The Rise and Fall and RISE of Labor Unions

Members of the Knights of Labor
Members of the Knights of Labor circa 1880

The organized labor movement in the U.S. and Britain grew out of a relatively simple concept.  The idea of protecting and advancing the common interest and rights of workers. Sounds fair, right? Still, labor unions had a LONG and torturous rise to influence, fighting the wealthy and powerful owners and corporations every step of the way. They peaked in 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, then … began to lose influence.

The most powerful tool of any labor union is of course the STRIKE, with workers boldly walking off the job, picketing the business. Then, through collective bargaining, unions and owners painstakingly negotiate a contract that specifies workers’ pay, hours, benefits, pensions and safety.  Organized labor was far from perfect and national unions were prone to corruption at the highest levels.  Discrimination was also common and excluded Blacks, women, and most immigrants until after World War II.  Nevertheless, labor unions brought tremendous positive change to common workers around the world.  So where did it all begin?

Labor unions have existed in the U.S. and British Empire since the 1800’s, when the Industrial Revolution first exploded across Europe.  The labor movement however began even before then, in the artisan trades in the America-Britain colonial years. The first trade unions were local craft and skilled trade unions which sprouted up in most major American and British cities. So, unions are in fact as old as the U.S. “Founding Fathers.” In addition to freedom and liberty, the American Revolution also celebrated equality and honest labor.

By 1900, the new global economy revolved around industrial factories.

In 1800, the vast majority of work was still done on the family farm. When the Industrial Revolution began, a new economy, built on capitalism and greed, ran counter to labor’s vision of fair play. There was no middle class back then, only the idle rich and the working poor.  And the old cliché was never truer: The rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Laborers slowly realized they must unite to demand change.

The Industrial Revolution had also aggregated hundreds of workers into new large factories, unknowingly creating the numbers needed for organized labor. Factories also put multiple trades under one roof, making possible alliances across the nation and amongst unions. Even though they lacked money, education, and power, workers knew they had strength in numbers.  There was a lot of disagreement to start.  Some considered Marxism as the solution, others anarchy. Plus fights erupted over whether to admit women, blacks or immigrants.

Despite having the numbers in their favor, owners and bosses often took extreme measures, including intimidation and violence, to prevent labor unions from taking hold. Angry workers, too, often chose the path of violence when strikes and peaceful protests failed. The National Guard was often called in by governors to block their efforts. Judges almost always ruled in favor of the wealthy bosses.  During THe Gilded Age (1870-1890), many Americans believed a socialist revolution would take place. How long would so many of the downtrodden stand to be taken advantage of by Robber Barons like the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Carnegies?

This is indeed when labor took its first steps toward unity.  In the 2nd half of the 19th century, most workers toiled in 10-12 hour shifts, 6-7 days a week, for wages barely enough to pay rent and food. Poor children as young as eight did not go to school, but rather worked in the factories as well. Men and women worked until their bodies gave out. There were NO health or retirement benefits back then.

In the UK, trade unions were not allowed to legally exist until the Royal Commission on Trade Unions in 1867.  Representing primarily coal miners, seamen and textile workers, it was finally agreed that the establishment of unions was to the advantage of both employees AND employers.

In the U.S., the Knights of Labor was created as a society of tailors in Philadelphia in 1869.

It was founded by Uriah Stephens, a New Jersey Quaker. Stephens’ experiences as an indentured tailor led him to believe that a change in society was needed. He believed it wasn’t just enough for a group of workers to strike for higher wages. Instead, ALL tradesmen had to be brought together into a single organization, which could then fight for the interests of ALL.

Members of the “The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor,” were sworn to secrecy, and followed rituals similar to Free Masons. Over the next decade, they expanded across the nation, attracting everyone from blacksmiths to boilermakers to bricklayers. The only occupations they excluded were the wealthier bankers, lawyers, and saloon keepers. The Knights grew in size and prominence, eventually playing a key role in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

The Strike was launched after a second 10% pay cut by the B&O Railroad.  It was the first mass strike to involve different types of workers separated across states from Baltimore to Chicago.  More than 100,000 railroad workers had gone on strike, shutting down nearly half of the nation’s rail systems.  The National Guard and federal troops were called in by then President Hayes. When the strike ended, over 100 people were killed and a thousand more imprisoned. Millions of dollars of damage was done to rail lines and trains.

