Labor unions have existed in one form or another in the United States since the birth of the country. They were created in an effort to protect the working population from abuses such as sweatshops and unsafe working conditions. On the other hand, they have also been accused of crippling industries and consorting with organized crime over the decades. But in one way or another, labor unions have been woven into the political, economic and cultural fabric of America, and their influence has played a colorful role in its development.

Origin of the First Labor Union

The first hundred years of U.S. history saw relatively little in the development of labor unions. A few were organized in scattered fashion, but many of those simply disbanded after they had achieved their goals, such as when the printers briefly unionized in New York City in 1778. The first successful strike in building trades took place in 1791 when Philadelphia carpenters campaigned for a 10-hour workday. The need for both skilled and unskilled labor mushroomed during the Industrial Revolution and the Civil War and the subsequent discontinuation of slavery helped to illustrate the right of workers to receive a fair wage for their labor.

Protecting Worker Rights

The National Labor Union was created in 1866 to convince Congress to limit the workday for federal employees to eight hours, but the private sector was much harder for unions to penetrate. The continual flood of immigrants coming into the country further diluted the workforce, and the price of labor declined as a result. Poor pay and working conditions in the 1890s and early 1900s led the Pullman Railroad workers and United Mine workers to lay down their tools in protest, but both strikes were broken up by the government. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions was formed in 1881, and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was founded five years later. Congress became more sympathetic toward the labor force as time passed, which led to the creation of the Department of Labor. The Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 allowed employees to strike and boycott their employers and was followed by the Public Contract and the Fair Labor Standards Acts, which mandated a minimum wage, extra pay for overtime work and basic child labor laws.

The Impact of Wartime

Labor unions grew in power and number from the Civil War through World War I, as the need for factory workers and other laborers continued to increase. They lost ground during the Roaring '20s, however, when the economy grew so much that the need for unionization seemed irrelevant. But the Great Depression quickly reversed this trend and unions grew stronger than ever under Roosevelt's New Deal policies. Union membership grew exponentially as the depression wore on and workers sought employment and protection through their local trade unions.

The power of the labor unions was somewhat curtailed during World War II, however, as some unions, such as those in the defense industry, were forbidden by the government to strike due to the impediment that it would present to wartime production. But the end of the war saw a wave of strikes in many industries and it was at this point that union power and membership reached its zenith. The unions were a controlling force in the economy during the late '40s and '50s, and the AFL merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) at this point to spearhead the American labor force.

Decreasing Power

But the strength of the unions during this era led many union leaders into corruption and complacency, and the power of the unions began to decline in subsequent decades. As additional laws were passed outlawing child labor and mandating equal pay for equal work regardless of race or gender, unions became less important to workers who were able to rely on federal laws to protect them.

The Bottom Line

Despite the erosion in their power and influence, labor unions continue to prove their importance, as they were instrumental in getting President Obama elected in 2008 and reelected in 2012. The unions hoped that Obama would be able to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, a measure of legislation intended to streamline and shorten the process that unions must use to bring in new members. This act would have shifted the balance of power in the workplace in the unions' favor and allowed their memberships to grow rapidly but failed when Democrats were unable to collect the necessary votes.

Union membership ended up decreasing during this time, which many say led members to switch their support to the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, over Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election. Although the effect the Employee Free Choice Act could have had on the economy is unclear, there's no question that unions will continue to play a role in the U.S. labor force for decades to come.