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How 19th Century Labor Unions Helped Shape Today’s Labor Market


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Labor unions have played a major role in the development of employer-employee relationships from their conception in the 19th century until today.

They were born as a natural result of the consequences of the industrial revolution, when child labor and long working hours were the norm. While labor unions are not without their critics when it comes to their effects on the economy, this article is not going down this road. Rather, we’ll dive into the interesting history of labor unions in the United States in the 19th century, as well as and their most notable accomplishments.

National Labor Union

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The National Labor Union (NLU) is historically America’s first national labor union. It was active for 18 years between 1866 and 1874, and became known for its insistence on labor reforms through arbitration rather than strikes. On its first convention in 1866 in Baltimore, NLU announced its intention to support the passage of a law that would limit the workday to eight hours. It also urged for the creation of more national unions across the country.

A huge chunk of NLU’s members came from guilds of construction workers and other skilled workers. However, the union also welcome unskilled workers and farmers. Throughout its lifespan, it gathered close to 500,000 members.

NLU’s efforts met with limited success, however. While it did manage to grant government workers with an eight-hour workday, a lot of agencies reduced their pay as a result, despite an insistence from President Grant not to do so. Furthermore, NLU is criticized for its campaign against Chinese workers and their insufficient efforts in protecting the rights of black and female workers.

In 1872, NLU became the National Labor Reform Party, but did poorly on the presidential elections and dissolved two years later. Still, it’s important to note that NLU’s efforts laid down the foundations of workers’ rights and made it easier for other organizations to follow suit.

Knights of Labor

The Knights of Labor, established in 1869, benefited from the dissolution of the NLU and emerged as the leading labor union of the 1880s. In 1886 their member base numbered around 800,000 people.

Many of the initial supporters of the Knights of Labor came from the guilds of coal workers, but soon other skilled professions joined in, too. There were a few professions that were excluded from participation, however. These were lawyers, doctors, bankers, stockholders and alcohol manufacturers, because their jobs weren’t seen as contributing to society.

Similarly to their predecessors, the Knights of Labor pushed for an eight-hour workday. They also demanded an end to child labor and convict labor and were among the first organization to demand the adoption of progressive taxation. Their principles are best described in their 1878 Platform. Although they were originally opposed to strikes as a way of achieving their goals, the Knights of Labor did eventually participate in a few strikes.

Their most notable achievement is perhaps the Union Pacific Railroad strike of 1884. When Jay Gould attempted to introduce a 10% cut in workers’ wages two times in three months, union members quickly organized strikes to prevent him from enacting the move. In retaliation, Gould started to fire workers who were known as active members of the union. As a response to that, the Knight of Labor ordered all of its Union Pacific Railroad members to cease work on the tracks, so Gould would be forced to concede. Following the success of the strike, membership at the union skyrocketed and increased from 100,000 to 700,000 in just one year.

Leaders of the Knights of Labor, however, were still unconvinced about the effectiveness of strikes and boycotts. This principle, coupled with other internal conflicts, led to the decline of the union. While it technically existed until 1943, by the beginning of the 1890′s, it was already down to less than 100,000 members.

American Federation of Labor

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was a group of smaller craft unions and remains in history as the first federation of labor unions in the US. Established in 1886, a big part of Federation members came from workers unhappy with the Knights of Labor.

AFL was established by Samuel Gompers, who came from a family of cigar makers. He was conservative politically and excluded unskilled workers from the AFL, knowing this would allow for more political and economic influence, even though unskilled workers at the time were in more dire need for improved working conditions. Although an immigrant himself, Gompers was opposed to unrestricted immigration from Europe and other parts of the world, fearing this would disrupt the labor market.

AFL’s major efforts for the remainder of the 19th century focused on industries such as construction, mining, railways and steel manufacturing. Gompers preferred negotiations over strikes and boycotts, but he wasn’t averse to using them when deemed necessary. Among the reforms that AFL pushed, fixed work hours and working conditions were bargained with each individual employer, rather than settled by lawmakers. AFL maintained that employers should only hire union workers, a procedure known as a closed shop.

Historians think that Gompers’ insistence on simple solutions to workers’ issues gave result. The last two decades of the 19th century saw over 20,000 strikes, many of which brought better wages and working conditions to workers from various trades.

AFL’s influence continued well into the 20th century, making it one of America’s longest lasting labor unions. In 1900, AFL had a membership base of about 500,000. Its decline is attributed to the 1935 convention, when members were divided by the long-standing question of whether the union should be organized around crafts or industries. Supporters of the latter defected and organized the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO).

In 1955 the two labor unions joined once again and formed today’s AFL-CIO.

As you can see, much of what is taken for granted today, was fought for by labor unions in the 19th century. Their popularity, however, gradually declined in the later part of the 20th century. What do you think is the main reason they didn’t survive? We would love it if you shared your opinion in the comment section.

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