Labor Unions


In colonial America, most of the manufacturing was done by hand in a home. Labor
took place in workshops attached to the side of a home. As towns grew into
cities, the demand for manufactured goods increased. Some workshop owners began
hiring helpers to increase production. Relations between the employer and helper
were generally harmonious. They worked side by side, had the same interests and
held similar political views.

The factory system that began around the mid 1800\'s brought great changes. The
employers no longer worked beside their employees. They became executives and
merchants who rarely saw their workers. They were less concerned with their
welfare than with the cost of their labor. Many workers were angry about the
changes brought by the factory system. In the past, they had taken great pride
in their handicraft skills, and now machines did most of the work, and they were
reduced from the status of craft workers to common laborers. The were also
replaced by workers who would accept lower wages. The Industrial Revolution
meant degradation rather than progress.

As the factory system grew, many workers began to form labor unions to protect
their interests. The first union to hold regular meetings and collect dues was
organized by Philadelphia shoemakers in 1792. Soon after, carpenters and
leather workers in Boston and printers in New York also organized unions.
Labor\'s tactics in those early times were simple. Members of a union would
agree on the wages they thought were fair. They pledged to stop working for
employers who would not pay that amount. They also sought to compel employers
to hire only union members.


Employers found the courts to be an effective weapon to protect their interests.
In 1806, eight Philadelphia shoemakers were brought to trial after leading an
unsuccessful strike. The court ruled that any organizing of workers to raise
wages was an illegal act. Unions were "conspiracies" against employers and the
community. In later cases, courts ruled that almost any action taken by unions
to increase wages might be criminal. These decisions destroyed the
effectiveness of the nation\'s early labor unions.

Not until 1842 was the way opened again for workers to organize. That year
several union shoemakers in Boston were brought to trial. They were charged
with refusing to work with non-union shoemakers. A municipal court judge found
the men guilty of conspiracy. But an appeal to a higher court resulted in a
victory for labor unions generally. Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw ruled that it was
not unlawful for workers to engage peacefully in union activity. It was their
right to organize, he said. Shaw\'s decision was widely accepted. For many years
following this decision, unions did not have to fear conspiracy charges.


In the next two decades, unions campaigned for a 10-hour working day and against
child labor. A number of state legislatures responded favorably. In 1851, for
example, New Jersey passed a law calling for a 10-hour working day in all
factories. It also forbade the employment of children under 10 years old.

Meanwhile trade unions were joining together in cities to form federations. A
number of skilled trades organized national unions to try to improve their
wages and working conditions. The effort to increase wages brought about
hundreds of strikes during the 1850s. None was as extensive, however, as a
strike of New England shoemakers in 1860. The strike started in Lynn,
Massachusetts, when factory workers were refused a three-dollar increase in
their weekly pay. It soon spread to Maine and New Hampshire. Altogether, about
20,000 workers took part in the strike. It ended in a victory for the
shoemakers. Similar victories were soon won by other trade unions. These
successes led to big increases in union membership. Yet most American workers
were generally better off than workers in Europe and had more hope of improving
their lives. For this reason, the majority did not join labor unions.

In the years following the Civil War (1861-1865), the United States was
transformed by the enormous growth of industry. Once the United States was
mainly a nation of small farms. By 1900, it was a nation of growing cities, of
coal and steel, of engines and fast communications. Though living standards
generally rose, millions of industrial workers lived in crowded, unsanitary
slums. Their conditions became desperate in times of business depressions. Then
it was not unusual for workers to go on strike and battle their employers.
Between 1865 and 1900, industrial violence occurred on numerous occasions.

Probably the most violent confrontation between labor and employers was the
Great Railway Strike of 1877. The nation had been in the grip