Throughout American history, labor unions have served to facilitate mediation between workers and employers. Workers seek to negotiate with employers for more control over their labor and its fruits. “A labor union can best be defined as an organization that exists for the purpose of representing its members to their employers regarding wages and terms and conditions of employment” (Hunter). Labor unions’ principal objectives are to increase wages, shorten work days, achieve greater benefits, and improve working conditions. Despite these goals, the early years of union formation were characterized by difficulties (Hunter).
The beginnings of labor unions travel as far back as the colonial era when craft workers like carpenters and cobblers formed guilds, precursors to modern day labor unions (American Federationist, Miller). But it was not until the 1800’s with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and its lamentable working conditions that unions began to increase in membership and popularity (Miller).
The Industrial Revolution restructured the employer-employee relationship into an impersonal association exhibited by indifference to the quality of life of the worker. Children were especially exploited because they could be hired for lower wages and were made to work equally long days (Miller). Around the 1830s, children constituted about one-third of the labor in New England (Illinois Labor History Society). The conditions of workers as a whole necessitated action on behalf of the rights of laborers.
Yet early unions were faced with three obstacles that pervaded American culture in the 19th century. Laissez-faire capitalism, rugged individualism, and social Darwinism were three modes...
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“A Short History of American Labor.” AFL-CIO American Federationist. 6 November 2004.
Taft, Philip. Organized Labor in American History. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers. 1964.
Timeline. AFL-CIO American Federation of Labor - Congress of Industrial Organizations. 6 November 2004
U.S. Senate, Testimony of Samuel Gompers, August 1883, Report of the Committee of the Senate upon the Relations between Labor and Capital (Washington, D.C., 1885), 1:365-70.] 6 November 2004.
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