U.S. Labor History

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U.S. Labor History

Unionism can be described as "a continuous association of wage-earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment"(Smelser). This means that a group of workers can unite to gain more power and leverage in bargaining. The bargaining may include many aspects but usually consists of wages, benefits, terms and conditions of employment. The notion of union came about in the 1700's. In the beginning as it is today workers united to "defend the autonomy and dignity of the craftsman against the growing power of the company" (Montgomery).

These early unions had many names including societies, social societies and guilds. These primitive unions or guilds of carpenters, cordwainers, and cobblers made their appearance, often temporary, in cities around the east coast of colonial America. These group of workers were a far cry from what unions are today. They mainly focused on friendship and trust between the workers and management. The first recorded form of a union was a group called the "Friendly Society of Cotton Spinners, who in 1775 instructed its members not to work below the usual price" (Smith).

As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence "in the pursuit of happiness" through higher wages and shorter work hours, printers were the first to go on strike, in New York in 1794; carpenters in Philadelphia in 1797, and cordwainers in 1799.

In the 1800's the construction of cotton mills brought about a new phenomenon in American labor. The owners needed a new source of labor to tend these water powered machines and looked to women. Since these jobs didn't need strength or special skills th...

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...s became even more desperate at the time of the great depression that ultimately led to the great railway strike, in which many workers lost their lives at the hand of the Pennsylvania militia. This act proved to be a major turning point in the evolution of the labor movement in the United States.

It has been said that the union work is one struggle after another, but union work also is the most rewarding legacy we can leave our children.


Works Cited

Freeman, Joshua. Who Built America? New York: Pantheon Books, 1992.

Montgomery, David. The Fall of the House of Labor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Roediger, David R. & Foner, Phillip S. Our Own Time. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Smelser, Neil. Social Change in the Industrial Revolution. London: Rutledge & Kegan, 1959.
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