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How did Labor Unions Start?

Dana Hinders
Dana Hinders
Dana Hinders
Dana Hinders

Essentially, labor unions are associations of workers who are banded together for the purpose of improving their employment conditions and protecting themselves and their coworkers from economic and legal exploitation. Members of unions engage in collective bargaining with their employers, as well as general political activism.

Labor unions are almost as old as America itself. Although primitive unions of carpenters and other tradespeople made an appearance in various cities in colonial America, the first national unions gained strength in the 1820s. During this time, workers banded together to reduce the working day from a grueling 12 hours to a more manageable 10 hours. In 1866, the Nation Labor Union persuaded Congress to cut the workday down to today’s eight hour standard.

Industrial workers at job site.
Industrial workers at job site.

Labor Day, a holiday observed on the first Monday in September, is a creation of the organized labor movement. The day is intended to honor the achievements of American workers and the contributions they have made to the prosperity and strength of the United States. The first Labor Day celebration was organized by members of the Central Labor Union and held on 5 September 1882.

Labor unions formed so that workers could collectively bargain with management.
Labor unions formed so that workers could collectively bargain with management.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL), formed in 1866, made many contributions to the cause of protecting the rights of American workers. The group was instrumental in the creation of the U.S. Department of Labor and the Children’s Bureau in the 1890s. The AFL also worked to pass the Clayton Act of 1914. This important piece of legislation allowed workers to use boycotts, strikes, and peaceful picketing as negotiation tools.

The American Federation of Labor was led by Samuel Gompers.
The American Federation of Labor was led by Samuel Gompers.

In 1935, John L. Lewis created the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), the first attempt at industrial unionism. Essentially, his organization allowed all people employed in a particular industry, regardless of individual skill levels, to band together to improve working conditions as members of unions. The CIO, although remarkably successful in its own right, eventually merged with the AFL in 1955 to form the AFL-CIO and eliminate any jurisdictional disputes that would have a negative effect on the cause of organized labor.

Members of labor unions engage in collective bargaining with their employees so that they may receive acceptable wages.
Members of labor unions engage in collective bargaining with their employees so that they may receive acceptable wages.

Since then, however, labor unions have seen a great reduction in both their membership and power. Researchers have many different theories about the reasons for this change. Some feel that the increase in women and teenagers in the workforce has weakened the strength of unions, since members of these groups are generally not the sole providers for a family and thus less likely to be active in efforts to raise wages and benefits. Others believe that employers are to blame, since many companies are actively discouraging membership in labor unions — even going so far as to hire legal consultants to devise strategies to stop the formation of employee unions.

Dana Hinders
Dana Hinders

Dana holds a B.A. in journalism and mass communication from the University of Iowa. She has loved being part of the AboutMechanics team ever since discovering the joys of freelance writing after her son was born. Dana also hones her writing skills by contributing articles to various blogs, as well as creating sales copy and content for e-courses.

Learn more...
Dana Hinders
Dana Hinders

Dana holds a B.A. in journalism and mass communication from the University of Iowa. She has loved being part of the AboutMechanics team ever since discovering the joys of freelance writing after her son was born. Dana also hones her writing skills by contributing articles to various blogs, as well as creating sales copy and content for e-courses.

Learn more...

Discussion Comments


Buddy unions started in Europe before the USA even existed. Not everything revolves around the USA. Sorry.


I don't understand the people who don't want to pay dues, but they want all the benefits that the union deals for. They want to work next to a union worker for the same pay and benefits without paying dues. Look back in the past and see what your fellow workers sacrificed to get what you have now. If it weren't for them and the unions, you would still be getting minimum wage. So wake up and be thankful for unions. I worked for the railroad for almost 30 years (union).


I am sorry your experience with labor unions are so bad and ugly, but listen to what you're saying. Labor unions were formed because of the unsafe, low wages and unfair work practices of some employers. Some of you guys mention the free market, but what does that mean when the average working man or woman's retirement funds are lost due to greed and selfishness of people entrusted with monitoring our retirement assets? I am a union member and a free market investor. What's wrong with being both?


A lot of people (even this post) forget that a lot of the first unions were made up of anarchists who controlled the labor production and helped maintain a healthy employment status. It's pitiful that too many people don't realize that anarchists actually made the workplace safer and better.


