Labor unions are associations of workers formed to protect workers' rights and advance their interests. Unions negotiate with employers through a process known as collective bargaining. The resulting union contract specifies workers’ pay, hours, benefits, and job health-and-safety policies.

Thanks to the efforts of labor unions, workers have achieved higher wages, more reasonable hours, safer working conditions, health benefits, and aid for workers who have retired or been injured. Labor unions were also instrumental in ending the practice of child labor. They have exerted a broad influence on American life, including the political, economic, and cultural fabric of the country.

Key Takeaways

  • A labor union is an association of workers formed to negotiate collectively with an employer to protect and further workers rights and interests.
  • Sustained trade union organizing among American workers began in 1794 with the establishment of the first trade union.
  • Discrimination in unions was common until after WW II and kept Blacks, women, and immigrants out of higher-skilled and higher-paid jobs. Today, labor union members are very diverse, including more female and Black workers than ever before.
  • National organized labor groups have influenced federal legislation, such as the creation of the U.S. Department of Labor and civil rights legislation.
  • Union power and membership reached a high point in the U.S. during the 1940s and 1950s. Today, the biggest gains in union membership are among people under 34 years of age.

The Rise of Labor Unions in the U.S.

Labor unions have existed in the United States since the birth of the country, tracing their origins back to the 18th-century Industrial Revolution in Europe.

The first recorded instance of a worker strike in America occurred in 1768 when journeymen tailors protested a wage reduction. In 1794 Philadelphia shoemakers, formed a union, called the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers; its establishment marked the beginning of sustained trade union organization in the U.S.

From this point forward, local craft and trade unions proliferated in major American cities. Industrialization resulted in the aggregation of workers in large factories, creating fertile ground for union growth. Large factories also put multiple trades under one roof, eventually leading to alliances among unions. Achieving a shorter workday was one of the unions' major accomplishments.

Excluding Women, Blacks, and Immigrants

After the Civil War and the end of slavery, the need for both skilled and unskilled labor increased. Union members in the skilled trades remained overwhelmingly native-born White Protestant males throughout the 19th century. These higher-paid workers had the funds to pay union dues and contribute to strike funds. They were reluctant to organize unskilled Irish and Italian immigrants, and also excluded women and Black people. Black workers were often paid lower wages, which made White workers fear they would be replaced by cheaper labor.

Excluded groups organized their own unions. Black caulkers in the shipbuilding industry held a strike at the Washington Navy Yard in 1835. Women tailors, shoe binders, mill workers, and Black laundresses formed their own unions. In 1867, the National Union for Cigar Makers because the first union to accept women and Blacks. And in 1912, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which had been organizing in the telephone industry, accepted telephone operators, who were primarily women. 

Protecting Workers' Rights

Winning gains for all workers and citizens—such as a shorter work day and a minimum wage—has been a key part of union activity. In 1866, the National Labor Union was created with the goal of limiting the workday for federal employees to eight hours. However, the private sector was much harder for unions to penetrate.

With a continual flood of immigrants coming into the country, the price of labor declined. One group was often pitted against another to keep wages down. When Irish workers won raises in pay from the railroads, for example, Chinese workers were brought in to replace them. In 1867 more than 2,000 Chinese workers, who were grading and digging tunnels for the transcontinental railroad, simultaneously threw down their picks and shovels, protesting their lower pay compared with White workers. Their strike failed after the railroad owner cut off all food and supplies. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Filipino and Japanese sugar plantation workers went on strike in Hawaii, as did Chinese garment workers in San Francisco and New York City.

Poor pay and working conditions led to work stoppages by the Pullman Railroad Workers and the United Mineworkers, but both strikes were broken up by the government. Eugene Debs, leader of the American Railway Union in the 1894 strike against the Pullman Company, was unable to convince members of his union to accept Black railroad workers. Blacks in turn served as strikebreakers for the Pullman Company and for the owners of Chicago meatpacking companies whose stockyard workers struck in sympathy.  

In 1925 A. Philip Randolph began his successful 12-year fight to gain recognition for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters by the Pullman Car Company, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and the U.S. government. Randolph ultimately succeeded in his quest in 1937.

A. Philip Randolph and other railroad sleeping-car porters who successfully unionized were among the leaders of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Labor Reform Legislation

Unions worked not only for improvements in pay and working conditions, but also for labor reforms.

