Labor Unions

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Labor Unions: Aging Dinosaur or Sleeping Giant?

The Labor Movement and Unionism Background and Brief History

Higher wages! Shorter workdays! Better working conditions! These famous words echoed throughout the United States beginning in ô1790 with the skilled craftsmenö (Dessler, 1997, p. 544). For the last two-hundred years, workers of all trades have been fighting for their rights and ôseeking methods of improving their living standards, working conditions, and job securityö (Boone, 1996,p.287). As time went by, these individuals came to the conclusion that if they work together collectively, they would grow stronger to get responses to their demands. This inspired into what we know today as labor unions. ôA labor union is an organized group of workers whose purpose is to increase wages and influence other job conditions for its membersö (Parkin, 1998,p.344).

These labor unions can be divided into two types: craft unions and industrial unions (World, 1998). A craft union is ôa union whose membership is restricted to workers who possess an identifiable skillö (Robinson, 1985,p. 69). These members tend to be better educated and trained, and more unified because of common interests (World, 1998). An example of a craft union is the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (World, 1998). On the other hand, an industrialized union ôis a group of workers who have a variety of skills and job types but work for the same industryö (Parkin, 1998, p. 344). Unions of this type include the United Steelworkers, United Auto Workers, and the United Transportation Union (Boone, 1996).

History from the 1870Æs to 1900Æs. The first national union founded in Philadelphia in 1869 in the pre-Civil War period was the Knights of Labor, which ôintended to include all workersö (Encyclopedia, 1996, p. 630). For a decade, this organization grew at a slow pace due to operating in secrecy until the failure of railroad strikes that increased membership to over 700,000 in 1886 (Robinson, 1985). Their advance and efforts had persuaded legislation to enact the following laws: ôabolition of convict-made goods, establishment of bureaus of labor statistics, and prohibition of the importation of European labor under contractö (Encyclopedia, 1996, p. 630).

In 1890, the Knights of Labor membership had declined to only 100,000 members and the number of members continued to decline and eventually disappeared. The decline is said to have been a result of ôinadequate national leadership, opposition from existing craft unions, and the loss of major strikes in meat packing and railroads in 1886 and 1887ö (Robinson, 1985, p. 57).

In December 1886, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was formed in Columbus, Ohio. The AFL was originally named the Federated Organization of Trades and Labor Union back in 1881. The AFL was a ônational union made up of affiliated, individual craft unionsö (Boone, 1996, p. 288). The first president of the AFL was Samuel Gompers. On the contrary to the Knights of Labor, GompersÆ focus was to raise day-to-day wages, and continue to improve the working conditions (Dessler, 1997). After the formation of the AFL, the period included significant developments. In the early 1890Æs, the United Mine Workers was formed, becoming the first major United States industrialized union (Robinson, 1985). In addition, a significant defeat occurred in organized labor. The defeat is known as the strike at Homestead, Pennsylvania. The ôAmalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers was eliminated from the steel industryö (Robinson, 1985, p. 58).

History from 1905 to 1920. In 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) challenged the AFL, prior to the depression of the 1930Æs. The IWW invited the unskilled and semiskilled workers that the AFL had denied and was a success from 1910 to 1915 (Encyclopedia, 1996). The results of this had decreased the AFL membership for a short period of time,...
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