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The History of Labor Unions in U.S. Research Paper


The labor relations system that exists in the U.S today has a historical background dating back from early 1800s. After an in-depth look of the labor history I noted that most events which unfolded over the years altered the course of labor relations in America. Many labor unions were formed in a successive sequence to address the issues and conflicts of their respective members (Rayback, 2008).

Though to a lesser extent, the labor unions possessed a degree of similarity in structure, objectives, and strategies. However, many of the distinguishing features among the unions were predominantly the basis of the formation.

The most prominent labor movements of the time were the Knights of Labor, The American Federation of Labor (AFL), The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the latest Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO), among others. My analysis of the historical development encompasses various aspects of unionism, similarities and differences in the operations, and organizational strategies.

Save for the AFL, other labor unions promoted the spirit of inclusiveness. For instance, the Knights of Labor enrolled all workers irrespective of their status. It was an umbrella union for the immigrants, women, skilled, unskilled, and even employers (Budd & Irwin, 2013).

This also applied to the IWW which combined workers from all divides comprising of the skilled and unskilled, young and old, natives and immigrants, white and nonwhite, male and female. Moreover, most unions under the CIO advocated for the empowerment of women at workplaces.

Women were encouraged to join unions and even take up certain roles that were key in shaping the culture of unions. Additionally, the unions promoted the education of their members. For example, the Knights of Labor emphasized on the intellectual boost through education. Likewise, the AFL provided the education and political lobbying although on small margin.

Every labor union had a philosophy on which it was constituted. The Knights of Labor worked under the philosophy of uplift unionism. It meant that a union’s mandate was that of elevating the moral, intellectualism, and social welfare of the members. Since the AFL was a federation not a union, its members were labor unions not individual workers. This prompted the adoption of business unionism philosophy.

In contrast to the uplift unionism emphasized an immediate improvements in wages, hours of work, and favorable working conditions. It also accepted capitalism and the collective bargaining negotiations backed up by the threat of strike (Budd & Irwin, 2013). The uplift unionism approach strongly opposed the use of strikes and boycotts in resolving employment conflicts.

The IWW was formed with an essence of addressing the failures of AFL. It subscribed to the revolutionary unionism philosophy which required the harmonization of the interests of all wage workers against their employers. As a result of industrial revolution, the CIO was founded on the philosophy of industrial unionism.

Different labor unions had varying objectives and strategies. One of the aims of the Knight of Labor was to replace the wage system with the producer co-operatives. This was in an effort to restore the perceived lost democracy in the working environments. It was noted that capitalism and wage system degraded the workers in the sense that their values and skills need for a healthy, participative democracy were completely ruined.

As for the AFL, its goal was to offer the necessary support for the independent unions in terms of establishing and maintaining the job standards by use of work rules. Unlike Knights of Labor, the AFL ensured that all union members had explicit rights to manage and control their affairs.

Given the conditions that prevailed as at the time of formation, I can confirm that most of the labor unions showed the capabilities of withstanding the turbulent economic times that laid ahead. Some of them had many members translating to an impeccable financial stability. For instance, the AFL provided financial assistance to the striking unions. It was also easy for it to conduct political lobbying on behalf of the member unions.

Most unions had power to navigate through hostile legislation regimes. Despite the frequent interruption from the state, the AFL, for example, was not cowed by the involvement of military in breaking the strikes (Budd & Irwin, 2013).

The success of a majority of the labor unions was due to able leadership and commitment. The leaders had the will, power, and drive in execution of their roles such that the members’ goals and interests were fully achieved. Some of them even lost their lives as a result of it.

In a critical analysis of the operationalization of key objectives and strategies of the IWW, I learnt that it was destined to fail in the long run. This is because the revolutionary motive on which it was based on had more harms than good not only to the government, but also to the economy at large (Arsene, 2004).

Its spirit of inclusiveness fused together with labor radicalism ensued hostility from employers and other labor unions such as the AFL. The downfall of the IWW started after an intense strike by its members protesting over wage cut. The AFL remained strong due to its ability to undertake timely negotiations on wages. It portrayed a picture of a friendly federation to employers because it did not support inclusiveness and labor radicalism.

From the foregoing discussion, I can deduce that the American labor history is the foundation of the labor unionism of that is being exhibited not only in the American states, but also across the world. The understanding of the ancient labor relations in rejuvenates the mastery of unionism and labor-management relations.


Arsene, E. (2004). The human tradition of the American labor history. Greenhill, U.S.A: Scholarly Resources Inc.

Budd, J., & Irwin, R. (2013). Labor relations: Striking a balance (4th ed.). New York, U.S.A: Mc Graw-Hill Publisher.

Rayback, J. (2008). History of American labor. New York, U.S.A: McMillan Publishing Company.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "The History of Labor Unions in U.S." July 5, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-history-of-labor-unions-in-u-s/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'The History of Labor Unions in U.S'. 5 July.

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