideast -- e.g., Chicago. After the Civil War, union activity took an increased advocacy role. Unions fought the inflation which ensued due to the greenback dollars issued by the Union government. Soldiers also returned to find improved machinery in their workplaces, a move which they felt threatened their working conditions. The nascent union efforts fought for the soldiers former positions.


However, union acceptance was far from universal. The Knights of Labor, formed in 1869, maintained secret passwords and handshakes to avoid exposure. Management blacklists were feared, as well as management organizations aimed at identifying union members. Called "citizen alliances," these groups worked at break up groups such as the Knights of Labor. The Knights of Labor, however, held strong despite such attempts. The organization acted as a fraternity to the workers, particularly due to the secrecy necessary. Membership peaked at 700,000 organized into 5,500 local assemblies. This number represented ten percent of all industrial workers at the time (Florence, p. 11). As disruptive as the advent of time-work had been in the 1830s and 1840s, the more profound shift began to occur in the 1880s, when piece-work became the norm in manufacturing industries. Piece-work was a "moral force which corresponds to machinery as a physical force" (cited in Gutman, 1977, p.47). Though there trade uions achieved little stability during this era, it was nonetheless a time when lockouts, strikes and continual labor agitation were commonplace.

These numbers, seen in union memberships such as the Knights of Labor, primarily represented white male populations. Formed by nine garment workers in Philadelphia, minorities and women were the minority in the fraternal organization of the union. The members, while elitist, sought to gain respect for themselves and their professions. To express their unanimity, the motto of the Knights of Labor was, "An injury to one is the concern of all."(Brecher, p. 28)

Union's continued to grow. The American Federation of Labor, founded in 1886 held 1,675,000 members by 1904. But, before the AFL could achieve its power, union membership and the right to organize had to be attained. The struggle to gain union support and respect was a hard and often violent fight. The late 1880's and 1890's saw the fight between organized labor and management swell.


In 1886, there began a period of enormous violence as labor began to struggle more vigorously against capital and the military (and police) which at that time defended the interests of capital. Called by one historian, "the year of the great uprising of labor." (Brecher, p. 31), in 1886 groups such as the Knights of Labor became visible and their victories became more frequent. This chart illustrates the increase in labor movements. Notice the tripling of numbers in just five years.

Year StrikesEstablishments No. striking & involved

(Source: Brecher, p.31)

The leaders of the Knights of Labor were fundamentally opposed to striking. Leader Terence V. Powderly, believed strikes were, "a relic of barbarism." (Lens, p. 64) However, 1886 brought the massive fight for "eight-hour days," Throughout the country, small divisions of the Knights of Labor organized thousands of workers to strike. The workers, correctly anticipating violence, armed themselves with rifles and bombs made of gas pipes. Again, Powderly restated his sentiments, "No assembly of the Knights of Labor must strike for the eight-hour system on May 1 under the impression that they are obeying orders from headquarters, for such an order was not, and will not, be given." (Brecher, p. 38)

Despite his opposition, the movement to strike was even larger than anticipated. Centered primarily in heavily industrialized cities, the number striking reached 340,000. This number increased, as the movement caught on in smaller cities, such as Fort Worth, Texas. Chicago headed the movement. Tension between police and workers escalated, cumulating in an exploding dynamite bomb, which killed one and injured seventy. As a result of their panic, the police turned and shot the demonstrators, killing one and injuring many others.

The result of this incident reflected the popular government attitudes on organized labor. Seven anarchists were tried and found guilty, with relatively no evidence, and four were hung in connection with the bombing. Press about the incident criticized the movement, suggesting strong anarchist leaders. The results of the country wide strike was disappointing. After the Haymarket incident, workers returned to work either without victory or with their eight-hour days withdrawn. This incident was reflective of the years following.


The labor movement calmed in the late 1890's. The growth of the American Federation of Labor under its founder, Samuel Gompers, was the key in creating a calm in labor-management relations. Founded in 1886, The American Federation of Labor aimed at coordinating established craft unions. Gompers, a cigar maker, spoke of creating peace between unions and management.

