A labor union, or trade union, is an organization of workers who have joined together to achieve goals in areas such as wages and working conditions. The union negotiates contracts and conditions with employers, keeping employee satisfaction high and protecting workers from unsafe or unfair working conditions. Most unions claim a right to exclusivity and reserve the right to admit or deny membership to potential union members based on factors such as worker status and their type of trade or skill.
Union history traces back to the guild system in Europe that sought to protect certain professions by controlling of skill mastery and advancement. Although the relationship between guilds and unions is not perfectly linear, and is therefore sometimes disputed, guilds as the forerunners of unions makes sense – it is the first example of workers organizing according to their own rules rather than those of their employer.
The industrial revolution during the eighteenth century in Europe prompted a new surge of new workers to enter the job market that had previously remained at home and now needed representation. In the United States, early workers and trade unions played an important part in the role for independence. Although their physical efforts for the cause of independence were ineffective, the ideas they introduced, such as protection for workers, stuck in American culture.
Trade unions really exploded in the United States during the nineteenth century with the founding of the first national union, the National Labor Union. It was created in 1866 and was not exclusive to any particular kind of worker. Although this union crumbled and made no significant gains for workers’ rights, its founding was an important precedent. Next, the Knights of Labor was founded in 1869. Their membership peaked around 700,000 members, with some of their key issues being child labor opposition and demands for an eight-hour day. The most famous American union was probably the American Federation of Labor (AFL), founded in 1886 by Samuel Gompers. At its pinnacle, the union had about 1.4 million members. The AFL’s working principle was “pure and simple” unionism, which sought immediate work environment improvements such as wage increases and enhanced safety within the workplace.
Today, unions still serve the same purposes for which they were originally founded. Current union agendas include ending child labor, increasing wages, raising the standard of living for the working class, and providing more benefits to both workers and their families. If you are interested in learning more, information about modern unions can help.