American Labor Movement: Development of Unions

Romina Ferrante

The American Labor Movement of the nineteenth century developed as a result of the city-wide organizations that unhappy workers were establishing. These men and women were determined to receive the rights and privileges they deserved as citizens of a free country. They refused to be treated like slaves, and work under unbearable conditions any longer. Workers joined together and realized that a group is much more powerful than an individual when protesting against intimidating companies. Unions, coalitions of workers pursuing a common objective, began to form demanding only ten instead of twelve hours in a work day. Workers realized the importance of economic and legal protection against the powerful employers who took advantage of them. (AFL-CIO American Federalist, 1)

The beginnings of the American Labor Movement started with the Industrial Revolution. Textile mills were the first factories built in the United States. Once factory systems began to grow, a demand for workers increased. They hired large amounts of young women and children who were expected to do the same work as men for less wages. New immigrants were also employed and called "free workers" because they were unskilled. These immigrants poured into cities, desperate for any kind of work.(Working People, 1)

Child labor in the factories was not only common, but necessary for a family?s income. Children as young as five or six manned machines or did jobs such as sweeping floors to earn money. It was dangerous, and they were often hurt by the large, heavy machinery. No laws prevented the factories from using these children, so they continued to do so. (AACTchrNET, 1)

"Sweatshops" were created in crowded, unsanitary tenements. These were makeshift construction houses, dirty and unbearably hot. They were usually formed for the construction of garments. The wages, as in factories, were pitifully low, no benefits were made, and the worker was paid by the number of pieces he or she completed in a day. Unrealistic demands were put on the workers who could barely afford to support their families. (1)

The United States had the highest job-related fatality rate of any other industrialized nation in the world. Everyone worked eighty hours or more a week for extremely low wages. Men and women earned twenty to forty percent less than the minimum deemed necessary for a decent life. The number was even worse for children. (Department of Humanities Computing, 2) Often workers would go home after a long day and have to continue work on an unfinished product, which they had to return to the factory in the morning. Their jobs were never finished, and they barely had any time to rest. (Working People, 1) These men, women, and children lived in dilapidated tenements. People lived and worked in unhealthy environments in poverty with little food. (Working People, 1) The country was growing and its economy was rising, but its people were miserable.

Technological improvements continually reduced the demand for skilled labor. Yet, eighteen million immigrants between 1880 and 1910 entered the country eager for work. With an abundance of new immigrants willing to work, and no laws protecting a worker?s rights, businesses disregarded the lives of the individuals. (Department of Humanities, 1) This began to change with the formation of National Unions, collaborations of trade unions created to be even more effective than the local unions. (Working People, 1)

The National Trades? Union, formed in 1834, attempted to improve the current working conditions, but failed due to the financial panic three years later. (AFL-CIO American Federationalist, 1) The National Labor Union in 1866 managed to establish an eight hour work day in 1868 for federal employees. However, it fell apart once their leader had died in 1873 and an economic depression swept across the nation. (1)

The first large national labor organization to become popular was the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor. It was founded in 1869 by garment workers in Philadelphia who believed that one union of skilled and unskilled workers should exist. The union was originally a secret, but later was open to all workers, including blacks, women and farmers. Five hundred thousand workers joined in a year. Their goals were an eight-hour work day, a minimum wage, arbitration rather than strikes, health and safety laws, equal pay for equal work, no child labor under the age of fourteen, and government ownership of railroads, telegraphs and telephones. However, the Knights of Labor