Under, the American Federation of Labor tended to be a bigotted organization. Gompers felt strongly about separate locals for blacks and whites. Minorities, namely immigrants and women, were not encouraged to join. The AFL openly supported anti-immigration laws. In the early 1900's Gompers spoke of relationship and how to improve the battle. This created a time of peace between unions and managers.

The Union struggle was again challenged a decade later. Frederick Taylor, with his introduction of "scientific management," continued the altered relationship between worker and manager. Taylorism created this new dimension and division by breaking down craftsman into duplicate workers. Harry Braverman writes on scientific management,

The separation of hand and brain -- of conception and execution -- is the most decisive single step in the division of labor undertaken by the capitalist mode of production....Before the assertion by management of its monoply over science, craftsmanship was the chief repository of scientific production technique in its then existing form...Taylor believed that this would improve efficiency. He also believed that this transfer from craftsman to deskilled worker would help alleviate the problems resulting from the pride of craftsman. (Braverman, p. 131)
As Braverman points out, Taylor believed that his scientific management would improve relations. However, Taylorism worked to unite workers against the new manager. This pride was seen expressed in the formation of Unions. Ironically, this deskilling of workers actually proved to heighten their solidarity together. In fact, the further the breakdown of labor, the harder it became to divide the workers.

However, to some extent Taylorism offered wage incentive plans, which undercut union loyalty. Managers used wage-incentive plans to give some workers a greater individual interest in working to maximize their output, rather than submitting to the will of the whole union organization. These wage-incentive schemes partially offset the results of deskilling processes.

Post World War I brought an additional dimension to the work force. The combination of technology and Taylorism, and their collective deskilling, with World War I and its draw from the male work force, brought new members of the working class; women and immigrants. Not needing prior training, and not expecting high wages, women and immigrants became more prevalent in the work force.

The significant, pro-active role for Unions came after the depression. Unions' were unable to produce many victories during the depression. However, the New Deal offered Unions the opportunity to increase their power. For example, the National Recovery Act, stated the individual industries must establish codes of appropriate working standards. Some industries given mandatory orders to establish union representation. Prompted by growing labor militancy against "unfair labor practices," the Wagner Act became law in the summer of 1935. It established the National Labor Relations Act which "gave federal recognition to the rights workers had been asserting for more than a century: the right to engage in collective bargaining, the right to free speech in advocating unionism, the right to freely elect a representative union, the right to protest unfair labor practices and to seek redress of grievances." (Green, 1980, 150).
Passage of the Wagner Act spurred on a seachange in the relations between labor and capital. The 1935 Act gave workers the federal right to organize. It legally permitted workers into, "unions of their own choosing.", as the Act states. (Matles and Higgins, p. 4) The Wagner Act outlined five unfair labor practices by employers:

These five rights are the basis of legal legislation concerning unions. In addition, the Wagner Act established the National Labor Relations Board, a nonpartisan board. This board was given two primary duties: 1) To aid in the free selection of employee representative agencies by holding elections or otherwise determining the choice of the majority of the workers in an appropriate bargaining unit.
2) To prevent unfair labor practices and to see that employers bargain "in good faith" once the representative agency has been determined. The Wagner Act initiated a period of stability and growth for Union activity. The five principles outlined, and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), both encoraged labor unions for the coming decades.


The Committee for Industrial Organization formed in 1935, itself a rebellion against the leadership of the AFL that was perceived as unwilling to support industrial union organization such as in the rubber industry. Workers in those industries felt betrayed by the AFL and at the AFL convention in 1935, John L. Lewis, the leader of the United Miner Workers, led the split that prompted the formation of the CIO to push an industrial union strategy (as opposed to the craftworker approach of the AFL).

The first significant impact of the CIO took place in the rubber industry where the "rank-and-file revolt in mass production in 1936 and 1937 made the new organization a real movement, the greatest in labor history" (Green, 1980, 153). Prompted by an industry wide attempt to "speedup" production (the result of extending the length of the work day and laying off other workers), workers responded by adopting the tactic of the sit-down strike, shutting down production at the Goodyear and Goodrich rubber plants and dramatically gaining the upper hand. At the end of 1936 came the most famous sit-down strike against General motors in Flint, Michigan.

