The History of Unions in the United States

Milestones in the struggle to protect workers' rights

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 when retired or injured. Labor unions were also instrumental in ending the practice of child labor. They have exerted a broad influence on American life, reshaping 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 WWII and kept Black workers, women, and immigrants out of higher-skilled and higher-paid jobs. Today, labor union members are very diverse, including more women 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.
The History of Unions in the United States

Investopedia / Sabrina Jiang

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, Black Workers, 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 workers. 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 was the first union to accept women and Black workers. 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 workday 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, thousands of 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.

Poor pay and working conditions led to work stoppages by the Pullman Railroad Workers and the United Mine Workers, 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. Black workers in turn served as strikebreakers for the Pullman Company and for the owners of Chicago meatpacking companies whose stockyard workers struck in sympathy.

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

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.

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.

Impact of the 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 Black workers 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 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 farmworkers, 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 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 re-elected 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. Current President Joe Biden then worked to get unions back on board with the Democrats by vowing to be the “most pro-union president leading the most pro-union administration in American history.”

Today, the highest rates of union membership are in the public sector and specifically in local government, which covers the heavily unionized occupations of police officers, firefighters, and teachers. Private-sector industries with high unionization rates include utilities, motion pictures, and sound recording, and transportation and warehousing.

In 2021, non-union workers had median weekly earnings of $975, which is $194 less than the $1,169 recorded for union members.

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. In 2021, 14 million people employed in the U.S. belonged to unions, representing about a tenth of the working population. Representation was fairly evenly divided among genders and races, with Black workers, at an enrollment rate of 11.5%, the most likely of all races to be part of a union.

Less encouraging for unions is the gradual decline in membership rates—in 1983, about 20% of the working U.S. population was part of a union. Still, there are some signs that the popularity of unions is improving.

Approval for labor unions is at its highest point since 1965, according to a Gallup Poll, with 68% of Americans said to be in favor of them in 2021. COVID-19 is one of the reasons labor unions are winning over Americans again. Key themes that have emerged during the pandemic include employees being forced to work without protective gear, having no access to sick pay, and being subjected to mass layoffs.

Younger generations are also helping to boost union membership. Some reports claim the biggest gains in union membership in recent years have been among workers aged 34 and under. Young people are unionizing in new sectors, too, such as art museums, cannabis shops, digital-media brands, political campaigns, and tech companies.

When Did Unions Start to Form in the U.S.?

The first strike to be recorded in the U.S. took place in 1768 when journeymen tailors protested their wage getting slashed. Twenty-six years later, in 1794, The Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers was formed, marking the beginning of sustained trade union organization among American workers.

Why Were Unions Created?

Labor unions were created to protect employee rights and stop exploitation. Members fight together for better pay and working conditions and collectively can be influential enough to engineer change.

What Tools Do Labor Unions Use to Enforce Change?

Two powerful tools that unions use to promote their members’ interests are strikes, which essentially involve refusing to work as a form of protest, and collective bargaining, which is the negotiating of employment terms between an employer and a group of workers.

Article Sources

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