Labor unions are large groups of workers, usually in a similar trade or profession, that join together to protect the workers' rights. The Industrial Revolution was a time when national labor unions began to form in the United States.
Why did labor unions first form?
During the Industrial Revolution, the working conditions in factories, mills, and mines were terrible. Unlike today, the government took little interest in creating safety standards or in regulating how businesses treated workers.
The typical industrial employee worked long hours under dangerous conditions for little pay. Many workers were poor immigrants who had little choice but to keep working despite the conditions. If an employee complained, they were fired and replaced.
At some point, workers began to revolt. They joined together and created unions in order to fight for safer conditions, better hours, and increased wages. It was easy for factory owners to replace one employee who complained, but much more difficult to replace all their employees if they went on strike together.
What did they do to make things better?
The unions organized strikes and negotiated with employers for better working conditions and pay. During the Industrial Revolution this wasn't always a peaceful process. When employers tried to replace striking workers, the workers sometimes fought back. In some cases, things became so violent that the government had to step in and restore order.
The First Unions
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 Source: Harper's Weekly
In the early part of the Industrial Revolution most of the unions were smaller and local to a town or a state. After the Civil War, national unions began to form. One of the first national unions was the Knights of Labor in the 1880s. It grew rapidly, but just as quickly collapsed. The next major union to form was the American Federation of Labor (sometimes called the AFL). The AFL was founded in 1886 by Samuel Gompers. It became a powerful force in fighting for workers' rights through strikes and through politics.
There were several major strikes that took place during the Industrial Revolution. One of them was the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. It began in Martinsburg, West Virginia after the B&O Railroad company cut wages for the third time in a year. The strike quickly spread throughout the country. When strikers tried to stop the trains from running, federal troops were sent in to put down the strike. Things turned violent and several strikers were killed. The strike ended 45 days after it started. Although the wages weren't restored, workers began to see the power they had through the strike.
Other famous strikes included the Homestead Steel Mill Strike of 1892 and the Pullman Strike of 1894. Many of these strikes ended in violence and the destruction of property, but eventually they began to have an impact on the workplace and conditions gradually improved.
Labor Unions Today
Throughout the 1900s, labor unions became a powerful force in the economy and politics. Today, labor unions aren't as strong as they once were, however, they still play an important role in many industries. Some of the largest unions today include the National Education Association (teachers), the Service Employees International Union, and the Teamsters.
Interesting Facts about Labor Unions during the Industrial Revolution
In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act was passed that guaranteed the right for private citizens to form a union.
Business owners would sometimes put spies in the unions and then fire any workers that tried to join.
One of the earliest strikes was held by the Lowell Mill Girls in 1836. At the time, they called the strike a "turn out."
A strike in Chicago in 1886 turned into a riot later called the Haymarket Riot. Four of the strikers were hanged after being found guilty for starting a riot.
In 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act was passed to restrict the power of labor unions.