Labor Union in the United States

Category: United States
Last Updated: 08 Apr 2020
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The United States Labor Unions can be considered as an organized group that usually represent the workers from their employees, aimed to legally function as a representative in a legal manner, in the various field or industries. Their activities are centered in the collective bargaining for wage increase, the proper implementation of benefits, good working conditions, and served as a representative if the company neglects or violates provisions from the contract. Aside from these focal points, the Labor Unions also served as a political influence (specifically inside the Democratic Party) through different coalitions with the same principle oriented activists and through strategic mobilization aimed at strengthening the numbers of their memberships.

The evolution of Labor Union in the United States dated way back from the 18th Century. From the conception of the National Labor Union and the Knights of Labor- which were short-lived, followed by the rise of the American Federation of Labor in 1886. The 1900 saw the emergence of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, the eventual splitting of the AFL in 1938 and the birth of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the merger of AFL and CIO in 1955, and the founding of the Change to Win Federation which emerged after splitting from the AFL-CIO umbrella in 2005. In general, the history of the United States Labor Union was categorized into four: The early Unions, the labor history from 1900-1932, labor history from 1932- 1955, the labor history from 1955 to 2005, and the labor union at present.

Within these periods, several unprecedented and relevant events happened such as the Pullman strike and the Haymarket riot (between 1886 and 1894), the coal strikes (1900-1902), Dual Unionism, Gompers and AFL, Railroad Brotherhoods, the effect of World War 1 and 2, the New Deal Labor Policy, New Deal Coalition and PAC, Taft-Hartley Act, issues of corruptions, civil rights movement, the rise of the Public Sector Unions, the decline of the private sector unions, the NAFTA and the International Trade threat.

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The first local labor union (the Early Unions), the Order of the Knights of St. Crispin, was established in 1867 having an approximate of around 50,000 members by year 1870. The group resisted certain encroachments of several machineries and the matter of non-skilled labor regarding the autonomy of such skilled workers. Though considered the largest union at that time, the group was poorly disorganized that caused to its decline and eventual abolishment.

After the abolishment of the Order of the Knights, the Knights of Labor was established in 1869. It was considered the first functional and effective labor union or organization through an effort of enlisting not only the laborers in their ranks but also believed in protecting the common interests of all groups engaged in production.  Their leader, Terence Powderly, initiated several causes through the influence of politics or by cooperative tie-ups and ventures. Though he hoped towards achieving their causes, the Union collapsed on its first big strike during the Hayment Riot in 1886.

In 1886, after the abolishment of the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor was established. It was comprised mostly of confederations of skilled workers responsible of setting the organizational model being used until today. During this transition, from the Order of the Knights to the establishment of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), a major strike transpired that added much significant effects on U.S. economical status.

The Pullman strike, happened on June 26, 1894 with around 125,000 workers on an approximate 29 railroad stations, quit their work instead of working on Pullman Palace Car Company. The cause of the strike was the declined decision of the company to decrease rent on the town of Pullman. The effect was a total production shutdown of the Pullman factories that eventually led to a lock out. United States Marshals and approximately 2,000 soldiers were deployed to break up the strike, leaving around $340,000 worth of damage properties, 57 wounded and 13 strikers killed.

The American Federation of Labor or AFL was established by Samuel Gompers. The federation comprised mostly of skilled and unskilled workers, except for the African American and women who were excluded. This started the Labor Union history from 1900-1932, and from this period several developments transpired such as the increase in unionized wages, the creation of Clayton Act of 1914, the enactment of the Norris-LaGuardia Act in 1932, the coalition formed by the Socialist Party of America, and the most common events- strikes.

The Coal strike of 1900-1902 was considered one of the most comprehensive strikes ever happened creating a political crisis on a national scale. It was spearheaded by the United Mine Workers on the Midwest that started in 1900. The United States President at that time, Theodore Roosevelt, made a compromise on the miners on increasing their wages for shorter hours but excluded the view of recognizing the union as the workers representative in the bargaining table.

Another strike that transpired was the Great Railroad Strike happened in 1922, wherein a nationwide strike was conducted by shop workers of the railroad. The cause of the strike was the decision of the Railroad Labor Board to cut seven cents from the workers wages thus creating hostility and an approximate 400,000 positions vacated by the strikers. The strike eventually died down on a local level since some of the shop workers did made agreements with the railroads after.

The Labor history of 1932- 1955 witnessed the founding of another influential Union in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), founded by John Llewellyn Lewis, who eventually also the President of the United Mine Workers or UMW. The CIO was instrumental in the establishment of the United Steel Workers of America or the USWA that consisted of around millions of organized group of industrial workers during the 1930’s.

His desire to expand the union’s membership and acquire in organizing the steel industry lead to an effort of organizing steel workers. This put him into a contrast between the AFL since he was concerned on organizing all industrial unions and workers in a specific industry instead of in a particular craft or trade skill only.  The conflict was then resolved by establishing the CIO but the leader of the AFL, William Green, opposed such.

The CIO hoped to have a change of policy within the AFL with regards to their industrial organizing but the AFL treated them as an enemy and antagonism arose leading to the formal establishment of the CIO in 1938 to become its rival federation union. Since then the CIO was instrumental in several sit-down strikes such as the Flint sit-down strike, and the Chrysler sit-down strike. Their actual members were approximated at 2,850,000 from various members of the local labor unions such as coming from the Steel Workers, Electrical Workers, Amalgamated Clothing Workers, Rubber Workers, and United Mine Workers. (Karson, 1958).

The negotiations of the Flint Sit-Down strike led the way for the establishment of the United Auto Workers Union or UAW in 1936- 1937. Walter Reuther took control of the union during the war and soon initiated some major strikes. The UAW eventually led the way for the merging of the AFL and the CIO in 1955.

From 1955 to present, the labor unions consisted of two major organizations: the Change to Win Federation who broke up with the ALF-CIO in 2005, and the American Federation of Labor- Congress of Industrial Organizations. Both groups advocates legislations and policies in favor to the workers of the United States and Canada, took active participation in politics specifically favoring the Democratic Party. While the AFL-CIO is concerned with trade issues in a global perspective, the Change to Win Federation is concerned more in issues involving domestic Craft labor.

Union members of the private sector have been severely regulated by the NLRA or the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. The unions are usually regulated in a sense by state laws and partly by federal laws. Thus it resulted in considerable growth rates, and working conditions as well as the wages are brought into negotiations with the elected state and local officials, therefore enhancing the political influences of the Unions.

Other manifestation of unionism may include Solidarity unionism, minority unionism, and the practices being employed by an organization like the Industrial Workers of the World.

The American Union membership specifically in the private sector has fallen by an approximate of 9% .and only the Commercial group retained some 50% of union representation. It also remained an indispensable political influence and the capital mobility, economic liberalization, and globalization improved in a tremendous fashion uplifting the standard of living being enjoyed by the American workers. In a real sense the Labor Union in the United States served as a role model for labor Domestic force. It’s served as a representative, an intermediary, for the social workers welfare against the violations of the Company to achieve specific arrangements that will benefit both workers and the Administration.


Commons, John R. (1918). History of Labour in the United States - Vol. 2 1860-1896.

Karson, Marc (1958). American Labor Unions and Politics, 1900-1918.

Beik, Millie (2005). Labor Relations: Major Issues in American History.


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Labor Union in the United States. (2017, Feb 02). Retrieved from

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