Study Guide

History of Labor Unions Introduction

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History of Labor Unions Introduction

With slogans like "America Runs On Dunkin'," it's safe to say that Americans pride themselves on being a caffeine-driven, sleep-deprived, overworked country. 

And that's nothing new, but today's workdays are nothing like the workdays of the late-18th and early-20th centuries.

With the rise of industrialism, came the rise of industrial giants, but with a growing crew of top dog big money-makers, came an even larger crew of underdog working folks. These were the people working ten hours a day in sweatshops and living like paupers in crummy tenements.

Talk about two different ends of the spectrum.

The underdogs' contribution to any budding economy can't be overlooked. These business tycoons knew it, and the federal government knew it. And what the big guys on top might not have bet on was the fact that these underdogs would unite and stand up against big business. Working ridiculous hours for very little pay in often dangerous circumstances can only be tolerated for so long. Working conditions were improving, as were wages, but compared to today, you'd be appalled. 

Flipping burgers looks a whole lot better than 12-hour days at the steel mill. Trust us.

Like that eight-hour workday? Unions. Like that national holiday where we get a day off from work and school? Unions. Like those well-marked, unlocked exit doors preventing you from burning alive at your workplace? Unions. (Yes, that really happened.)

Over the course of more than a century, the labor movement has played a profound role—for better or worse—in shaping how Americans live and work. The influence of unions has waxed and waned during a long and sometimes bloody struggle for power in the workplace.

Despite the many benefits to labor unions, the labor movement's status has always been precarious due to Americans' love-hate attitude toward organized labor. Today, just like a century ago, some citizens passionately believe that unions are crucial bulwarks of freedom, while others feel just as strongly that they are at best, an anachronism, and at worst, an obstacle to progress.

What is History of Labor Unions About and Why Should I Care?

A few fun facts:

  • Unions have been growing smaller and less powerful for 40 years.
  • But unions are still very important in certain areas like the auto industry, public education, print journalism, and politics.
  • Unions hope that proposed changes to labor law to allow card-check voting will lead to resurgence. Many businesses hope it doesn't.

Do unions still matter? Unions have now been shrinking, in terms of both membership and power, more or less steadily for some 50 years. Today, only about one out of every eight American workers belongs to a union. And if you don't count government employees, that figure drops even lower, to about one in twelve.

With unions in the 21st century arguably having less influence on American society than they have at any time since the 1920s, are they now irrelevant? Are they just anachronistic relics of the distant past, about as important to shaping our future as the telegraph or the horse-drawn buggy? 

Well, not quite. 

Unions Still Matter At General Motors

The Detroit automotive giant—which was, for much of the 20th century, the world's largest corporation, stood on the brink of bankruptcy in the wake of the 2008 recession and was bailed out by the government.

And at GM, if not throughout society in general, unions remain strong. Indeed, that's a big part of GM's problem. The company's workers are nearly all members of the United Auto Workers union and the contracts negotiated between GM and the UAW—especially those, often negotiated decades ago, in which GM promised to pay healthy pensions and healthcare benefits to hundreds of thousands of retirees—tend to impose massive costs that the company cannot afford to pay in the 21st century.

GM, operating on much the same union-labor model as it did back in the 1950s, simply can't compete with other auto companies that don't have to bear the costs of paying union wages and especially benefits. GM's unionized workers—and retirees—are reluctant to give up what they won at the bargaining table in the past, but also recognize that they must make some concessions or GM will simply cease to exist, likely taking the union down along with it. 

Can the UAW and GM forge some kind of productive new partnership, allowing the company to become competitive again in the 21st century? Or will the UAW insist on full enforcement of its existing contracts, ensuring that GM will crash into oblivion? 

The future of the American auto industry largely depends on how the union chooses to play its cards.

Unions Still Matter In Classrooms

While unionization of workers in the private sector has long been in decline, the opposite is true for public employees. 

