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The History & Philosophies of Early Labor Unions

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  • 0:01 What Is a Labor Union?
  • 0:25 The Origins of Unions
  • 2:08 Functions of Unions
  • 7:08 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

What is a labor union? Do all unions have the same mission? This lesson discusses the early history of labor unions in the United States and the various philosophies that distinguish one type of union from another.

What Is a Labor Union?

When you think of a labor union, you might imagine groups of workers, maybe on strike with picket signs. Perhaps you see a table of people bargaining, debating the interests of worker versus company owners. While these are accurate images, there are really a lot of different kinds of labor unions that have sprung up since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

The Origins of Unions

Long before the industrialization of the U.S. economy, workers in various industries participated in craft guilds as a way to try to maintain control over their crafts. Guilds also helped establish good working conditions and standards for members in a range of fields, such as cabinet making, carpentry, and locksmithing.

These guilds typically regulated how an industry would operate and set out rules for who would be allowed to perform certain types of work. For example, if you wanted to become a master of your craft, you would follow a set pattern to achieve this, starting with an apprenticeship. A limited number of individuals could work towards this goal.

One famous individual to work his way up in a craft was Paul Revere, who worked as an apprentice in his father's silversmith shop. Ultimately, Paul took over his father's silver shop and passed the apprenticeships down to his own sons.

As operations grew larger in scale through industrialization in the 18th and 19th centuries, the conditions and structure of work in many industries changed. Factories and other large-scale operations involving machines helped to fuel this change. Instead of craftsman following a clear path from the role of apprentice to master, employers hired people to do the same task day after day and paid them wages, with no guarantee of higher wages down the road. Women, immigrants, and children participated in this new system too.

Over time, a different sort of worker organization emerged. Wage workers collaborated with one another to compel employers to improve working conditions, which included low pay, dangerous conditions, long hours, child labor, and other practices that pushed people to their breaking point. These types of organizations are viewed as early labor unions.

Functions of Unions

But did all unions of this era have the same goals? Not necessarily, according to Robert F. Hoxie, a U.S. economist who wrote on the topic in 1914. Hoxie described a variety of functions unions may have, sparking conversation lasting well beyond his initial observations.

Let's take a look at how unions are often categorized. Note that these are general characterizations, and not every union fits into just one of these molds.

Business Unionism

Business unions function within the wage system to help members gain more stability, safety, benefits, and financial compensation. A common approach to achieve this is collective bargaining, or negotiation between workers (represented by a union) and the employer. Sometimes labor strikes are also used. During strikes, workers stop work unless their concerns are addressed.

Business unions are modeled on the typical business relationship between workers and employers. An example of a business union is the American Federation of Labor, which formed in the late 1880s to push for economic improvements for those in particular occupations.

Even though the philosophy of business unionism might not seem radical to us today, early efforts to strike often resulted in violence. Intimidation tactics by employers were common, and violence sometimes broke out. For example, facing increased work demands in 1892, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers went on strike in Homestead, Pennsylvania. A battle ensued when armed strikers faced armed security guards in a clash that left multiple men dead and injured on both sides.

Uplift Unionism

What if a union wants to impact more than just its membership? This is the role of uplift unionism, which seeks to improve circumstance on a grander scale. This form of union still accepts that a wage system exists, but its goals are broader than business unionism. Depending on the specific organization, the function could be to uplift an entire trade. Some expanded this vision to improve conditions for most or all working people.

A national organization originally established after the Civil War as a secret society of garment workers, the Knights of Labor is an example of a union with an uplift philosophy. This group believed that a variety of different workers had common interests and could benefit from reforms in the system of wage work.

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