Supported By the Atlanta Labor Council, AFL-CIO and UNITE! SouthEastern Offices.
Published September 2000.
People have been forming and joining unions for centuries. The same reasons have inspired people then and now: we need protection against unfair and unequal treatment, lay-offs and unemployment,unsafe working conditions, long hours and low wages, and lack of adequate healthcare and retirement benefits.
In the 19th century there was no social safety net in this country. Unions helped create one in the 20th century, and after all the tears made in it by racist and right wing forces in government over the last two decades, unions may have to repair it in the 21 st century.
In 1806, the Union of Philadelphia Cordwinders went on strike and was later taken to court and bankrupted. This wasperhaps the earliest union in the U.S.A.
In 1825, carpenters in Boston organized a strike for a 10 hour work day.
In 1857, immigrants women organized a day-long strike in the garment district of New York City's sweatshops leading to a day formed by Socialists as International Women's Day and enacted by the United Nations.
In 1879, the Knights of Labor (KOL), a union with 9,000 members, decided to open its ranks to women, blacks, immigrants, and unskilled laborers. This was done under the leadership of Terence Powderly who opposed the use of strikes. The membership climbed to close to 115,000 bty the end of 1884.
Despite Powderley's no-strike principal, the KOL successfully struck against railroad tycoon Jay Gould.
By 1886 membership grew to 700,000 persons. Violence was unfortunately a part of events, sometimes provoked by employers. Due to these factors and some other ones, the KOL declined in membership and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) became the main body of organized labor in the U.S.A. working with 1 million members
In the years before and during WWI, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) became the new voice of those unorganized, those unskilled, many new immigrants from Eastern Europe women, and people of color. This organixzation faced severe repression including the infamous postwar Palmer raids.
In 1935, with the AFL still comitted to narrow craft unionism despite 6 terrible years in the Great Depression, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) took up the cause of militant industrial unionism. Members included the United Mine Workers and the United Auto Workers. In 1941, several years after the famous sit-down strikes in the auto plants, the industrialist Henry Ford was forced to recognize the UAW.
After its triumphs in the New Deal and WW2 eras, McCarthyism divided the CIO. When the AFL and the CIO merged, business unionism and Cold war politics fostered complacency in the 1950's and 1960's. In the 1970's, with public sector unions growing but industrial sector reeling fromthe lay-offs and plant closings particularly in the Northeast, Midwest and Appalachia,the labor movement began to decline. The Reagan-Bush era was devastating for workers and unions.
In 1995, the AFL-CIO elected new leadership, increased organizing efforts, and reached out to the social movements of various stripes. The 1997 United Parcel Service (UPS) showed that workers could win, and the 1999 Battle of Seattle showed that our struggle is global and linked in many ways to other grassroots, progressive and important struggles. After years of decline, people are joing new unions that organize textile workers, hotel employees, government officials and these unions are demanding a voice at work and in our governments. What will 2001 bring?
Largest Unions in U.S.A.
National Educations Association 2,000,000
International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Porters Chaffeurs and Helpers 1,400,000
United Food and Commercial Workers 1,400,000
American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees 1,300,000
International Association of Machinists 870,000
Other countries with important unions are South Africa--COSATU helped obtain AIDS medicines at low costs, South Korea--they helped struggle for democratic rights and Mexico--grassroots unions like the 6th of October are involved in many struggles in maquiladoras of U.S., South Korean and other nationalities.