Trade unions do not work on the same principles I see posted here. As a union pipefitter, I was trained in an apprenticeship program for five years. To become a journeyman, we had to prove the required skills to validate a skilled craftsman stamp. We put into our own retirement and pension.

The contractors that hire us are union by choice. There is no such thing as seniority. I've seen a few guys let go for not cutting the mustard. We have a wage that is fair for the work we do. Tell me how that could be considered a bad organizing concept.


@anon258922: I suggest you read all the comments from people who are both pro and anti-union.

There is no doubt that unions helped improve the working person's lot in life. They lobbied for shorter work days/weeks, safer conditions and that people be paid a living wage.

However, many wage and hour laws have legislated what the unions fought to have, and these are federal laws in the USA and not likely to be overturned.

OSHA is in charge of overseeing safe work conditions, so unions are not as crucial in that area, any longer, either.

One problem with unions is that they have sometimes been more detrimental than beneficial to corporations. For example, an auto parts plant in my area closed down a couple of years ago. There were various reasons for this, but one was that the union demanded such inflated wages, even after the demand for parts dropped, that it was no longer economical to operate the plant. They could make the same parts at another plant, cheaper, so they closed the one in my town.

Unions have historically resisted downsizing and layoffs. While this is good for the worker, it's ultimately bad for business, which is bad for the worker, too. Corporations have found themselves paying salaries for redundant jobs, when layoffs, although not desirable, would have reduced the payroll, eliminated waste and possibly kept the plant open.

This attitude also leads to people doing absolutely nothing, and getting paid to do it. And, if they're union, it's next to impossible to fire them.

When someone joins a union, they are indeed protected by the organization. However, the union then has a certain amount of control over their lives. If the union strikes, they must strike too, even if they don't support the cause.

Corporations are obviously rife with corruption, but unfortunately, so are unions. This is rarely the case at the local level, but at the executive levels, corruption is almost expected.

As with most things in life, there are pros and cons for everything.


Here is my question: why wouldn't someone want to join the union? Forgive me, I'm only 12 and I don't understand these matters, especially since I believe the union is trying to help people out over here. What's bad about it? (I'm doing this for a school project.)


I am so happy to see all these positive opinions about getting rid of unions. (coming from a pro right-to-work person, my job is to make this happen). Proud of all those conservatives! Make the US right-to-work.


Everybody wins!

There’s a story going around. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I wonder what would be the objection?

There is a company, ABC Company, that told its 250-300 employees of Local Union 123 it was moving production out of the country due to the high cost of operating. There was a group of employees who went to the owner and told the owner they had an idea to keep their jobs and the company without moving. The owner listened and agreed it might be a good plan:

The employees wanted to quit the company and go to work for the union directly. This would save ABC Company thousands of dollars in overhead for HR, insurance, and other areas. Union 123 would have an hourly wage they would charge ABC Company and the company in return could pay the invoice within three days. (They now pay within three hours) All the contract items that were previously negotiated were still in place -- the only difference would be who was making the payroll.

The Union 123 became an ESOP for-profit corporation, the president who runs the union now runs the union just like any other business. Further, since Union 123 already had in place the staff for HR and other departments, it was be easy to make it happen. The employees became business owners.

The new owners looked at the cost of doing business, they looked at their pay scale and realized that a person who worked for the company for one year got paid the same as a 20 year employee. They adopted a merit pay scale for everyone. After they make the change they were able to vote themselves $1 an hour raise, better health coverage, benefits, retirement fund, etc. Then they sold the union hall and put the money in their retirement fund and rented office space for company operations. When they have a need for a large meeting, they just rent a large hall. The employee-owners of Union 123 found their dues go a lot further and they get more bang for their buck when they own their own business.

During the second year negotiations with ABC Company, Union 123 was able to lower their hourly rate $1, which will make the ABC Company more competitive. In return, the company has expanded and hired 200 additional Union 123 workers.

Maybe others like the Louisville Orchestra, GE, The Carpenters and other unions should look into doing this too.

Sounds like to me this is a great plan and everybody wins!


Unions are the working man's friend. Anyone who thinks otherwise is stupid! They protect you from being exploited. What do you think the 20s and 30s work environment was like. Not too different from now! Why do you think there are so many "Temp Agencies". They are no more than pimps for these corporations. No benefits, no insurance, no nothing. I would like to see the day when these pimps are all put out of business. Unions are much needed.


