Labor unions have existed in the United States since the birth of the country. A labor union is an association of workers that is formed to protect and further their rights and interests. The formation of a labor union–or a trade union–allows for an organized group of workers to come together to make decisions about conditions impacting their work.

Labor unions can trace their origins back to the Industrial Revolution in Europe in the eighteenth century. As a result of labor unions and trade unions, workers have achieved better wages, more reasonable hours, safer working conditions, the provision of health benefits, and aid for workers who have retired or been injured. Labor unions were also instrumental in ending the practice of child labor.

Key Takeaways

  • A labor union is an association of workers that is formed to protect and further their rights and interests.
  • The formation of a union of shoemakers in Philadelphia in 1794, called the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers, marked the beginning of sustained trade union organization among American workers. 
  • The combined organizing forces of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) led to the act of Congress that created the U.S. Department of Labor.
  • Union power and membership may have reached its zenith in the U.S. during the time period that spanned from the 1940s to the 1950s.
  • Today, the forces of organized labor are very diverse; they include more women and Black people than ever before.

Labor unions have also been criticized on the basis of the claim that they reduce competition in the free market economy. At times, labor unions have also been complicit in organized criminal activity. Since their inception, labor unions have exerted some influence on all areas of American life, including the political, economic, and cultural fabric of the country.

Origins of the First Labor Union

The first recorded instance of a worker strike occurred in 1768 when journeymen tailors protested a wage reduction. The formation of a union of shoemakers in Philadelphia in 1794, called the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers, marked the beginning of sustained trade union organization among American workers. 

From this point forward, local craft unions proliferated in the major American cities. One of the unions' major accomplishments in the face of the Industrial Revolution was to demand a shorter workday. After the Civil War, and the subsequent discontinuation of slavery, the need for both skilled and unskilled labor increased, in addition to a general expectation that all workers would receive a fair compensation for their labor.

Protecting Worker Rights

The National Labor Union was created in 1866 with the goal of limiting the workday for federal employees to eight hours. However, the private sector was much harder for unions to penetrate.

At this time, there was a continual flood of immigrants coming into the country, and the price of labor declined. Poor pay and working conditions in the 1890s and early 1900s led the Pullman Railroad workers and the United mineworkers 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. The combined organizing forces of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions and AFL led to the act of Congress that created the U.S. Department of Labor 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.

The Impact of Wartime

Labor unions grew in power and number from the Civil War through World War I, in part due to the increased need for factory workers and other laborers. During the 1920s, they lost some influence, but the Great Depression quickly reversed this trend; unions grew stronger than ever under then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal policies. Union membership grew exponentially as the depression wore on. During this time, workers turned to their local trade unions to find employment and protection.

However, the influence of these labor unions was somewhat curtailed during World War II. 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; union power and membership may have reached its zenith during this time period, from the 1940s to the 1950s. The AFL merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)–becoming the AFL-CIO in 1955–in order to influence policies that would impact the American labor force.

Although labor unions could exert a significant amount of influence, their activity began to wane towards the end of the 20th century. For example, between 1975 and 1985, union membership fell by 5 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.

The Bottom Line

Despite the erosion in their power and influence, labor unions continue to prove their importance, particularly in the political sphere. In 2008, they were instrumental in getting President Barack Obama elected (and reelected in 2012).

The unions were hopeful 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. The Employee Free Choice Act would allow workers the choice to organize a union through a simple majority sign-up process. (Section 2 would have eliminated the need for an additional ballot to require an employer to recognize a union if a majority of workers have already signed cards expressing their wish to have a union.)

Proponents of this Act believe that it will protect workers' rights to join together in unions and make it harder for the management of a company to threaten workers seeking to organize a union. However, this Act failed to pass when Democrats were unable to collect the necessary votes.

Union membership ended up decreasing during the Obama administration, which may have led some union 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 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. The bill was introduced again in 2016 in the 114th Congress by Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida.

Today, the forces of organized labor are more diverse than they've ever been before. In 2018, of the 14.7 million wage and salary workers who were part of a union (compared to 17.7 million in 1983), 25% were women and 28% were Black.