The Rise of Organized Labor

Large factories had become the major employers for most people — a result of the Industrial Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. But the downside to that was that workers lacked protection from almost all contingencies, including inflation, illness, disability, and arbitrary firing. Workers soon banded together, demanding a voice and a change in labor conditions. The 1870s were marked with particular unrest given the sad state of the nation's economy in 1873. A secret fraternal order called the Knights of Labor embraced workers in many occupations, becoming one of the most powerful early unions. In 1881, workers met in Columbus, Ohio, to establish a far more effective group called the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Its first leader was Samuel Gompers, president of the Cigar Makers' International Union and of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. The AFL gave workers more rights, such as negotiating with employers for better conditions and wages.

Several disastrous strikes, coupled with the depression of this era, stunted union growth. In 1892, large numbers of private detectives as well as National Guard troops quelled striking workers at Carnegie Steel Company's Homestead Mill in Pittsburgh, essentially destroying the union. In 1894, a strike by the American Railway Union against the Pullman Company was defeated by an injunction issued under the Sherman Antitrust Act.

But after the Spanish-American War, the trade union movement grew so that by 1904, more than 2 million workers belonged to trade unions. Almost 1.7 million belonged to the AFL. With great reluctance, employers gradually accepted collective bargaining with the unions as the norm.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2005, 12.5 percent of wage and salary workers were union members. The union membership rate has declined from a high of 20.1 percent in 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available. Black workers are more likely to be union members than white, Asian, or Hispanic workers. Men are more likely than women to be union members.

Presidents in the last quarter of the nineteenth century typically sided with business owners against workers who went out on strike with their grievances. Sensing new public sentiment, Roosevelt sent in federal troops to a Pennsylvania mine strike, not only to protect the mines themselves, but to protect the strikers as well. Business owners were known to hire thugs to beat up striking workers, and the presence of soldiers prevented violence and led to more peaceful resolution of labor/management disputes.

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