When the gods dance...

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Labor Unions and Workers Rights

Labor Unions and Workers Rights

A student's view



Labor Unions were created by average working Americans, that felt the need to have better wages and better working environments. Labor unions were created to provide common workers a way to unite as one in order to bring about change, which would be impossible to achieve by one single person (Labor Union). A labor union can be created in two different ways. They can either choose to join an existing union through an election or simply decide to create their own.  Both of these processes will then need to be certified by the National Labor Relations Board also known as the NLRB. For over the last 120 years, Labor Unions have impacted workers’ rights significantly. These rights have been gained through methods of striking and organizing. Unions have impacted workers’ rights so much by creating most benefits that we as workers currently get.

History of Labor Unions



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The first organized Labor Union went by the name of “The Knights of Labor.” They started off as secret society of tailors and shoemakers from Philadelphia in 1869(Labor Day, 2011).  The Knights of Labor was created to help member fight for a raise in wages, an eight-hour day and also the abolition of child labor. The Knights started off as a small organization but rapidly grew right after the railroad strike of 1877. The leader of the Knights was Terence V. Powderly. Under his leadership the Knights grew to 700,000 members. At the time this was the only union that allowed Women and African Americans to join. The Knights were also the only union at the time that took in workers of different skills and different trades. The Knights of Labor eventually came to an end during the same time as the Haymarket Square riot.  Later on in 1886 after the fall of the Knights a man by the name of Samuel Gompers formed the American Federation of Labor (Henretta, Brody & Dumniel 2008). Gompers was not interested in uniting the working class. He was interested in fighting for the workers’ rights for better wages and working conditions. With the help from Gompers and The Knights of Labor, unions quickly began to grow throughout the years.



The Union Strikes

Although Labor Unions were created to help workers out, unions didn’t really have many options when it came down to trying to accomplish something. The only thing that a union worker could do was to either go on strike or to boycott against their employers in order to be heard. There were over 20,000 strikes over the last two decades of the 19th century (U.S. History Pre-Columbian to the New Millennium, 2008). Most of the time those workers on strike would lose, but although they did lose a majority of the strikes they managed to walk away with a couple for history changing victories for the workers during the 1900’s. The three most famous types strikes that helped revolutionize unions are known as the Pullman boycott, the Homestead strike, and The Haymarket Riot.

Description: Description: Description: Description: 8hr pic.jpgFirst Strike & 8-hour strike by The Knights

Strikes were very uncommon during the early 1900’s right until 1968. The first non-organized union strike that ever happened was in 1768 by New York Tailors. The first notable strike that brought change happened in 1835, when Philadelphians were on strike for a 10-hour workday. Two years later in 1837 president Andrew Jackson declared the 10-hour workday at the Navy yard in Philadelphia. Thirty years after that the Knights of Labor went on strike for an 8-hour working day and won (Strike Timeline, n.d.). These strikes impacted workers’ rights so much, because it was the first time that they went on strike. It would also be the first time that workers would not have to work more than ten or eight hour shifts. The first strikes were also major steps for workers’ rights, because it was the first time that workers voices were being heard. At the time workers had to endure long unsafe shifts during the 1900’s when these first strikes took place. These two strikes brought happiness and hope for many workers of that time. According to Henretta, Brody, and Dumenil the three most famous strikes and boycott recorded in American history are the Pullman boycott, the Haymarket Strike, and the Homestead Strike.

Pullman Strike

The least violent of the strikes is the Pullman boycott. The Pullman Boycott took place in the town of Pullman, Illinois named after the popular George M. Pullman inventor of the sleeping cars in trains (Henretta, Brody & Dumniel 2008). Mr. Pullman noticed that business was slow during the economic depression of 1893, so he decided to lower wages and kept company worker housing rent the same. Many workers could barely afford to pay the rent before their wages got cut. Filled with anger and disappointment the workers set out to stop making Pullman cars and also decided to stop every train that carried the Pullman cars to send a message to Mr. Pullman. The leader in this Boycott was an Indiana native named Eugene V. Debs from Terre Haute, Indiana. Debs and his followers managed to stop many trains and which was affecting the economy.  Eventually Debs and some of his followers were accused of interfering with U.S mail and were imprisoned. The government would use the trains to carry U.S mail and to stop the U.S mail is against the law. Eventually Debs and his strike force were stopped for interfering with the U.S. mail. The Pullman strike was very important in helping labor unions grow. This was the first major strike that quickly gained a lot of media attention, which helped with spreading the message of the importance of labor unions across the United States. The Pullman strike also lead to the creation of the first “lockout.” The lock out served as a new way of striking. The lock out created a huge headache for Mr. Pullman, because since the workers were not making Pullman cars Mr. Pullman was losing potential profits. After a couple of days Pullman grew tired of losing potential sales and product because of the lockout. Pullman decided to hire new workers that were not taking part of the lockout. He managed to replace every single worker that was part of the lock out. This strike was the spark that would lead to more unsatisfied workers to strike and rebel against their employers. The finals outcome was that the Pullman workers were able to create a new form of striking although it did cost them their jobs.

Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: gas pic.jpgThe Haymarket Riot

The Haymarket Strike was supposed to be just another rally in support of striking workers until the bomb was thrown of course. The most deadly and violent Strike in U.S. history is also known as the Haymarket Strike. The Haymarket Strike also took place in the Haymarket Square in Chicago, Illinois. This Haymarket riot is also known as the 8-hour strike. This strike is famous for being one of the most deadliest and brutal strikes in American history. It is also referred as the Haymarket massacre. The battle in this strike started when dynamite was thrown at police officers that instantly killed several of them. That led to Police officers shooting at the protesters without thinking of the outcome. The Haymarket riot did very little to help those who wanted an 8-hour working day. This riot was a major setback for American labor and their fight for an 8-hour working day. The good that came out of this riot is that showed future rioters how peaceful rallies and strikes are the only way to having a winning result.


This last strike was also another violet and bloody strike. This famous strike was one that took place in Homestead, Pennsylvania on one of Andrew Carnegies steel mills. Carnegie felt that Collective Bargaining was too expensive and that his workers could be replaced by advanced machinery. The town’s people who worked for Carnegie were enraged and decided to protest outside of the mill. Carnegie hired armed guards to protect the mill. Behind barricades the people opened fire on the hired guard, which ended in a massacre with the protesters winning (Henretta, Brody & Dumniel 2008). Carnegie’s business paused for a little while, but eventually he hired new workers and get his business running. Carnegie at the time was very disliked by man Pennsylvania residents because of his refusal to accept collective bargaining.   


The Pullman strike, Haymarket riot, and Homestead strike were all essential to the American Labor movement. They helped create an eight-hour workday, collective bargaining, and created the Wagner Act. They also helped in serving as demonstrations of violent protest and successful ones for those who plan on protesting in the future. These three strikes most importantly served as the stepping-stones for Labor Unions and workers’ rights. Each riot helped in showing the government that workers were not just going to let anyone walk all over them. These strikes served as the foundations to American labor and eventually lead to the creation of the holiday that would be known as Labor Day.


Union Gains from Labor Movement


American labor unions have shaped many of today’s jobs. These unions have led to many jobs and benefits to those in a union job. There are more than 150 million people in the labor force (Greenhouse, 2011). About 12 million of them are illegal immigrants and about 16 million of the 150 million belong to some sort of union. “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics 12.4 percent of American workers currently belong to a union (Greenhouse, 2011).”  During the 1950’s the percentage of workers that were associated with a union was 35%.  In the last sixty-one years the percentage of workers that are part of a union has decreased by 22.6% since the 1950’s. Currently, there are two major unions in America. The first one is the National Education Association, which represents 3 million members these members mainly include teachers and school officials. It also happens to be the biggest union in America. The second biggest union in America is the Service Employees International Union that represents about 2 million members mostly health-care and building service workers.  At a local level the state of Indiana has about 637 Unions for those who are not too familiar with Indiana’s unions. Indiana as has Locals with a total of 464,520 members according to unions.org. Some local unions Include the American Postal Union, US Steel Workers, United Transportation Union, United Auto Workers, Plumbers and Pipefitters Union, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, American Federation of Teachers and many more from carpenters to iron workers. These are just some of the well-profiled unions that are currently active because of what the Labor Movement and Labor unions created for workers.

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Image Provided by (Gallup.com)



Benefits and Rights Acquired from Unions


For many of you already know the working conditions of the old days. They were not too sanitary or safe at all. Unions changed the way Americans work and live during the 1900’s and even to this day. The three strikes mentioned earlier are just some of the most well-known examples as to how Labor Unions came about. Unions fought hard and long to give current workers every little benefit that is associated with working. Some of those benefits include job stability and getting a raise, something that was unheard of 120 years ago. Unions created the Fair Labor Standards Acts. This act was passed by the Supreme Court after the Anderson vs. the Mt. Clemens Pottery Co. In this case Anderson was suing Clemens Pottery, because he believed that the owner was not properly accounting the regular and overtime working hours of some employees. The employers at the time controlled everything from how long their break was to their pay and even how many hours according to “them” did each employee work. This Act was passed in 1938 and set a nationwide minimum wage and also required that workers who were non-supervisory employees to get paid time-and-a-half if they worked more than 40 hours that week.


Unions also helped create OSHA. Many workers back then would die on the job site, simply because the lack of safety equipment and the lack of regulations. Because of the strikes workers were able to create OSHA to help them maintain a safe and healthy work place environment. OSHA was created in 1970 by congress under the occupational health and safety act. This act was signed by Richard M. Nixon. OSHA’s aim was to stop and prevent work related injuries and illnesses. OSHA was brought upon by workers. Workers were able to bring upon OSHA by striking and complaining to the government that their working conditions were awful and not safe at all. Eventually the government listened to the workers and realized that in order to have satisfied and productive employees they should first be able to feel safe while at work.  

