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Autonomy and Responsibility: The Start of Labor Unions

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Autonomy and Responsibility: The Start of Labor Unions

The late nineteenth century was a time of great change for people everywhere. Industries became staples of society in almost every major city; farming became more efficient due to steel and machines, and more jobs were available because of all the new industries. Between 1865 and 1900, the number of people employed in manufacturing rose from 1.3 million to 4.5 million. Working conditions were terrible, providing long hours, low wages, and unhealthy conditions. Millions of people were denied the basic amenities that their labor made possible for others.1 When reviewing drive for monopolies, Edward Bellamy, author of Looking Backward, wrote that "The individual laborer, who had been relatively important to the small employer, was reduced to insignificance and powerlessness against the great corporation, while at the same time the way upward to the grade of employer was closed to him. Self-defense drove him to union with his fellows."2 The people wanted their independence and proper treatment from their employers, so they formed labor unions to achieve this goal. The employers were responsible for properly compensating them for their work, but yet they failed to do so until the laborers fought back. The start of such labor unions as the National Labor Union, The Knights of Labor, and the American Federation of Labor asserted the autonomy of the common worker.

One significant labor union was the National Labor Union (NLU). In the summer of 1866, union leaders called a congress of labor organizations at Baltimore. At this time, seventy-seven delegates representing 60,000 workers launched the NLU. The NLU worked towards their main goal of obtaining an eight-hour wor...

... middle of paper ... their labor force.


1. Sean Dennis Cashman, America in the Guilded Age, 2nd ed. (New York: New York
University Press, 1988), 235.

2. Cashman, 236.

3. Cashman, 238.

4. Cashman, 240.

5. Cashman, 237.

6. Louis M. Hacker and Benjamin B. Kendrick, The United States Since 1865 (New York: F.
S. Crofts & Co., 1932), 224.

7. Cashman, 250.

8. Hacker, 225-226.

9. Hacker, 227-228.

10. Hacker, 229-230.

11. Harold U. Faulkner, Politics, Reform, and Expansion 1890-1900 (New York: Harper &
Brothers, 1959), 87.

12. Hacker, 233.

13. Faulkner, 88.

14. Hacker, 231.

15. Cashman, 255.

16. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, ed. The Reader's Companion to American History.
1991. 1 March 2000, 1.

17. Hacker, 232.

18. Foner, 2.

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