Essentially, labor unions are associations of workers who are banded together for the purpose of improving their employment conditions and protecting themselves and their coworkers from economic and legal exploitation. Members of unions engage in collective bargaining with their employers, as well as general political activism.
Labor unions are almost as old as America itself. Although primitive unions of carpenters and other tradespeople made an appearance in various cities in colonial America, the first national unions gained strength in the 1820s. During this time, workers banded together to reduce the working day from a grueling 12 hours to a more manageable 10 hours. In 1866, the Nation Labor Union persuaded Congress to cut the workday down to today’s eight hour standard.
Labor Day, a holiday observed on the first Monday in September, is a creation of the organized labor movement. The day is intended to honor the achievements of American workers and the contributions they have made to the prosperity and strength of the United States. The first Labor Day celebration was organized by members of the Central Labor Union and held on 5 September 1882.
The American Federation of Labor (AFL), formed in 1866, made many contributions to the cause of protecting the rights of American workers. The group was instrumental in the creation of the U.S. Department of Labor and the Children’s Bureau in the 1890s. The AFL also worked to pass the Clayton Act of 1914. This important piece of legislation allowed workers to use boycotts, strikes, and peaceful picketing as negotiation tools.
In 1935, John L. Lewis created the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), the first attempt at industrial unionism. Essentially, his organization allowed all people employed in a particular industry, regardless of individual skill levels, to band together to improve working conditions as members of unions. The CIO, although remarkably successful in its own right, eventually merged with the AFL in 1955 to form the AFL-CIO and eliminate any jurisdictional disputes that would have a negative effect on the cause of organized labor.
Since then, however, labor unions have seen a great reduction in both their membership and power. Researchers have many different theories about the reasons for this change. Some feel that the increase in women and teenagers in the workforce has weakened the strength of unions, since members of these groups are generally not the sole providers for a family and thus less likely to be active in efforts to raise wages and benefits. Others believe that employers are to blame, since many companies are actively discouraging membership in labor unions — even going so far as to hire legal consultants to devise strategies to stop the formation of employee unions.