Labor Unions: Aging Dinosaur or Sleeping Giant?
The Labor Movement and Unionism Background and Brief History
Higher wages! Shorter workdays! Better working conditions! These famous words echoed throughout the United States beginning in 1790 with the skilled craftsmen (Dessler, 1997, p. 544). For the last two-hundred years, workers of all trades have been fighting for their rights and seeking methods of improving their living standards, working conditions, and job security (Boone, 1996,p.287). As time went by, these individuals came to the conclusion that if they work together collectively, they would grow stronger to get responses to their demands. This inspired into what we know today as labor unions. A labor union is an organized group of workers whose purpose is to increase wages and influence other job conditions for its members (Parkin, 1998,p.344).
These labor unions can be divided into two types: craft unions and industrial unions (World, 1998). A craft union is a union whose membership is restricted to workers who possess an identifiable skill (Robinson, 1985,p. 69). These members tend to be better educated and trained, and more unified because of common interests (World, 1998). An example of a craft union is the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (World, 1998). On the other hand, an industrialized union is a group of workers who have a variety of skills and job types but work for the same industry (Parkin, 1998, p. 344). Unions of this type include the United Steelworkers, United Auto Workers, and the United Transportation Union (Boone, 1996).
History from the 1870s to 1900s. The first national union founded in Philadelphia in 1869 in the pre-Civil War period was the Knights of Labor, which intended to include all workers (Encyclopedia, 1996, p. 630). For a decade, this organization grew at a slow pace due to operating in secrecy until the failure of railroad strikes that increased membership to over 700,000 in 1886 (Robinson, 1985). Their advance and efforts had persuaded legislation to enact the following laws: abolition of convict-made goods, establishment of bureaus of labor statistics, and prohibition of the importation of European labor under contract (Encyclopedia, 1996, p. 630).
In 1890, the Knights of Labor membership had declined to only 100,000 members and the number of members continued to decline and eventually disappeared. The decline is said to have been a result of inadequate national leadership, opposition from existing craft unions, and the loss of major strikes in meat packing and railroads in 1886 and 1887 (Robinson, 1985, p. 57).
In December 1886, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was formed in Columbus, Ohio. The AFL was originally named the Federated Organization of Trades and Labor Union back in 1881. The AFL was a national union made up of affiliated, individual craft unions (Boone, 1996, p. 288). The first president of the AFL was Samuel Gompers. On the contrary to the Knights of Labor, Gompers focus was to raise day-to-day wages, and continue to improve the working conditions (Dessler, 1997). After the formation of the AFL, the period included significant developments. In the early 1890s, the United Mine Workers was formed, becoming the first major United States industrialized union (Robinson, 1985). In addition, a significant defeat occurred in organized labor. The defeat is known as the strike at Homestead, Pennsylvania. The Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers was eliminated from the steel industry (Robinson, 1985, p. 58).
History from 1905 to 1920. In 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) challenged the AFL, prior to the depression of the 1930s. The IWW invited the unskilled and semiskilled workers that the AFL had denied and was a success from 1910 to 1915 (Encyclopedia, 1996). The results of this had decreased the AFL membership for a short period of time, but they fought back by bringing unskilled workers into the craft unions (Encyclopedia, 1996). The IWW had disappeared by the middle of World War I.
During World War I, membership of unions had increased– particularly those industries involved in war production (Robinson, 1985, p. 60). This success was due to the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. While being president, Wilson made sure that government contractors favored unions and collective bargaining, and he made sure