The Rise And Decline Of The American Labor Union

We look at roughly two centuries of labor unions in the U.S.
Posted at 8:09 PM, Apr 30, 2019

The lifespan of American labor unions is shaped like a bell-curve: struggling to climb at first, then riding high, and finally crashing out.

The whole up-and-down took about 200 years total. We need to go back to the 1830s. UC Santa Cruz Professor William Domhoff writes, "Industrial development in the early nineteenth century slowly widened the gap between employers and skilled workers, so the workers began to think of industrial factories as a threat to both their wages and status."

Craft unions began to form but stayed mostly local, focused on clout and working conditions. Then in 1869, Domhoff says, the Knights of Labor was founded as "a secret society by a handful of Philadelphia garment cutters, who had given up on their own craft union as having any chance to succeed" and turned to galvanizing other workers through meetings and parades.

Eventually, violence became part of the picture. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, sparked by railroad companies slashing wages by 10% and doubling some workers' responsibilities. The University of Houston explains employees walked off the job and blocked commercial routes. It "was the country's first major rail strike and witnessed the first general strike in the nation's history. The strikes and the violence it spawned briefly paralyzed the country's commerce and led governors in ten states to mobilize 60,000 militia members to reopen rail traffic."

With similar disputes ongoing, the American Federation of Labor, or AFL, was founded in 1886 and became the largest union.

The Library of Congress says Samuel Gompers formed the AFL and tried a new tack: "Instead of trying to reshape the fundamental institutions of American life, the AFL focused on securing for its members higher wages, better working conditions, and a shorter work week." 

1935: a turning point. The National Labor Standards Act passes, making union busting illegal and telling businesses they could not "dominate or interfere with the formation or administration of any labor organization."

Didn't last long. By 1978, the Labor Law Reform Act was being debated in Congress. And while no major law ultimately clamped down on the groups, "unions came under attack — in the workplace, in the courts, and in public policy. As a result, union membership has fallen and income inequality has worsened — reaching levels not seen since the 1920s," says the Economic Policy Institute.