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A Few Key Milestones in the History of American Labor Unions

By Winston Smith

Throughout history, labor unions have touched on all aspects of American life -- including women's rights, social history and politics. Labor unions continue to be politically and economically important in 21st century America. How did it all begin?

The history of American labor unions spans many states, industries and centuries. Though many unions have similar goals and have cooperated in some cases, most unions tend to focus on the interests of their members.

Since the 1950s, fewer and fewer American workers have been union members. Despite this decline, unions continue to be important political groups since they are able to donate money to candidates and parties and otherwise participate in the process. In the present day, unions are most common in the public sector; city, state and federal government employees have high unionization rates relative to the rest of the economy.

The Early History

The early history of American labor unions is marked by strikes, violence and political challenges. During the nineteenth century, unions established themselves in American society and politics. Indeed, an early union's effort to strike to achieve its ends -- the Philadelphia Cordwainers case of 1806 -- was ruled to be illegal. Not only were the Philadelphia leather workers unable to form a union, but they were fined by the court for their efforts.

The legal landscape did not improve until 1842 when the Commonwealth vs. Hunt case was decided; the case established that unions could legally exist as long as they did not use coercive means to achieve their goals. As the nineteenth century progressed, unions continued to be formed. These organizations tended to be focused around a particular occupation, company or location.

Though many of the early unions had exclusively male membership, there were important labor unions with women. For example, an organization of women textile workers in Lowell, Massachusetts sent a delegation to the state government which triggered an investigation of working conditions. This early investigation as well as union political efforts contributed to the eventual creation of workplace safety and health laws.

The next major developments for organized labor in the US was the 1886 creation of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), one of the first organizations to bring together unions from different industries and regions together. This organization would later become very important in U.S. politics and elections. The AFL and other groups that brought together labor unions sought to make a combined case for the needs and interests of workers.

Most unions in this period fought for improved safety conditions, limits on working hours and improved pay. The late nineteenth century also witnessed the creation of the United Mine Workers (1890) organization which represented miners of coal and other natural resources.

Anti-Union Violence: The Pullman Strike of 1894

Violence against union strikers and union organizers was common in this period. One of the worst events of anti-union violence in American history occurred when the American Railway Union started to strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company in 1894. The U.S. Army and other government forces broke up the strike; 13 workers died and 57 were killed in the ensuing violence.

The violence and the strike attracted national attention as it impacted railway service and many other workers supported the American Railway Union's efforts. Company and government violence against strikers continued off and on until the mid 20th century when greater legal protections for unions and their role took shape.

The History of American Labor Unions: Achievements

Walter P Reuther, a famous leader of the UAW (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons) The accomplishments of unions in American life became law in some cases (e.g. safety laws) and customary in other cases (e.g. most types of benefits). Not all of the benefits and accomplishments described in this section can be solely attributed to American labor unions but their role is generally considered to be vital.

  • The establishment of Labor Day: Congress passed a law in 1894 creating Labor Day as an official holiday, though workers in New York State and other parts of the U.S. had been holding labor parades, marches and other events for some time before this was passed.
  • Pensions: To supplement Social Security benefits, unions successfully demanded pensions funded by companies. The United Auto Workers (UAW) achieved pensions for its members in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • Medical Insurance: Employer funded (or joint employee-employer funded) health insurance benefits were also achieved by unions. As with pensions, non-unionized employers began to offer health insurance to their employees. Unfortunately, health insurance was not provided to all workers and it was not always enough to cover all the needs of workers.
  • Support for Civil Rights: The United Auto Workers and other unions provided support to civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Unions also supported other social causes such as the anti-Apartheid movement
  • Paid Vacation Time: Though paid vacation time varies widely across the United States, the creation of paid vacation time is sometimes partially credited to union concessions won during collective bargaining.

Politics and Decline, 1970s to Present

From the 1970s to the present day, union membership as a percentage of the workforce has declined in the United States. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unionization rate in the U.S. in 2010 was 11.9%, meaning the vast majority of jobs are not unionized.

In addition, public sector workers have a much higher unionization rate (approximately 36%) than private sector employees (approximately 7%). In the private sector, unions retain a great deal of importance in construction, telecommunications, and transportation. Though the role of unions has declined around the world, unions still play an important role in Canada (31% in 2009, nearly triple the U.S. rate), United Kingdom (28.4% in 2006) and other advanced economies.

Following the financial crisis and recession of 2008-2010, the role of unions in American society became a matter of political controversy. In states such as New York and Wisconsin, there has been much discussion about limiting the collective bargaining rights and benefits that unionized workers currently have. Some argue that this move is simply an effort to address the financial problems faced by state governments while others see it as a political attack since unions have a long history of supporting the Democratic Party. It is still unclear what happen to unions but their future role and importance is very much open to debate.


To learn more about the history of American labor unions and the role of unions, explore the resources provided in this section.

History of Unions,

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Labor Hall of Fame Honoree

Union Members 2010,

Union Membership (UK),

Work - Unionization Rates (Government of Canada),[email protected]?iid=17