The Past as Prologue? A Brief History of the Labor Movement in the United States

By Adler, Joseph | Public Personnel Management, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

The Past as Prologue? A Brief History of the Labor Movement in the United States


Adler, Joseph, Public Personnel Management


Any overview of the growth of unions in the sector of the United States must take into account the historical antecedents of private sector collective bargaining. Indeed, the history of our nation is replete with the rise and eventual fall of a number of major labor organizations. During the period as a colony of England, and continuing well after the founding of the United States, employers used legal and extra legal tactics to weaken or eliminate the power of unions to have any input in the setting of wages, hours and other employment conditions. More recently, we have witnessed the rapid decline of the strength of unions in the private sector and the almost mirror image rise in the strength of unions in the public sector. Following the enactment of the National Labor Relations Act (1935) until the early 1970s, unions represented more than one-third of the workers in the private sector; today they represent less than 10 percent. At the same time, union membership or representation in the public sector grew from less than 10 percent to more than 45 percent of local government and 35 percent of state government employees. 1 Unions that once defined the power of industrial America, such as United Auto Workers, Steelworkers, Rubber workers, etc., are shadows of their former selves, while unions representing some or all public employees have seen robust growth. An historical analysis of the cyclical nature of labor's development in the United States places current developments in a more proper context, and begs the question "is growth and domination of public sector unions a permanent feature of public administration and public human resource management?"

I. Historical Context

A. The Emergence of National Unions in the United States.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution and the interests they represented may have wanted to "form a more perfect union," but that desire did not extend to organizations of workers and skilled trade associations. As the new country began to grow, it saw the rise of merchant capitalists and the factory system. Workers sought to protect their earning power and their marketable skills by forming worker associations, mechanic societies, and fledgling unions of skilled craft workers. Employers fought back with every method available, often finding a sympathetic ear in the halls of power and in the judiciary. English common laws against the restraint of trade were used to weaken and in many cases to eliminate these early unions and worker organizations. Confrontation between labor and management came about early in the development of industrial America. Ballot, writing about this period, states, "What is striking is that the antagonisms and adversarial spirit between the workers and merchant capitalists emerged early in the industrialization process. In protesting long hours, low pay, loss of autonomy, and inhuman working conditions, laborers organized, conducted strikes, and slowdowns, and engaged in other activities involving resistance to authority." (2) Employers used all available methods to crush these fledgling unions including the full weight of a hostile legal system.

Rapid industrialization and the creation of a national economy in the United States during the mid 1860s led to the efforts to create unions that were national in scope. In 1866, the National Labor Union (NLU) was formed. It was a confederation of skilled craft unions. In addition to advocating for higher wages, the NLU fought to establish an eight-hour day and to abolish convict labor, demanded equal rights for women and minorities, and wanted reforms in the nation's monetary policy. Over time, the leadership of the NLU became more interested in political reforms involving taxation, banking, and federal land policy and lost its base of skilled craft workers. (3)

The second national union in the United States was the Knights of Labor (KOL), formed in 1869. The Knights believed in one big union and admitted all types of workers--skilled and unskilled--including immigrants, women and minorities. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Past as Prologue? A Brief History of the Labor Movement in the United States
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.