The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions was formed in 1881, and the AFL was founded five years later. Their combined organizing force led to the act of Congress that created the Department of Labor (DOL) in 1913. The Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 allowed employees to strike and boycott their employers; it was followed by the Walsh-Healey Public Contracts Act (PCA) of 1936 and the Fair Labor Standards Acts of 1938, which mandated a minimum wage, extra pay for overtime work, and basic child labor laws. Later on, the AFL-CIO played a crucial role in helping to pass civil rights legislation in 1964-1965.  

The Impact of Depression and War

From the Civil War through World War I, labor unions grew in power and number. During the 1920s, they lost some influence, but the Great Depression quickly reversed this trend, with workers turning to their local trade unions to find employment and protection. Union membership grew exponentially as the Depression wore on. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), established in the 1930s, organized large numbers of Black workers into labor unions for the first time. There were more than 200,000 African Americans in the CIO in 1940, many of them officers of union locals.

During World War II the influence of labor unions was somewhat curtailed. Some unions, such as those in the defense industry, were forbidden by the government to strike because of the impediment it would present to wartime production.

But the end of the war saw a wave of strikes in many industries; union power and membership (as a percent of employment) reached a high point during this period, from the 1940s to the 1950s. The AFL merged with the CIO–becoming the AFL-CIO in 1955–in order to influence policies that would impact the American labor force.

Some of the founding trade unionists were socialists, communists, or anarchists interested in leveraging union organization into broader revolutionary change. Others focused solely on bread-and-butter issues. Federal legislation known as the Taft-Hartley Act, passed in 1947 over President Truman’s veto, required all union officials to file an affidavit and take an oath that they were not communists. This and many other provisions of the act (such as the ban of sympathy strikes or boycotts) led to a weakening of the union movement.

Organizing Lower-Paid Workers

The next decades brought unionization to some of the lowest-paid workers in the nation’s hospitals, nursing homes, and farms. Hospital workers in New York City were organized by 1199, a mostly White and Jewish union of pharmacists led by Leon Davis. In the late 1950s, during the first flush of the civil rights movement, 1199 mobilized the largely Black and Latinx female workforce. An unprecedented 46-day strike at seven of the city’s most prestigious hospitals ended with the workers winning union recognition and better pay and working conditions. In the 1990s, 1199 organized thousands of nursing-home and home care workers, and later merged with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to become 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.

From 1965 to 1970 Filipino and Mexican American farm workers, led by Philip Vera Cruz, Cesar Chavez, and Dolores Huerta, organized a grape boycott that succeeded in rallying national support. After five years, it brought grape growers to the table to sign a first union contract granting better pay, benefits, and protections. However, agricultural workers today still have a very low rate (under 2%) of union membership. 

In 1979 the number of union members reached a peak of 21 million. As additional laws were passed outlawing child labor and mandating equal pay for equal work regardless of race or gender, workers were able to rely on federal laws to protect them. Despite the erosion in labor unions' member numbers, power, and influence since that time, they continued to prove their importance, particularly in the political sphere.

Unions Today

In 2008, unions were instrumental in getting President Barack Obama elected (and reelected in 2012). Union leaders were hopeful that Obama would be able to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation intended to streamline and shorten the process of bringing new members into unions. But Democrats were unable to garner enough support to pass the law. Union membership decreased during the Obama administration, which may have led some union members to switch their support to Republican Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election.

Today the highest rates of union membership are in the public sector—in local government, for example, which employs police officers, firefighters, and teachers. Private-sector industries with high unionization rates include utilities, transportation, and warehousing and telecommunications. In 2019, nonunion workers had median weekly earnings that were 81% of earnings for workers who were union members ($892 versus $1,095).

20%

Percentage of Black workers who are union members, according to the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.

Organized labor is now more diverse than ever before. Of the 14.7 million wage and salary workers who were part of a union in 2018, 28% were Black and 25% were women. Black union members earn 40% more than non-union Black workers.

Approval for labor unions is at a 50-year high, according to an August 2019 Gallup Poll. In recent years, the biggest gains in union membership have been among younger workers, ages 34 and under. Young people are unionizing in new sectors, such as art museums, cannabis shops, digital-media brands, political campaigns, and tech companies. 

COVID-19 safety concerns have resulted in worker actions in 2020 by staff at McDonald's, Amazon, childcare centers, hotels, and other workplaces. Labor unions, including the National Nurse’s Union, American Federation of Teachers, and United Farm Workers, have spoken out on the topic of safety for their members and all workers. These gains and activities notwithstanding, it remains to be seen whether unions will grow their membership in the next decade.