Unions create workplaces where productivity and profitability are the least of any employee's concerns, promotions are based upon seniority instead of ability, and blanket pay rates are based upon nothing instead of merit. Companies incur these costs in every imaginable manner and then guess what they must do? Pass it on to the consumer. Clearly no one is winning in this situation.

I, for one, have no interest in paying dues for absolutely no reason whatsoever. I have never seen a union do a thing for a good employee except take their money - and then protect the job of the next guy who calls out excessively, comes in late every day or (seriously) steals from the company. Why should that employee's job be protected? And wouldn't it just feel great if s/he got that promotion over you solely because s/he was hired before you? I'm sure you'd be as motivated an employee as ever!

Bottom line? Unions served a purpose a long, long time ago and can even claim credit for the creation of the labor laws that now render them a moot point.


Unions were initially begun to assist the illiterate as they could not tell the difference between a $5.00 bill or a $2.00 bill, thus they were being robbed. In addition some work environments were unsafe and the workers did not know how to speak up for themselves.

Today, however, if you can read, write and speak for yourself why do you need a union?

If you are college educated why do you need a union?

If you are not mentally or otherwise challenged or compromised why do you need a union?

If you are a responsible employee who truly cares about the quality of your work and can you back up what you express about yourself with recommendations and references from others in your field of employment then you should be able to negotiate your own wages, so please stop the whining, leave the union and take responsibility for your station in life!


i need to know why they are important to the average american worker.


I have some questions on the previous comment #19, worked for 25 years and still making 12.25.

1. what is it that you do? Is it a special labor or just a general labor?

2. what's your education level?

If you're doing some general labor, then tell me a good reason why an employer should even give you a raise?

The employer can just replace you with a more focused and younger employee with possibly a lower pay rate.

I highly doubt that you have a good education and it is a special type of a labor. Otherwise, you wouldn't have such a job in the first place.

Just because a company is growing, doesn't mean that you also deserve the piece of pie as well. Unless you are a key member that of that success, you have no right to be automatically compensated.

Think about it: should a McDonald's patty flipper make $15 an hour just because he worked there for 30 years? That is why american airlines is falling out of the sky, and why usps workers don't want to deliver on saturdays.

Union started with good intentions but now it is all corrupted by the employees who abuse the system and why our economy is crumbling apart.


i work for a company for five years and i make 12.25hr mean wile the company makes almost 12 million dollars in profits a year and growing but you don't see them trying to help us out who need help and don't qualify for government assistance because we make too much and their idea of a raise is 10-15 cents a year! and with gas prices going up and food cost going up it's hard to make it check to check. and the company thinks that we should be fine while the people in the office make $60,000-$125,000 they think we should be OK while we do the work to line their pockets.


"There is currently no union that represents the employees and staff of unions." Wrong. My union will not hire anyone who is not unionized and it is a one person office! My union will not rent space from non-unionized employers.

There are many many unions that represent the office and clerical workers that work in union offices. All the large unions where I live (Canada thankfully) have unionized office staff working in their "businesses".


I work for the UFCW. I work in a pig slaughterhouse. All the union has done for me is take out $7.35 a week. The only people my union seems to help are the people that show up late, don't show up at all, or are lazy and don't want to do their jobs.

There is another pork factory about 25 miles down the road. They are non union and their workers make over a dollar more an hour than my plant. Go up to detroit and ask those people how good the union is working for them after their plant got shut down. The unions had their place along with affirmative action, but i believe they have run their course or need to realize that the corporation needs to run.


I have worked for 3 unions in my life, one being the UAW. I can only say one thing about it, but my Mother taught me better than that.

The UAW officials filed papers with the company I worked for to have me terminated. The reason the UAW gave was because I...wait for it..."worked too fast on machine repair." Can you believe that?

Someone who wants to work can not work for the UAW. They also blackballed me so that I can never get another union job. Nice huh?! I wonder why unemployment is so high?


Here's an interesting topic. Unions themselves are businesses. They have all the hallmarks, and even have employees. There is currently no union that represents the employees and staff of unions. Most unions will not allow their staff to unionize. It is often a condition of employment. Ironic, eh?


Lets face it. We all know why unions came about. Yes, they did their job. Did it well too. As long as unions stick to the original reason why they were created, we would be fine. Problem is, just as we once had a limited government in the USA, some unions have become too big and too powerful.

