The History of Organized Labor
The History of Organized Labor
The first national labor unions were formed during the 1850??™s. These groups of workers were the typesetters, iron molders, hat finishers, stonecutters, and cigar makers. Locomotive engineers formed a union in 1863 and conductors formed a union in 1868. In 1866, the National Labor Union began in Baltimore. The National Labor Union was many different unions all under the leadership of William Sylvis. They eventually got Congress to pass an eight hour work day for Federal workers. When Williams Sylvis died in 1969 the National Labor Union fell apart and only 10 of the 30 unions remained.
A union of shoemakers formed in 1867. They were called The Knights of St. Crispin, but because of new machines that could make the shoes, the union ended after 10 years. The Knights of Labor began in 1869. Membership was opened to all people no matter what race, sex, or profession. By the 1880??™s the Knights of Labor had almost 750,000 members, but that number began to decline after the Haymarket Square Riots. The Haymarket Square Riots was when The Knights of Labor were accused of throwing a bomb that killed some police officers. The union fell apart because of the enormous amount of negative publicity they received from the Haymarket Square Riots.
In 1886, The American Federation of Labor was founded by Samuel Gompers. It was a union for skilled workers only. In 1894, the Pullman Strike occurred at the Pullman plant in Chicago. The American Railroad Union went on strike because of the handling of the Pullman??™s parlor and sleeping car that were on the railroads. 125,000 railroad workers were on strike but eventually the Supreme Court voted with an injunction to end the strike. Another well-known strike occurred in 1902. This strike was the United Mine Workers. More than 100,000 miners from Pennsylvania started a strike on May 12 and kept the mines closed for the whole summer. President Theodore Roosevelt took charge on October 3rd and on October 16th he appointed a commission of mediation and arbitration. On October 21st the miners returned to their jobs and five months later the Presidential Commission awarded the miners a 10 percent wage increase as well as shorter work days.
Many labor laws passed after the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911. 146 people, mostly women, were killed because the company had locked the main exit doors in order to keep the employees from leaving during the work day. The first African American union was the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. In the 20??™s more than 20,000 African Americans worked as porters at the Pullman Company. The company would fire people who tried to organize labor unions for fewer hours and more pay, as a result, in 1925, the porters went to Philip Randolph, who was an African American who wasn??™t employed by the Pullman Company. Randolph then created the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and in 1936 it was formally accepted by the American Federation of Labor. In 1937, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters received its first labor contract, which decreased work hours and increased wages. It was a huge stepping stone for African Americans and the American labor union.
After World War I union membership dropped significantly from 5 million, in 1921, to only 3.4 million, in 1929. The dramatic decrease in membership was due to a few different things. Communists looking for power in the unions tested the leadership during this time. Also, employers were doing anti-union activities such as giving benefits like health insurance to nonunion workers, which made people who otherwise would??™ve joined the union, second guess that so they could have health insurance. Unions lost members during the Great Depression, but the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the start of the New Deal were both positives things for organized labor. The Federal Government worked on getting people back to work and in 1938, minimum wages and maximum hours were legislated.
In 1935, the Social Security Act was passed which provided unemployment insurance and elderly and survivors??™ insurance. The National Labor Relations Board was started so workers could organize and negotiate without the interference of their employers, thus membership in unions increased considerably. In November 1935, the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) was created and lead by John Lewis. He worked to organize automobile and steel workers. The CIO started sit-down strikes, where workers refused to leave the factories or do work. Employers were not able to bring in strikebreakers, who were people companies brought in to take the place of the workers that had went on strike, to continue production during these sit-down strikes. The CIO merged with the AFL (American Federation of Labor) in New York on December 5, 1955 to be the AFL-CIO. The merging of the AFL-CIO practically got rid of all of the arguments between different unions, so the unions could move forward to try and gain more rights for workers. Over the past forty years union membership has little by little declined because of employers keeping their companies union-free, and many more woman and teenagers are working for lower wages.
Still, organized labor has had a great impact on the work place. Workers have much safer working conditions than they used to have. Unions ended child labor and brought upon the 40 hour work week. They also got people breaks during their work day. People now get paid for their overtime hours they put in, which would be nonexistent without unions. Workers can now file grievances for jobs that they feel may be unsafe to them or about an issue they have with their job or work environment. Employees are provided with or required to wear certain types of clothing and shoes in order to prevent them from injury.
The social impact of organized labor has been great as well. Workers used to work 10 hour days for 6 days a week. Children as young as eight years old were working instead of going to school. Men and women received no benefits when they retired. Women who became pregnant were often fired. Now, workers have high wages and better hours. Workers receive medical coverage and paid vacation. There is now workman??™s compensation for if a worker would hurt themselves on the job the company must pay for your medical bills as well as pay you a percentage of your wage while you are unable to work. The union has brought not only union workers wages up but has also brought up wages of all American workers.
Organized labor unions are a very important aspect of the history of the American worker. The unions went through many ups and downs and have faced many obstacles throughout their push towards better working conditions and benefits for workers. If not for organized labor, workers today would not receive the higher wages and better hours amongst other things that they do. People would still be working with very few benefits from they??™re backbreaking jobs. I myself have been raised in a family that believes very strongly in what unions can do for the American worker. I believe in what a union can do and provide for an individual who otherwise wouldn??™t be able to get much accomplished by themselves. Unions have come a long way and we can only hope that they keep doing what they??™ve strived to do, over the years, for the average American worker.
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