What Is a Labor Union? - Definition & History

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  • 0:03 Labor Unions:…
  • 0:48 History of Labor Unions
  • 4:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

Labor unions are important organizations. In this lesson, you will learn what a labor union is and the history of labor unions in the United States. You will have an opportunity to reinforce your knowledge with a short quiz.

Labor Unions: Definition and Importance

Labor unions have a significant impact on employees, businesses, and even the political system. Knowing about what labor unions are and their history will help you understand them and the actions they take in the business and political world.

A labor union is an organization of employees that is created for the purpose of dealing with employers concerning employee-employer relations, including grievances, labor disputes, wages, rates of pay, hours of employment, and other conditions of work. A labor union negotiates on behalf of its members in a process known as collective bargaining. They are also usually active in the political process and in lobbying about issues of importance to their members.

History of Labor Unions

While labor unions can find roots in the medieval guilds of Europe, the basic form of labor unions arose during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. The first attempts to organize labor in the United States met with fierce resistance from business, supported by the government.

In fact, labor organizing was considered a crime. The key court case was Commonwealth v. Pullis in1806, known as the Cordwainer's case, involving an indictment against boot makers and shoemakers for conspiring to raise their wages. The jury found the union was illegal, and the defendants were found guilty. A doctrine known as the labor conspiracy theory was developed that stated that collective bargaining would interfere with the market and destroy competition.

U.S. courts started to question the labor conspiracy theory in the 1840s, but unions still struggled. Businesses started to use legal injunctions, a court order preventing a person from doing something, and prosecution under anti-trust laws to fight unions.

The fight against labor unions was ferocious in the latter part of the 19th century and often turned violent. A famous steelworker strike occurred in 1892 at the Carnegie Steel Company's steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Private guards were hired and the strike turned violent, resulting in most workers leaving the union and returning to work. In 1894, the federal government actually sent in troops to end a railroad strike.

Labor unions started to gain ground at the beginning of the 20th century. Congress enacted the Clayton Act in 1914, which declared that human labor was not an article of commerce, and that labor unions were not to be considered a violation of antitrust laws. Businesses fought back with yellow dog contracts, in which applicants acknowledged that they were not union members and agreed not to become one. The Norris-Laguardia Act eventually made yellow dog contracts unenforceable as against public policy.

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