Labor History of the United States


Labor history of the United States describes the history of organized labor, as well as more general history of working people, in the United States.

Pressures dictating the nature and power of organized labor have included the demand for exclusive worker control of the workplace, seeking higher wages and shorter hours, electing favorable politicians, and passing favorable labor laws.

From this followed commitments to mutual assistance, to a rough-and-ready sense of equality, to a disdain for elitism, and to a belief that democracy and individual rights did not stop at the plant gate or the office reception room.

Dionne notes that these values are “increasingly foreign to American culture”.

In most industrial nations the labor movement sponsored its own political parties, with the U.S. as a conspicuous exception.

Both major American parties vied for union votes, with the Democrats usually much more successful.

Labor unions became a central element of the New Deal Coalition that dominated national politics from the 1930s into the mid-1960s during the Fifth Party System.

By the beginning of 19th-century, after the revolution, little had changed.

The career path for most artisans still involved apprenticeship under a master, followed by moving into independent production. However, over the course of the Industrial Revolution, this model rapidly changed, particularly in the major metropolitan areas.

For instance, in Boston in 1790, the vast majority of the 1,300 artisans in the city described themselves as “master workman”.

By 1815, journeymen workers without independent means of production had displaced these “masters” as the majority.

By that time journeymen also outnumbered masters in New York and Philadelphia.

This shift occurred as a result of large-scale transatlantic and rural-urban migration.

Migration into the coastal cities created a larger population of potential laborers, which in turn allowed controllers of capital to invest in labor-intensive enterprises on a larger scale.

Throughout the world, action by the labor movement has led to reforms and workers’ rights, such as the two-day weekend, minimum wage, paid holidays, and the achievement of the eight-hour day for many workers.

There have been many important labor activists in modern history who have caused changes that were revolutionary at the time and are now regarded as basic.

For example, Mary Harris Jones, better known as “Mother Jones”, and the National Catholic Welfare Council were central in the campaign to end child labor in the United States during the early 20th century.

In 2013 there were 14.5 million members in the U.S., compared with 17.7 million in 1983.

In 2013, the percentage of workers belonging to a union in the United States (or total labor union “density”) was 11.3%, compared to 20.1% in 1983.

From a global perspective, the density in 2010 was 11.4% in the U.S., 18.4% in Germany, 27.5% in Canada, and 70% in Finland.

Union membership in the private sector has fallen under 7% levels not seen since 1932.

In the 21st century the most prominent unions are among public sector employees such as city employees, government workers, teachers and police.

Members of unions are disproportionately older, male, and residents of the Northeast, the Midwest, and California.