In recent decades, unionization of government workers—including schoolteachers—has actually increased. Today the teachers' unions wield great power—for good or ill—over the American educational system. 

Nearly everyone agrees that American public schools need improvement. Whether meaningful reforms will take place depends largely upon how the teachers' unions choose to react. Will they use their power to push for much-needed improvement in American education, making it easier for good teachers to succeed? Or will they focus narrowly on enforcing sometimes-onerous work rules and tenure hierarchies, fighting potentially beneficial changes in order to protect their own self-interest?

The future of our education system depends on how the unions choose to use their power.

Unions Still Matter In the Country's Newsrooms

The rise of the internet at the beginning of the 21st century wrecked the business model that had long sustained American newspapers. 

Today, print journalism in this country has fallen dramatically, as most newspapers intially suffered horrific losses, but have attempted to claw their way back with the internet. Major dailies like Denver's 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News have ceased to exist, with dozens of others—the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Christian Science Monitor—teetering on the brink.

The American newspaper—as we know it anyway—may soon go out of business. Most newspapers have highly unionized work forces, from reporters to printers to delivery truck drivers. The papers simply no longer have the revenues needed to sustain their large, well-paid unionized labor forces. 

As cutbacks become inevitable, the papers' viability hinges, in part, upon how the unions respond. Will they insist upon rigid adherence to the work rules stipulated in their contracts—work rules which often stifle managers' efforts to become more flexible and efficient—or will they adjust to the difficult new circumstances to help the newspapers survive? 

Unions Still Matter In Our Nation's Politics

Unions provide the backbone—in terms of both financial contributions and volunteer manpower—for the Democratic Party. In 2008, they played a major role in electing Barack Obama to the White House and enlarging Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, with the hopes that their Democratic allies would deliver labor-friendly policies. 

Whether a re-unionization of the American workforce would be a good thing or a bad thing in the 21st century is highly debatable. There is no question, though, that it would represent a dramatic change from recent decades. 

So, in American politics, unions still matter—maybe more than most of us yet realize. Will they be part of the solution to our troubles, or part of the problem? What does the history of unions in America tell us about labor's role in the current downturn? 

Welp, we're not fortune-tellers here at Shmoop, but maybe, we can let the past be our guide.

History of Labor Unions Resources


Philip M. Dine, State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence (2007)
Dine, who brings a clear pro-union agenda to his work, uses vivid contemporary examples to provide an overview of the labor movement and suggest ways for unions to regain influence.

Rick Fantasia, Hard Work: Remaking the American Labor Movement (2004)
This account deals with the decline of unions. Starting with a chapter on "why labor matters," Fantasia takes a thoughtful look at labor's current dilemma with a glance back at history. Not easy reading, but worth the effort.

Jim Haskins, The Long Struggle: The Story of American Labor (1976)
A thorough, easy-to-read overview, particularly of the early labor movement.

Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (2002)
This is a fine examination of labor history beginning in the 1930s. The author gives a balanced view of the shifting influence of labor and management.

Roy Rozenweig and Steve Brier, Who Built America? (1992)
This is a good place to start. The two long books cover a lot of territory, but they succeed in putting labor history in context. It's not a book to read straight through as much as a reference to investigate eras and concepts, but it's well-written, accessible, and it has pictures.


Various Artists, Classic Labor Songs from Smithsonian Folkways (2006)
A collection of the songs that have inspired the labor movement for over a century. It's significant that the first song celebrates IWW poet laureate Joe Hill, and the last is "Solidarity Forever," the anthem of the movement written by IWW activist Ralph Chaplin. The Wobblies were big on music.


San Francisco '34 Waterfront Strike
This print by Anton Refregier, a copy of a mural he painted in a San Francisco post office, glorifies labor's side in the hard-fought struggles of the 1930s.

Group of Workers in Clayton, N.C. Cotton Mills
Lewis Hine's photo shows the young children who worked long hours in early-20th-century factories.