"On December 28, 1936, employees at the Fisher Body Plant in Cleveland took their new UAW officers by surprise when they occupied the factory. The action triggered the most important single strike confrontation of the century, the great sit-down strike against General Motors in Flint, Michigan. The Flint strike was the most spectacular of the sit-downs. It began as a spontaneous strike against speedups, wage cuts, unsafe and unsanitary working conditions, and the kind of corporate tyranny that prevailed in many plants...Once strikers seized the plants, radicals and other militants articulated demands for better wages and working conditions and the recognition of their new industrial unions. The sit-downs usually involved widespread community support. In fact, the sit-down strike required firm support from outside in order to succeed. In Flint, women mobilized much of that support....'A new type of woman was born in that strike,' noted one observer. 'Women who only yesterday were horrified by unionism, who felt inferior to the task of speaking, leading, have, as if overnight, become the spearhead in the battle for unionism.'" (Green, 1980, 155-156).

The Flint sit-down resulted in GM signing a contract with the United Auto Workers. In the aftermath of the success of the sit-down strike at Flint, industrial unions scored victories in the mining, construction, packinghouse industries. Nearly 4.7 million workers struck in 1937, and as a consequence not only did the CIO grow dramatically, but so did the AFL, which added 886,000 members to its rolls. By 1937, the new unions had a membership of over 4 million in 32 international unions and 600 independent locals.

Post World War II

The union movement continued to gain strength, but the political and legal struggles were far from over. During World War II, labor-union membership grew to 14.7 million workers. After World War II, a combination of anti-Communist hysteria and employer groups revived political clout led to the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 which sought to eliminate many of the gains made by unions over the previous decade. Taft-Hartley restricted workers' right to strike, outlawed secondary boycotts, made unions and their leaders liable to suits, and forced all union officers to swear that they were not Communists. One longterm consequence of Taft-Hartley is that it further divided the interests of union officers from their rank and file. The tension between bureacratization of the union movement and the desire for rank and file autonomy was already evident prior to Taft-Hartley, evidenced in a surge of wildcat (unauthorized) strikes after World War II. C. Wright Mills observed that labor agreements at the end of World War II that contained no-strike contracts had the ironic effect of putting the union officers in the position of disciplining the rank and file. "The union bureacracy stands between the company bureacracy and the rank and file of the workers, operating as a shock absorber for both" (Mills, 1948).

In 1955, The AFL and the CIO merged forces. However, "the optimism surrounding the merger of the AFL and CIO proved to be ill-founded, as the combined forces of labor declined thereafter and retreated more than ever into conservative business unionism. By 1956, industrial union membership seemed to have reached its limit, as most labor organizations withdrew from efforts to organize the unorganized" (Green, 1980, 222). It was another historical irony that just as organized labor acquired real institutional and political power in the late 1950s and early 1960s, they also began to lose their base as they grew conservative, and sometimes corrupt.


Decline in union membership and power has been occurring since roughly 1980. One school of thought argues the decline is result of a subtle long-term change to the economy. This way, the decline is a gradual process.
The other theories, which are backed by statistics, argue that the election of Ronald Reagan as President prompted the decline. Reagan's stance on Union activity was radically different than his predecessors. Reagan surprised the labor community by attempting to shut down the Air-Traffic Controller's Union when they struck. Under Reagan's authority, striking air-traffic controllers were fired and replaced with non-union (frequently inexperienced) workers. This set the precedent for his cabinet's stance towards labor.

The more recent decline in Union membership is explained by two different theories. The first attributes the decline to the changes in a "postindustrial" economy. These changes include the following differences in the economy. 1) Manufacturing jobs have decreased, while service-sector production jobs have increased. Also, the non-union service sector has grown, while union areas have not seen much growth.

.foreign competition (HARRISON QUOTE)....non-favorable outlooks on unions by legislators, managers and workers.
2)non-structural arguments...union premiums too high (study)