Introduction: The History of Unions in America
The roots of labor unions began long ago during the founding of our nation. Primitive unions and guilds of carpenters and cabin makers emerged along the Atlantic coast in Colonial America ("The Labor Union Movement in America"). These unions began in hopes of improving their working life; they grew in number and took action as unions do today. By the 1820s, unions had won a major victory in reducing workdays from twelve to ten hours. This work formed the beginning of the union: an organization of workers formed for the purpose of advancing its members' interests in respect to wages, benefits, and working conditions (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary).
The coming of the civil war and the increasing technological advances of the steam engine, railroads, and the rise in the factory systems helped to create conditions that welcomed formalized unions. A growing population began to live and work in large bustling cities with police and fire departments, streetcars, sewers, tall buildings, factories, mansions, and urban slums.
These advances and changes in living conditions created two economic extremes: the very wealthy and the desperately poor. The desperately poor worked in crowded, dilapidated conditions. Realizing that steps could be taken against the powerful employers, the first labor union, the Nation Labor Union, was formed in 1866. This group worked to persuade Congress for the passage of an eight-hour workday ("The Labor Union Movement in America").
By 1869, Uriah Stephens had created the Knights of Labor, a rapidly expanding society open to all workers. It did not matter the color, gender, or skill level of the worker, and reached nearly 750,000 members ("The Labor Union Movement in America"). However, the unbiased nature of this union caused a rift between skilled and unskilled workers. Skilled workers were tired of...