How Were the First Labor Unions Formed?

by Calla Hummel

Unions have been an important part of the industrial-capitalist system almost since the system's beginnings. Unions and other forms of labor organizing are largely responsible for labor protections written into nearly every country's legal code, and they continue to be the main force behind making sure that such laws are respected. The first labor unions formed in response to the dramatic and often violent changes in the lives of workers during the Industrial Revolution.

Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution began in England in the late 1700s and continued through the 1800s, radically changing systems of production and the basis of the world economy. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most societies were agrarian, the vast majority of people worked on farms and wealth was created largely through accumulating large amounts of natural resources (wheat, gold, silver, meat, gems, timber, furs, etc). Industrialization shifted the base of many national economies from farm products and raw materials to manufacturing. The manufacturing process added value to the raw materials used to make the final product, changing how wealth could be generated.

Social Structures

Industrialization radically disrupted national social structures. First, by changing the base of a national economy from farming to manufacturing, power shifted from the elite that owned land to the entrepreneurs who established factories. The political clashes between landowners and industrialists lasted well into the late 1800s, and changed how wealth and privilege are accumulated and transferred. Secondly, manufacturing is done in factories, often employing hundreds of people in a single facility. The rise of factories generated massive migrations from the countryside to urban areas. Urban areas were generally not designed to accommodate these migrations, with the result that most factory workers lived in unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

Unions and Combinations

By the turn of the 18th century, the first phase of the Industrial Revolution had profoundly disrupted - and began to reshape -- most English people's lives. Public demonstrations, strikes and other acts of protest by frustrated workers were not uncommon or new, but workers began to organize multiple actions through "combinations" and "unions" instead of through short-lived committees putting on single events. In response to this new organizing strategy, the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 were passed, banning any kind of group protest or meetings leading to group protests. Unions continued to organize underground and through secret societies -- an estimated 30 small trade unions operated in England during this time.

Organizing in the U.S.

Workers in the U.S. used the strategies and philosophies coming primarily from England and France to protest labor conditions and pressure employers for improvements. Printers in Philadelphia organized the first successful strike in 1786, which won pay raises. Spontaneous protest and short-lived organizing committees were joined by small unions based around skilled trades in the late 1700s and early 1800s. In the early 1800s, several semi-skilled trade unions formed -- once again, Philadelphia unions played a major role - and factory strikes and walkouts became more common.

Early 1800s

According to the Ludwig von Mises Institute, union tactics and demands were established and well-known by 1810. Even though trade unions were illegal in most places, they were emerging from underground organizing to conduct increasingly broad campaigns and actions, primarily in the U.S. and England. A union-backed political campaign in England succeeded in repealing the Combination Acts in 1824, after which factory strikes became commonplace and unions evolved from small, skilled trade unions to larger, general and inter-trade unions. The first general union - the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union - was founded in England in 1833.

1850 Onward

In the following century, unions moved from criminalized secret societies to a recognized part of doing business and a respected political force. Having emerged from spontaneous protest to "combinations" in the 1700s, and then to small skilled trade unions, labor organizing became broader in the mid-1800s. The focus switched to large, coordinated inter-factory and inter-trade strikes, leading to general strikes later on. In 1881, the American Federation of Labor was founded as a federation of national unions, and for the next three decades, union organizing and membership in the U.S. grew tremendously.

Present Day

Unions are responsible for many of the rights that workers have today. In the U.S. and Europe, eight hour workdays, 40 hour weeks, minimum wages, child labor laws, paid vacation, sick leave, overtime and other standards were won through union actions in the late 1800s and early 1900s. International and national unions continue to organize for the protection of these rights, and in many places for their enforcement or the eventual possibility of such rights.

About the Author

Calla Hummel is a doctoral student studying contraband in international political economy. She supplements her student stipend by writing about personal finance and working as a consultant, as well as hoping that her investments will pan out.

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