Fair Labor Act

During the 1900’s many young children had to work in order to help their families out. Most of the time children would work very long hours with little pay. They would also work in both the most dangerous environments. Safety was a major concern to children working and their parents. Most children during that time frame would either work in large factories with heavy machinery or also work as miners. Their small bodies were perfect for mining into small places. Many children who worked either in the mines or in a factory would die, due to their working environment. Those children who worked in the factories would get injured or killed by the machinery. Those who mined would end up dying of black lung disease from breathing in all of that pollution.  Labor unions helped create benefits like the 8-hour working day that would later be instituted with children workers. It wasn’t until 1938 that the child labor law was passed and was known as the Fair Labor standards Act. This act was the first sign of prosperity for every worker who went on countless amounts of strikes just to be heard. This act didn’t end child labor it just improved it by setting up minimum age requirements and how many hours’ children/teens can work during a school week or non-school week.  



Unions have impacted the economy, the work place, the everyday lives that we live. Over the last 120 years Americans have seen a change in their work place from their paychecks, to their safety. Although there are many new Laws that are being created against labor unions, there are still strong unions that are fighting for more rights. So much of American history is involved with Labor Unions. That History is something that Americans should not forget, because we all get raises, we all take break during work, but what we all do not know is why we get them. After going through this web text it should help answer your question as to how labor unions have had an impact on workers’ rights.


Recommended Readings:


Labor Union Resources- Is a website that has a lot of information about Labor Unions almost everything you can learn about Unions.



History of Organized Labor: This is something that I found online while doing a search for the history of Labor unions and I thought that it had a lot of useful information and it was also very interesting.


 Labor's Day Is Over: This is an article that I found through Google scholar I found it very interesting and I am sure you will too.  





Center of Education and Research University of Hawai’i-West O’ahu. (2005). Clear time line of United States Labor History. Retrieved February 27, 2011, from http://clear.uhwo.hawaii.edu/Timeline-US.html

This is a time line of US Labor history that was created by the university of Hawaii. This source seems to be scholarly because it is being taken directly from a Universities website. This website is also updated frequently because it belongs to a university.


Child Labor in History. (2011). Child Labor Public Education Project. Retrieved from http://www.continuetolearn.uiowa.edu/laborctr/child_labor/about/us_history.html

This article is credible because it comes from the university of Iowa Labor Center.

Greenhouse, S. (2011). Labor. New York Times. Retrieved from http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/l/labor/index.html?scp=4&sq=labor%20unions&st=cse

This is an article from the New York Times that talks about US labor history, Percentages, and where it currently stands. The New York times is known as prestigious news paper that has credible authors and information. It is also updated everyday.


GALLUP. (2010, August 12). U.S Approval of Labor Unions Remains Near Record Low. Retrieved March 1, 2011, from http://www.gallup.com/poll/142007/Americans-Approval-Labor-Unions-Remains-Near-Record-Low.aspx

This website shows many different questions asked to the public about Labor Union and represents them in graphs/charts that represent the public’s views on each question. This also talks a little about Labor Unions. This source is credible because the author and organization of the website are very well known and are not biased. This website is also updated frequently with the most up to date information.


Henretta, J., Brody, D., & Dumenil, L. (2008). America’s History: Volume 2 since 1865. Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

This source comes from a book that I am currently using in my History class. It has a chapter that is dedicated to talking about US Growth which includes the start of unions. This book has very useful information and it is very credible in showing the history of American Labor Unions. This source is credible because is it is written by professional writers who have had their writing published for college level courses. 


Labor Day. (2011). The History Channel website. Retrieved 2:49, March 23, 2011, from http://www.history.com/topics/labor-day.

This source is from the history channel website. It simply talks about the Knight of Labor and tells some brief information about them and how they came about. This source should be credible because it is a very well known site and TV channel that I would think shares reliable correct information with the public. They usually hire professors and historians with high degrees to conduct their studies.


Illinois During the Gilded Age. (2007). Eugene V. Debs: Pullman Strike Leader and Socialist. Retrieved March 21, 2011, from http://dig.lib.niu.edu/gildedage/pullman/events4.html

This article comes from a wesite that gives information about the history of the state of Illinois. It is mostly about the Pullman strike and about Eugene V. Debs. The author or creator of this source is know for his writing in many history books.

Sheldon, M. C., & Chadwick, J.H. (2003). In his steps (PDF), Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=vqd5vo9tC_wC&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=+In+His+Steps.+&ots=wjk5OdHmRb&sig=OiwJbA4MeJwNQhHgX_YaVuTsvvw#v=onepage&q&f=false

 I did not read this whole book but I was able to find a couple of pages on the Hay Market Square Riot. I found this article as a PDF file on Google. This article came from Google scholar. Everything that is on Google scholar is crediable.


U.S. History Pre-Columbian to the New Millennium. (2008). Organized Labor: American Federation on Labor. Retrieved February 26, 2011, from http://www.ushistory.org/us/37d.asp

This article goes through important historical information dealing with Organized Labor in the US. It seems to have a lot of accurate historical information that I had found on all my other sources that where credible.

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