The Evolution of Trade Unionism in the United States
The trade union movement in the United States has been the product of an evolutionary process. Since its inception, the basic question confronting those concerned with the American labor movement has been: How do you appeal to workers in a free society to join together into a permanent organization to further their collective interests? As will be shown, the answer was found through years of trial and error.
In the quest for the proper appeal, an important subsidiary question was raised: Is the emergence of trade unionism anticapitalistic or procapitalistic? Karl Marx felt unions represented a sublimation of worker interests. That is to say, workers are basically dissatisfied with capitalism and the presence of unionism represents a class movement against the prevailing order. Unionism is seen as a symbol of labor solidarity. A counterthesis, however, argues that workers join unions in search of economic improvement and job security. To the degree that unions succeed in raising wages, shortening work hours, and improving working conditions, workers gain a stake in the survival of the system. Hence, they will strive to protect capitalism because there is no guarantee that they will be any better off in any workers' millenium.
Before 1776 the long settlement process of the American colonies was characterized by a relative scarcity of labor. Efforts to transform the native Indian population into workers were generally unsuccessful. Other means had to be found. Throughout much of the 17th century, the northern colonies relied extensively on indentured labor from England. Contracts were signed prior to passage that fixed the length of servitude required to pay the cost of transportation to the New World. On arrival, the indentured servants worked under conditions established unilaterally by the employer.
In the 18th century, however, the Industrial Revolution began in England. Workers were needed at home to staff the new factories. Opportunities to immigrate as indentured servants were therefore sharply curtailed. The main group encouraged to leave for the colonies were convicts, who were put to work on public construction projects.