I know of some smaller unions. They are doing a good job keeping balance. However, the big ones have tilted too far. Just as our government has become too big. Also, the power issue is out of control. We the people have to be afraid of big government, big unions, and yes Big Corps. I really wonder if the 16th Amendment (1913) and the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 had anything to with this?


I think it's great that unions have gotten employers to pay higher and higher salaries and more and more expensive benefits. That way, employers have to raise the prices of their products and services and the whole cost of living goes up and unions get to get more money for their people to keep up with rising costs.

Meanwhile, non-union people get lots of work at lower wages, still pay taxes, their companies stay competitive by keeping costs down, imported goods undercut american products because they're less expensive (not necessarily inferior) to make that american products.

Unions are great! If it wasn't for them, the american auto industry would be the joke that it is. The cost of living wouldn't be so out of control, so many people would not be out of jobs and we wouldn't be importing american flags from china.


In general when you have a union job you can afford the high price of homes and the high priced cars.


If it were not for unions, even though a sad small percentage, you non union haters would not be making what you are and have the benefits you do. See, we set the bar for all of us. Oh yes, you're welcome!

As far as looking stupid holding a sign and

crying. Come on! It forces them to pay a union wage that you deserve as well. sign up.


In the 50's 60's 70's from a high in the 40 percent area. They and therefore all American workers had a say in the economy and the country, and the American dream was alive and well and the envy of the world.

Today union membership is in the 7 percent range in the USA. Now big business and the casino called Wall Street control everything, either through their paid lobbyists (2100 registered in 2000, 37000 in 2009). So which would you rather have?


unions represent less than ten percent of workers. bosses are butchers.


I would have to agree. We don't need to be in the union to live the "American Dream!"

I'm trying to figure out the union and why so many union workers have no work! So then they decide to stand outside and look foolish holding up a sign, like crying because they didn't get the job. What makes you think you should have gotten the job?

I have worked with people from the union before and all I have seen is lazy individuals who take more breaks than smokers do, and yes I'm a smoker, and it takes them twice as long to finish a job. I'm just trying to figure out why the union is so great.


The unions in america created the middle class, gave us free public education and an eight-hour legal work day. Non-union gave us dire straits of poverty and strife. Allowing illegal workers, an act of treason by the way, and polluting our way of life. No illegal immigrant has paid the price of freedom that we legal and naturalized citizens did. In other countries illegals are shot and killed. Here we house them, feed them, and allow them to drain our society. While you work and paid high taxes, they pay nothing from your sweat. Almost all are not without disease. And you want your children to go to school with illegals that have not had their shots against diseases? No polio shots, no smallpox, etc., etc. Unions are the antidote for corporate greed. I am from local 351 ibew. I would never have been able to buy a home and live a decent life and the american dream.


Unions allow management access to skilled and trained employees without having to place newspaper ads and waste time fishing for the right person for that job. Unions have always been depicted as corrupt by those who stand to make a profit at the expense and health of others. One needs to really observe the quality of work by non-union workers versus union workers to see why unions are so much needed.


In this short article you don't mention some possible reasons for union membership failing...Davis Bacon Act and its affect on union membership.

Also, as the dollar is now only currency, full employment as wanted by the unions, does not necessarily support the best interests of the true American. Unions taking 1.7% or more off the top of the working people's gross income is something many workers do not like. In some areas of employment the unions failed when they forced out volunteer workers in small communities.

People are more educated than they were in the days past. There is a labor leader in my family who worked as a negotiator. He has since retired, but he thinks no one can start a business unless they join the Union. I think he is wrong and anti-free enterprise. Union leaders and attorneys are the winners today in the Unions.

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    • Industrial workers at job site.
      By: michaeljung
      Industrial workers at job site.
    • Labor unions formed so that workers could collectively bargain with management.
      By: Kheel Center
      Labor unions formed so that workers could collectively bargain with management.
    • The American Federation of Labor was led by Samuel Gompers.
      The American Federation of Labor was led by Samuel Gompers.
    • Members of labor unions engage in collective bargaining with their employees so that they may receive acceptable wages.
      By: Marzky Ragsac Jr.
      Members of labor unions engage in collective bargaining with their employees so that they may receive acceptable wages.