labor movement took its root long back in the colonial
regime spanning between 1619 and 1776 plus. Initially the
social set up was overwhelmingly rural with abundant
land. A vast majority of the population of the Eastern
US, then called New World, were self employed as
independent farmers and artisans, or later in urban
retail trade and professions. Then with the shift in
agricultural pattern from food crops to cash crops and
from local consumption to global sale, demand for labor
To satisfy the demand potential employers turned towards
indentured servants and African slaves. The servants and
slaves apart skilled craftsmen at first plied their trade
independently. But with the growth of urban concentration
master workmen set up small retail shops and employed
journeymen and apprentices against wage payment. After
all, the bustling seaport cities had always needed casual
laborers and hired craftsmen.
Before 1840s the workers' income was based on price, the
remuneration they received for the sale of end product of
the labor. The payment of wages came about through
introduction of machine into a factory. Around mid 18th
century the labor scarcity abated with the growth of
population and a curb in the supply of lands. As the
fruits of industrial era started to yield people migrated
to urban area where manufacturing was booming.
As the erstwhile skills were broken down the competition
for these factory jobs increased. On one hand there was
trade specialization and developed urban conditions, on
the other, the growing fear of unemployment spelled
increasing want and discontent.
Then with the accumulation of capital by a special class
the factory workers lost their independence and also
their dignity. This change of status was the basic reason
for workers' protests at its earliest form. Evidence of
protests with the modern flair was seen as early as 1768
by journeymen tailors. They were joined in by a number of
similar organizations later. However, none of them could
be termed as labor union.
The 1830s saw the workers demanding social reforms as far
as their rights are concerned. In 1827 a Mechanics' Union
of Trade Associations came up in Philadelphia. It was the
country's first labor organization.
During the 1840s it took a defensive form and changed to
a state of uprising as the workers sought to cling to the
traditions and methods of the past. The protests acquired
a new face as the social reformers of the era soon joined
hands with the workers.
However the attitude soon changed. As the workers in the
'50s learnt to accept the loss of status they sought to
organize around their crafts for the purpose of
bargaining collectively with their employers.
By the '60s large portions of America had become
industrialized with around 5 millions wage earners in
industry, commerce and agriculture. Keeping pace with
this industrial boom unions too kept flourishing. The
depression in the late '60s intensified the employers'
resistance to any reduction of working hours. The utility
of trade unions became more apparent each day. In
1872 New Yorkers were to unleashed the most formidable
labor struggle of the epoch. However the movement
It was 1882 when the next significant labor stir came.
The Knights of Labor under the Central
Labor Union held a large parade in New York City on the
occasion of the national Knights of Labor conference. In
1884 the group held a parade on the first Monday of
September and passed a resolution to hold all future
parades on that day and to designate the day as Labor Day.
the 1890's, when the K of L had all but disappeared, the
American Federation of Labor created the 'business union'
movement. Although the AFL affiliates encountered
vehement employer and judicial opposition, they succeeded
in organizing millions of skilled crafts personnel.
Courtesy, the able leadership of Samuel Gompers. It soon
earned statutory rights to organize for collective
bargaining purposes from the federal government.
The creation of the industrial union movement through the
formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in
the late 1930s led to the organization of mass production
industries. Competition between AFL and the affiliates of
newly created Committee for Industrial Organization
generated significant union growth throughout 1940s and
'50s. In mid 1950s with the AFL-CIO merger unions
represented approximate 35 per cent non-agricultural
Even though the private sector union participation rate
has declined over the recent past public opinion surveys
demonstrate that most American workers continue to
believe that employment interest can be advanced through
page was last updated August 26, 2003.