In 1879, Terrence Powderly, an Irish Catholic machinist from Pennsylvania was elected the new leader, and the Knights claimed 700,000 member. In 1884, when the Union Pacific Railroad similarly cut workers’ wages by 10%, the Knights organized another strike, shutting down every one of their railroads from Nebraska to Utah. It only took 5 days for the railroad bosses to capitulate and withdraw their pay cut.

And it wasn’t just fair wages the Knights labor union campaigned for. They championed an eight-hour work day, health and safety guarantees to protect workers, and compensation if they were injured on the job—workers insurance.  The Knights also advocated an end to child labor, equal pay for women, and laws requiring owners to participate in arbitration.

Not every position that the Knights of Labor took was progressive.

They saw Chinese immigrants as cheap labor that bosses used to keep down wages. They supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which barred companies from bringing in unskilled laborers.   By 1886, the Knights suffered several setbacks that started their eventual decline. They mounted another strike against the Southwest Railroad in Texas. The Great Southwest Strike, spread to other states, but led to violent clashes where local police were killed.  Bosses used the Press to shift public opinion against the Knights. In the end, the strikers got nothing.

Chicago Haymarket Labor Riot of 1886
Chicago Haymarket Labor Riot of 1886

A second Knights setback also occurred in 1886, at a labor demonstration in Chicago’s Haymarket Square.  It turned into a bloody riot, resulting in 7 policemen and 4 workers killed. Someone had even thrown a bomb at the police.  Law enforcement responded with crackdowns on all labor groups across the nation. The Knights were again blamed, labeled as anarchists, and members fled. Public opinion continued to turn against them and the union eventually collapsed.

Nevertheless, many of the reforms advocated by the Knights labor union, such as laws for the 8 hour workday and restricting child labor were eventually achieved. Regardless of its ultimate demise, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor stand as a significant stepping stone in the labor movement.

Between 1860 and 1910, the population of the U.S. tripled, and so too did the industrial work force. New steel mills sprung up along rivers to stand alongside textile factories. With a continual flood of immigrants coming in, the price of labor declined. Group were often pitted against one another by clever bosses to keep wages down. When Irish workers won raises in pay from the railroads, Chinese workers were brought in to replace them. 

Still, there were too many who were unwilling to accept big businesses making obscene profits for owners on the backs of poor.  The labor unions joined together in 1886 to form the American Federation of Labor. The AFL represented all workers, irrespective of skill, race, nationality or gender. Their first president was Samuel Gompers, a British Jew who grew up rolling cigars alongside his father in New York City.  The labor movement finally became a real force to be reckoned with.

At the turn of the 20th century, union members in the skilled trades still remained overwhelmingly White Protestant men. These higher-paid workers had the funds to pay union dues and contribute to strike funds. They were reluctant to organize the unskilled Irish and Italian immigrants, or women. Black workers were paid lower wages, which made White workers fear they would be replaced, much like the fear of the Chinese.

When it came to politics, unions were never far from governments. 

The AFL had been created in part to serve as labor’s lobbying arm in Washington. As far back as U.S. President Wilson, organized labor had been leaning toward the Democrats, because of their support of the new immigrant working class. With the coming of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, this alliance solidified, and from 1936 onward, the Democratic Party could count on the votes of its members.  In the UK, an independent Labour Party was formed in 1906, a left-leaning political party representing social democrats and trade unions.

Several memorable US strikes took place in the new century including the Great Coal Strike of 1902, organized by the United Mine Workers, and the Great Steel Strike of 1919, against U.S. Steel.  The Robber Barons fought back, labelling them immigrant communists and employing the private Pinkertons to intimidate strikers.  Nevertheless, the new voting power of the AFL led the U.S. Congress to create the Department of Labor in 1913.  And finally, regulating child labor in the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938.

During the Great Depression, workers turning to their labor unions to find employment and protection.  Membership grew exponentially. In 1935, a faction of the AFL broke away and formed the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO), which aided emerging unions in auto, steel and other industries. It also organized large numbers of Black workers into labor unions for the first time.  By the end of World War II, more than 12 million workers belonged to unions.

The end of World War II also saw thousands of GIs return home, join unions, and get good paying factory jobs.  The U.S. middle class was born.   Thanks to a wave of successful strikes in many industries; union power and membership reached a high point from the 1950s to the 1960s. The AFL merged with the CIO, becoming the powerful and influential AFL-CIO in 1955.