Haymarket Riot, 1886
An engraving from Harper's Weekly of the bombing that tarnished labor's image in the turbulent 1880s.

Whitnel Cotton Mill's Child Labor
This girl, only 4'3" tall, had worked in the mill for a year, sometimes at night, for 48¢ a day.

1936 Sit-Down Strike at General Motors
Workers pass the time during the 44-day strike at the Flint, Michigan, GM plant that brought in the United Auto Workers.

Samuel Gompers
The man who was most influential in shaping the labor movement in the United States.

George Meany
The longtime AFL-CIO leader, an icon of Big Labor.

César Chávez
César Chávez, co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union, at a 1972 rally.

Movies & TV

American Dream (1990)
Another offering from Barbara Kopple, this Academy Award-winning documentary details the unsuccessful strike of meatpackers against Hormel Foods in Austin, Minnesota during the mid-1980s. A scalding look how the labor movement faltered in the face of the Reagan-era onslaught.

Matewan (1987)
A drama about union organizing, again in Kentucky, this time in the 1920s. With strong performances by Chris Cooper and James Earl Jones, the film looks particularly at the nuances of racial tension that surround the labor issue.

Norma Rae (1979)
Sally Fields plays a textile worker turned union organizer in this effective fictional account of a drive to unionize a plant. While the film bogs down in sentimentality at points, Fields' performance will not fail to stir you.

Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976)
Barbara Kopple directed this documentary about a coal strike in 1970s Kentucky, and it should be at the top of your list. Gritty and heartbreaking by turns, it illustrates many of the conflicting currents of labor history while unfolding a tense drama. A shocker.

On the Waterfront (1954)
A great movie that focused on union corruption even before it became a national issue. The movie does a good job of showing how labor leaders became divorced from the rank and file and used the union as a power base. Marlon Brando's Terry Molloy is one of the iconic characters in the history of cinema.


American Labor Studies Center
An excellent and easy-to-maneuver site that covers a wide range of labor history. Includes "Your Rights on the Job: An Employment Guide For Young Workers."

Labor Arts
Connect to a virtual museum that gathers and displays cultural artifacts of working people and their organizations. The site's mission "is to present powerful images that help us understand the past and present lives of working people."

Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World
This site not only gives a detailed view of the development of the southern textile industry, but it lets you listen to the voices of the workers who labored in the mills and struggled for their rights.

The Triangle Factory Fire
This is a very thorough and moving depiction of the fire and its context. Includes newspaper accounts, photographs, and oral histories.

The Industrial Workers of the World
The Wobblies never did die. They're still around and still organizing. This site has history, biographies, articles and other information—straight from the source.

Video & Audio

U.S. Labor and Industrial History Audio Archive
A collection of speeches and lectures related to labor history. Listen to William Jennings Bryan in 1896 or to discussions of various issues related to labor history.

America at Work, America at Leisure
Makes more than 75 films from before 1915 of Americans at work and play available in digital form.

Oral History of the Farmworkers Movement
Interviews with César Chávez and other labor organizers.

Seattle General Strike Project
The 1919 action in Seattle was the first citywide general strike in American history. Workers trying to make up for the wage freezes of World War I shut down the entire city. This site lets you hear interviews with participants.

Historical Documents

Chicago Anarchists on Trial: Evidence from the Haymarket Affair
This site makes transcripts of the trial of those accused in the 1886 Haymarket bombing available.

The Samuel Gompers Papers
Includes letter and other documents by the great labor leader. Gives a flavor of the nitty-gritty of the early labor movement.

The National Labor Relations Act
This is the text of the law commonly known as the Wagner Act. Passed in 1935, it changed the landscape of labor-management relations, setting off a burst of labor organizing.

The Taft-Hartley Act
Here you can find the text of the Taft-Hartley Act. Passed in 1947, it tilted power in the workplace back toward management.

History of Labor Unions Introduction Study Group

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