Unions and the Labor Movement

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How did the rise of big business lead to the formation of labor unions?

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Industrialization escalated in the United States in the years following the Civil War in industries such as steel, textiles, manufacturing, agriculture, railroads, oil, and mining. Unscrupulous industrialists amassed great wealth during this era. Some became known as Robber Barons for their unethical tactics and their disregard and disdain for common...

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Industrialization escalated in the United States in the years following the Civil War in industries such as steel, textiles, manufacturing, agriculture, railroads, oil, and mining. Unscrupulous industrialists amassed great wealth during this era. Some became known as Robber Barons for their unethical tactics and their disregard and disdain for common workers. Unskilled laborers worked long hours for low pay; accidents in the workplace were common, but there was no compensation for those injured on the job. Another serious problem was unemployment, as factory owners had no responsibility to keep people working—they could just hire new, able workers.

Labor unions arose out of the need to improve conditions for workers. The first unions were craft unions, organized according to specific industries. A number of these united in 1866 to form the National Labor Union, or NLU. The first industrial union, which was open to all industrial workers including women and African Americans, was the Knights of Labor. This union fought for an eight-hour workday, an end to child labor, and laws that would guarantee the safety and health of laborers. It declined in influence after the violent Haymarket Square Riot of 1886.

The same year, 1886, saw the rise of the American Federation of Labor, also known as the AFL. Focusing on basic labor issues, the AFL sought to protect the rights of skilled workers in a number of industries. By 1900, this union had over a million members.

Therefore, we can see that increased industrialization led to the need for many skilled and unskilled workers. These workers were treated very poorly by the wealthy industrialists. Labor unions became a way for workers to fight for their rights. As time passed, these unions evolved to meet the needs of workers.

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"Big business," in this context, can be defined as large, successful manufacturers that resulted from the onset of the industrial revolution; these businesses were frequently operated by self-serving, unethical, and exploitative leaders.

Factory machinery reduced the demand for skilled labor, which had a detrimental impact on wages. Furthermore, many industrial plants did not ensure that workers wore protective gear when operating heavy machinery. Therefore, workers were injured on the job and not compensated.

Because of these unfair business practices—which resulted in harsh working conditions—workers began organizing strikes and riots that eventually led to the formation of labor unions.

Before labor unions were created, advocating for workers' rights was extremely difficult, given the amount of financial and social power these business possessed; big businesses bought smaller companies, which gave them a substantial influence over market prices. Additionally, these companies functioned independently from the state and could influence legislation. Owing to the exploitation that resulted from privatized business, socialists advocated for government acquisition of some businesses—especially those that were in the transport sector.

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The rise of big business led to the formation of labor unions. Before big businesses formed, people worked in small, worker-friendly environments. The owners and workers knew each other as well as their families. It was much easier for a worker to make a request, say for time off or for higher pay, and have the request granted in this type of environment.

Once big businesses formed, this relationship changed. There were hundred or thousands of people working in the factories. The owners didn’t know the workers and vice versa. The managers reported to the owners and also didn’t know the workers. Working conditions were bad, hours were long, and pay was very low. There was little to no concern about the workers and their needs. If a worker tried to make a request for improved working conditions or for higher pay, they might be fired. The requests were almost always denied.

Workers realized that to have any chance of changing things, they would have to act collectively. Thus, unions were created to help the workers try to improve their situation. Only if all the workers took an action or made a request would conditions possibly change.

In the beginning, unions weren’t too successful in accomplishing their goals. There were no laws protecting unions, and the courts generally sided with the business owners. However, without organizing unions, workers had a little chance of improving their conditions.

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The rise of big business led to the formation of labor unions in at least two ways.

First, big businesses had more leverage over workers than little shops did.  Therefore, workers felt that they needed to get leverage of their own.  For this reason, they tried to form "big labor" to combat "big business."

Second, the rise of big business led to lower pay and poorer working conditions for workers.  Jobs at the large companies were typically low-skilled.  The companies were also competing ferociously with one another and therefore needed to reduce costs as much as possible.  These factors led to a situation where wages dropped and conditions deteriorated.  This led to a desire to form unions to rectify the situation.

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