Labor Unions
Frameworks for America's Past
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What are labor unions?

   Labor unions are organizations of workers.  They are also called unions or organized labor.  Labor unions grew common as industry and big businesses expanded rapidly in the late 1880s and 1890s.
   Unions attempt to win higher pay, shorter work hours, and improved safety conditions for the union members.  They hold talks with company managers every few years to reach a written agreement on pay rates for the workers and other matters.  This agreement is called a union contract.

   Being a member of a union is often an advantage for workers.  It gives workers a stronger voice than just asking individually for a raise or improvements in work conditions.

Example: The United Auto Workers union

   The photo below shows workers in a Ford factory near Detroit in 1941.  The workers were part of a large labor union called the United Auto Workers.  The union was started in the 1930s, but Ford factory workers did not vote to join the union until 1941.

Business owners usually
hated unions

   Business owners considered unions an attack on the business owner's right to run the company as the owner wanted.  They also did not like the fact that union leaders could call a strike.

   In a strike, the union members refuse, as a group, to come to work.  They usually make signs and parade around in front of the business to get public attention.  This is called a picket line.  The union hopes that this will force company officials to reach an agreement with the workers' union.

Ladies Tailors Union on strike!

   The photo shows m
embers of a labor union on strike and walking a picket line against a clothing company in New York City in 1910.  (Tailors are people who sew clothes.)

A big strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts

   The photo below shows some of the t
housands of textile workers who went on strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912 against the textile mills in that city.  The governor of the state sent armed soldiers to guard the textile mills.

The American Federation
of Labor  (AFL)

   Many labor unions all over the country joined together in 1886 to create a national labor union called the American Federation of Labor

   A worker would join his or her local union, and at the same time would become a member of the American Federation of Labor.

   The AFL had a big impact by working with elected political leaders to get laws passed to improve workplace safety.  The AFL was also a major force pushing for laws to make the standard factory work day 8 hours long.

   The photo below shows the office of the American Federation of Labor around 1890, with its leader Samuel Gompers at the large desk.  Gompers and the AFL were not against big business - they just wanted to help workers get higher pay and better work conditions.   

Labor unions march proudly
every Labor Day

   Labor Day was created as a national holiday in 1894 to honor workers and the role of labor unions in helping to protect workers' rights.  It is officially set as the first Monday in September.  The photo shows members of unions marching in a Labor Day parade in New York City in 1909. 

Labor unions today

   Labor unions remain an important part of many industries, businesses, and even government offices.  In all, about 12 percent of workers in America are members of a labor union today.

   Workers in many other businesses are non-union. One reason is that many business managers today make it a point to treat workers well, so they don't feel they need to join a union.
   Still, it is important to remember that unions remain an important voice whenever new laws about workers' rights are considered in Congress.

Looking deeper:
Mother Jones - The Miners' Angel

Mary Harris Jones - usually just called Mother Jones - was the most remarkable woman in the labor union movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s. 

   After losing her husband and children in an epidemic, she devoted the rest of her life to improving the lives of American workers - especially mine workers.  She also drew attention to the problem of child labor.

   You can learn more about her with this link to the web site of the National Women's History Museum:

   Her book, Autobiography of Mother Jones, is fascinating to read, and can be found in any good library or bookstore.

All photos are from the Library of Congress.
The image of the AFL certificate is from Wikipedia.
Some images have been edited or resized for this page.

Copyright Notice

   Copyright 2009, 2017 by David Burns.  All rights reserved.  As a guide to the Virginia Standards of Learning, some pages necessarily include phrases or sentences from that document, which is available online from the Virginia Department of Education.  The author's copyright extends to the original text and graphics, unique design and layout, and related material.