Strikes and collective bargaining worked impressively, more than tripling weekly earnings between 1945 and 1970.  Workers gaining salaries that kept up with inflation, security against old age, illness, unemployment, fair treatment, and safer conditions at the workplace. All were thanks to large unions like UNISON, the Teamsters, and the United Auto Workers.

Organized labor’s grip on industry and its political clout began to weaken after 1970.  

New competitive forces swept through industries, set off by federal deregulation, corporate restructuring, and a virtual flood of cheaper foreign-made goods. As U.S. and British manufacturing moved to India and China for cheap labor, concessions became widespread and U.S. plant closings decimated union memberships. The election of conservatives Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s brought in anti-union administrations similar to the Glided Age.

Between 1975 and 1985, U.S. union membership fell by 5 million. The unionized portion of the manufacturing labor force dropped below 25 percent. Only in the public sector did the unions continue to hold their own. By 1990, less than 15 percent of American workers were organized, half that of the 1950s.

AFL-CIO Headquarters in Washington D.C.
AFL-CIO Headquarters in Washington D.C.

The huge national unions have never been swift to change. The new high-tech industries, with its college educated workforce, seemed beyond the reach of the “old-fashioned” unions.  Nevertheless, the AFL-CIO still held political clout in Washington.  In 2008, unions were key to getting President Barack Obama elected (then re-elected in 2012).

With manufacturing jobs having shifted to China and India, and hundreds of factories shuttered, labor union membership sank even more during the Obama administration.  This led many blue collar union members to switch their political support for the first time. They went instead with a Republican billionaire without political experience, Donald Trump in 2016.  Much like the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age, he successfully drummed up a fear of immigrants flooding in across the border to steal their jobs.

Today, the highest labor union memberships are in the public sector, both federal and local (police officers, teachers, etc.). Private-sector industries that still have high union rates include utilities, transportation, food, and health care. Organized labor is now more diverse than ever. In 2021, 14 million U.S. workers belonged to unions, about 1/10 of the working population.

Today, approval for labor unions is back on the rise, at its highest point since 1965, with 65% of Americans and Brits in favor of them. The middle class remembers the support they offered their parents and grandparents. The COVID Pandemic is one of the reasons unions are winning over hearts again. Key themes that have emerged include employees being forced to work with no access to sick pay, without provided protective gear, and being subjected to mass layoffs without severance.

There are others signs that the popularity of unions is improving.  The Millennial and Gen Z generations have graduated with college degrees only to be disillusioned with wealthy corporations and their billionaire CEOs.  Tesla’s Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos have become the new Andrew Carnegie and Cornelius Vanderbilt.  Some reports claim the biggest gains in membership have been among ages 35 and under. Young people are slowly unionizing in new sectors, too, such as franchises, digital-media, and tech companies. 

Today, global corporations are raking in record profits, rewarding shareholders, but passing little of that vast wealth on to their workers.  Sound familiar?

For more by historical writer Paul Andrews, click BOOKS.

Published by andrewspaulw

LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

One thought on “The Rise and Fall and RISE of Labor Unions

  1. Great article Paul. Folks need to be reminded about the contributions that unions have made to America. The cause of the middle class wouldn’t have never happened without unions. The history of violence against union organizers is appalling. People who just follow management and let them dictate terms are just lemmings. You can’t begrudge people for success but one has to be compensated for the work and hours put in to make a company successful. I had to remind people where I worked about the vacation pay, overtime, health benefits, salary, arbitration rights, Weingarten rights, 8 hour work days, 40 hour work weeks. If fact all the perks that come with any job had to be literally fought for to force employers to supple a decent standard of living. We were lucky to get out of a scenario like in Dicken’s Hard Times. I can’t tell you how frustrated I was being a union rep at TSA and seeing the total apathy or fear of getting involved in the union. Abuses were heaped upon us daily and we were given no choice but to comply. I had many meetings locally and in DC with Congressional Reps who might listen and especially Republican Congressional people who didn’t respect us at all. They didn’t even bother to learn or understand the facts. Trying to educate staff members and such who didn’t know or worse, didn’t care about our situation. Nothing is more American than labor unions. So, I thank you for this post about the history of labor unions. We better get to spreading the information before history gets another rewrite and information about unions get banned by the less than honest and charitable types that are ruining our country as I type this.

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