Salem College Dems

Labor Unions

There are a lot of programs and laws that are specifically designed to help improve the lives of working people in the United States. Many of them came about during the decades following the 30s, when the labor movement began to gain force and to consolidate some of its power. This movement had begun as a struggle and had to continue for more than a century before it finally became established in the economy of the United States.

Unlike the same types of groups located in other countries, the unions of the United States wanted to work within the free enterprise system that already exist. This made it utterly despairing to socialists. There was not a history of feudalism here in the United States and not many working people thought that they were in any kind of class struggle. Most of them believed they were asserting their own right to advancement. Another factor that played a role in this is the fact that many workers here, especially white male workers, were allowed to vote sooner than workers in many other countries.

With the beginnings of this movement came a sense of industry. The organizers of unions had a very limited pool from which they could choose their recruits. The significance of the first organization, the Knights of Labor, cannot be understated. It was founded in Philadelphia in 1869 by a group of garment workers. They were dedicated primarily to organizing all workers for the general welfare of everyone. In 1886, they had nearly seven hundred thousand members including all wage earners, merchants, races, and both genders. The interests of these various groups, however, were often in conflict with each other. So what did they do? How did they maintain their own personal sense of identity if they were constantly in conflict with one another? The Knights ended up going on strike and winning against railroads owned by a Mr. Jay Gould in the 1880s. They lost another strike in 1886 and then their membership went into a steep decline.

In 1881, an immigrant cigar maker named Samuel Gompers and a few other craftsmen in related industries went ahead and organized a trade union federation that, five years later, became the American Federation of Labor (the AFL). Gompers was the first president of the union. He tried to follow a strategy that was practical in which they were seeking both higher wages and better conditions for their workers. The management did not want to discuss wages or issues with the entire group and wanted to do it with each individual. This resulted in them blacklisting or firing workers who were in unions. Sometimes this led to people being forced to sign things known as yellow dog contracts, which resulted in them being prohibited from joining unions. After 1880, the government and the courts were sympathetic to management or they were neutral. The government usually provided some sort of troops in order to stop strikes from happening. Some violent strikes during this time period resulted in deaths.

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