Labor Unions Essay

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American History after 1865: Labor Unions

As technology and the Industrial Revolution advanced following the end of the Civil War, more and more factories opened and more and more workers of all ages were being hired to fill the demanding schedules that factory owners required. Various industries—such as the meat packing industry of the 1900s (memorialized by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle)—were notorious for unsafe working environments. There were no child labor laws in effect nor any wage laws. Workers were often expected to put in long workdays, which led to overwork and an increase in workplace accidents (Schultz, 2018). From 1865 to 1940, the development of labor unions was generally a positive force leading to economic stability and the implementation of necessary laws that made businesses safer and promoted job growth.

By 1871, workplace conditions in factories were already terrible. Whitaker (1871) showed as much in his treatise “The Impact of the Factory on Worker Health” when he wrote that, among various other problems, “accidents and casualties are very numerous, partly owing to the exposed machinery and partly owing to carelessness” and that “hands and fingers mutilated, in consequence of accidents,” could often be found upon inspection of a factory facility. This type of workplace environment was just one of the many factories that showed a need for labor unions to form on behalf of the worker to make businesses both safer and fairer—and in the end more efficient, as government regulation followed to pave the path forward to better working conditions for America’s laborers (Schultz, 2018).

A little over a decade later, Samuel Gompers responded to the call for better representation of workers’ needs and rights by forming the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886. As Gompers (1914) wrote, the AFL was simply making a case for basic necessities: it was “in favor of a shorter workday, and a progressive decrease of working hours in keeping with the development of machinery and the use of productive forces and recognized “the need for greater opportunities and more time for rest, leisure and cultivation among the workers” along with “one entire day of rest in each week.” In other words, the labor union advocated for everything that the American workers take for granted today. At the turn of the century, however, there was nothing like it—and businesses were getting away with unsafe workplaces—and this was problematic for industries as well, as blowback from the American public and from the federal government pushed companies to finally face the music.

One of the ways businesses were benefitting from a lack of a labor union was that they were able to control their sectors with monopolies. The lack of oversight, regulation and organized opposition let factory owners and industrialists take advantage both of workers and of their respective industries. Labor unions ushered in an era of change, supported by a progressive movement that wanted to hold businesses accountable. This led….....

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Gompers, S. (1914). The American labor movement. Retrieved from

La Follette, R. (1924). La Follette’s Progressive Platform. Retrieved from

Schultz, K. M. (2018). HIST5: Volume 2: U.S. History Since 1865 (Student edition).
Boston: Cengage. 

Whitaker, J. (1871). The impact of the factory on worker health. Retrieved from

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