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History and Evolution of Labor Movement in the United States

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Granted, the working people of the United States have had to struggle to realize the gains they have accumulated to date. The contemporary American trade unions of formidable proportions are a reflection of improvements that did not come easily. Workers in the American society have built formidable trade union movements through organizing unions, earning the right to representation, employing the process of collective bargaining as the core of their activities, and fighting against bias and discrimination. From spearheading the drive to educate each child, labor movements in the United States have served to stabilize the national economy and safeguard the American democratic society. The roots of American trade union movements extend back to the early history of this country (Foner, 2006).

As early as 1620, Pilgrims who were mostly working artisans started arriving at the Plymouth Rock. Captain John Smith, who initiated the influx on Virginia’s James River, requested his sponsors in London to send him more artisans and working people (Llewellyn, 2004). It is during those days that primitive unions comprising of carpenters, cabinet-makers, and cobblers made their initial appearances, often temporary along the Atlantic seaboard of colonial America. Indeed, workers in the colonial American society played an important role in the struggle for independence. However, it was after the declaration of independence that the aspect of trade union movements became widespread in the American society (Light, 2005).

In the name of the slogan of the time, ‘pursuit of happiness’, printers, cabinet-makers, carpenters, and cobblers got engaged in strikes in the period between 1776 and 1779 demanding higher pays and shorter working hours. By early 19th century, there were recorded efforts by unions to improve the condition of workers through strike actions and negotiations. It was in 1820s however, that the numerous workers unions of that were involved in the effort to reduce the number of working hours from 12 to 10 started showing an interest in the idea of federation—joining efforts in pursuit of common objectives of the working population. Regardless of its weakness at the time, this effort reflected the desire of the working population to be afforded economic and legal protection from exploitation. This was in particular underlined by the fact that factory system—a phenomenon that had produced misery and slums in England for decades—was taking shape in the American society (Light, 2005).

The factory system led to a wealthy few and grinding poverty for many. In light of this, the number of workers organizations proliferated steadily during the middle of the 19th century. It was during these times that unions in various cities started joining to form citywide federations. Though frustrated by the 1837 financial panic, the 1834 National Trade Union formed by workers in five cities was an nearly attempt at countrywide federation. Later on, in 1866, printers, stonecutters, cobblers among others sent delegates from their respective unions to a Baltimore meeting that conceived the National Labor Union. Again, not a very strong institution, the economic depression of 1873 ended it (Foner, 2006).

The next thing that was to capture public imagination was the Knights of Labor. The Knights was an all-embracing outfit founded on the platform of cooperative movement. Apart from lawyers, bankers, gamblers, and alcoholic beverage dealers, who were not allowed membership into this organization, the Knights did not limit itself to wage earners, opening to include even farmers and small business owners. Although in a few years the Knights of Labor realized close to a million members from both skilled and unskilled workers, its vogue organizational structure nevertheless frustrated its members’ hopes of improvement in working hours and wages. This was in particular underlined by its leader’s aversion to strikes and reliance on future promises of employers. This set the stage for the establishment of a practical labor union that could simultaneously address long-term objectives of a better society and the real activities of day-to-day functions of a union (Llewellyn, 2004).

After many attempts over a long period, the first practical step in response to the need of a united labor movement front was a November 15 1881 meeting held in Pittsburgh. Delegates from printers, carpenters, cigar makers, among other workers unions and some others from the local units of Knights of Labor formed institution during this meeting—Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (Golembiewski, 2007). The constitution of this new workers’ front was inspired by then a dozen years old British Trades Union Congress and its most important agenda was legislation. Samuel Gompers from the Cigar Makers Union—starting a career in the American labor movement landscape that was to span four decades, chaired this new outfit. The most significant step, however, came in 1986 when the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions evolved into the American Federation of Labor, still under leadership of Gompers.  After experiencing some hitches with the former organization, a belief in the need for a more effective union organization informed the formation of AFL (Foner, 2006).

Key Leaders of American Labor Movements and their Impacts on the Organizations

The London, England born Samuel Gompers takes credit as one of the most influential leaders of trade union movements in the United States. As mentioned earlier, starting with chair of the Federation of Trades and Labor Unions and later as the president of the reconfigured American Federation of Labor, Gompers help shaped trade unionism in the United Sates in its formative years. A self-declared Marxist, Gompers was particularly hostile to socialism. He held conservative political views and believed trade unionists should accept the economic systems of the day—capitalism. Although these views led to the formation of a rival outfit, the Industrial Workers of the World, their membership numbers could not match those of AFL. In addition to facilitating the formation of the first practical trade union movement in the United States, Gompers also played a critical in the establishment of the Women’s Trade Union League—an organization that educated women on the advantages of joining trade unions and furthered their demands of a better working condition (Light, 2005).

Starting as a branch secretary of the United Mine Workers of America, John Lewis was another leader in the American trade unionism landscape who positively influenced the welfare of workers (Golembiewski, 2007). After noticing a decline in membership in his organization, UMWA, caused by growing unemployment, in 1935, Lewis mobilized seven heads of other trade unions to form an umbrella organization—the Congress for Industrial Organization—assuming the presidency. Over the next few years, Lewis had been able to organize workers in the new mass production industries. This strategy was a success particularly in the light of the fact that by 1937, CIO had more members than AFL (Foner, 2006). A Republican, supporter of Roosevelt and a person who favored many aspects of the new deal, Lewis was however opposed to Roosevelt’s third term in office and resigned from the presidency of CIO after FDR’S re-election. Nevertheless, Lewis used his retained leadership of UMWA to lead a series of strikes in the 1940s that lead to increased wages for miners. As a result, union membership rose significantly, which led to the Congress of the passing of Taft-Hartley act, an approach that sought to restrict the activities of trade unions. He left UMWA in 1960 (Foner, 2006).

Another icon in American trade unionism is Walter Reuther, himself a son of a trade unionist and socialist activist. His activist started as an employee of the Ford Motor Company where he lost his job due to such. In 1946, assumed the presidency of United Automobile Workers and six years later succeeded Philip Murray as the president of the Congress for Industrial Organization. His public image as one of the post Second World War II progressive figures of trade unionism was because of his support of civil rights social welfare legislation. Under his leadership, the membership of UAW grew to 1.5 million. Furthermore, he employed his negotiation skills to reach an agreement whereby a laid-off automobile worker would take home an amount almost equal to the one an individual could when working (Light, 2005).

Current State of Affairs in the US Labor Movement

In 1955, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization merged into AFL-CIO and since then has been the only union federation representing the working class in the United States (Light, 2005). This institution transformed into American Federation of Labor in 1886. Although done in the name of unity, this merger saw the exit of militant and democratic unions with their leaders driven out of the unions, and persecuted under the creations of cold war government-corporation. In brief, the likes of Walter Reuther are not present in the modern day trade unionism (Foner, 2006). When AFC-CIO merger took place more than half a decade back, one in every three United States workers was in a union.

During its 50th anniversary, less than 12.5% of the workers in the US belonged to a particular union while the organized percentage of workers in the private sector remained less than eight percent. Politicians have severely weakened the influence of AFL-CIO on employers. The United Airlines court proceedings in which this organization cited bankruptcy as a reason for denying its workers a pension that was part of its contract with them serves to evidently indicate this. The divide and rule strategy is evident in the labor movement industry today. In the postal industry, for example, there are five different unions representing different workers despite the fact that their major employer is one. In effect, the overall bargaining power of such employees becomes extremely limited. Arguably, US labor movement is on the verge of extinction, possibly never to return to its current form.

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