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History of Labor Unions

History of Labor Unions

Reading Quizzes

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Big Picture


1. How is the workplace a power game between organized labor and management?
2. What is the pro-business viewpoint of labor?
3. What is the pro-union viewpoint of labor?
4. Why did individual workers lose power as the 19th century progressed?
5. What do "collective action", "solidarity", and "organized labor" mean in the workplace?
6. Why did employers tend to take a dim view of labor unions?
7. Why and how did President Roosevelt support unions?
8. Why are Americans traditionally somewhat hesitant to support unions?


1. Both sides are primarily concerned about seeing who has a larger share of the power in the workplace: do the employees dictate terms, or does the management?
2. Labor is a commodity like every other commodity, wages should be dictated by supply and demand, maximum productivity is key, and the heart of the free enterprise system is the freedom of employers to negotiate with individual workers: anything else would gum up the economic works and stop progress.
3. Labor is not a commodity, but a critical aspect of the human experience: workers should have a say in their conditions, and not be forced to work under any conditions that are (for example) unsafe or dangerous: they should be able to live with comfort and dignity, have a safety net (unemployment insurance, health insurance) in case of bad events, and have a retirement fund (Social Security): bluntly, the right of workers to organize for their own self-interest is a human right.
4. Industry grew quickly, workplaces became larger, and employees' relationships with their employers became more impersonal. Because of the large numbers of immigrants, there was a large supply of cheap labor: make a fuss and you'd get fired.
5. Collective action means that all workers act together in order to get concessions from the employers -- in order to raise wages or get benefits. "Solidarity" is the condition of belonging to a union -- individual workers couldn't cut their own deals with the employer and had to pay dues. "Organized labor" refers to workers who had banded together in order to exert their power
6. Labor unions interfered with the employer's right to make decisions about how his business was run: managers tended to view labor unions' interference as either a coercive act of force or as an implied act of violence on the employer's right to run his business the way he wants.
7. During the Great Depression, Roosevelt wanted to put limits on the powers of corporations (as they'd just helped put the country in the Great Depression), so he supported changes in federal labor laws to make it easier for unions to organize.
8. Americans tend to prefer individuality over solidarity, we don't have a strong tradition of a "working class", and we tend to support the rights of the boss (seeing as the American Dream is to be a boss -- preferably your own boss).