Trade Union and Labour Rights in the USA 1865- 1992


Trade Unions in the United States


Social context in 1800s: Why Labour solidarity started from a weak point


·      American workers were better off than their European counterparts

-       Higher wages, better food, clothing and shelter.

·      Huge demand for labour between the Civil War and WWI

·      Big businesses monopolised their corner of the market (e.g. Carnegie and Rockefeller)

·      ‘The American Dream’ – ‘rugged individualism’ the illusion of social mobility destroyed worker solidarity

·      A divided workforce –  Whites, immigrants and blacks, skilled and unskilled, different economies (North and South)

·      Labour was always a minority- In 1800s majority were farmers. Workers didn’t make up the majority

·      The taint of radicalism – violence in labour protests meant it lost crucial support among M/C e.g. Haymarket Affair (1886)

·      The support of the courts and federal government – overwhelmingly supported federal govt. e.g. Lochner vs. New York (1905) ruled that calls for a 10hr day violated 14th amendment or other rulings that forbade unions from calling strikes or boycotts.



A few Trade Unions did develop…


African- American Unions 1869


-       AA emancipated yet weren’t supported in work – hypocrisy

-       White, poor workers still see AAs as below them (White supremacist attitudes)

-       Segregated Unions emerge

-       Prevented unity needed for Civil Rights progress

-       At times of industrial unrest white workers were laid off - AAs were cheaper employees

-       Booker T. Washington wanted AAs to prove themselves & then ask for political rights – saw skilled education as the way forward.

-       National Labour Union urged AA to form separate union

-       AAs couldn’t afford fees, had to deal with more pressing issue of poverty

-       1869 Unions began to be formed. National ***** Labor Union attempted to affiliate w white Unions – unsuccessful.


The Knights of Labor 1869

-       Led by Terrence V Powderly (Grand Master Workman)

-       Ahead of its time – called for 8hr days, equal pay for women & abolition of child labour. Avoided strikes

-       Reached 700,000 members 1886

-       Tarnished with Haymarket Affair, support vanished



The Haymarket Affair

-       Strike in Chicago, violence between police and strikers. Trouble blamed on German immigrants, no evidence but 5 executed.

So what?

Weakened & divided labour movement

‘Native’ borns more suspicious of immigrants (race division meant unions could not work as the representatives of all workers)

Destroyed reputation of the KOL



-       Took the place of the KOL, led by Samuel Gompers

-       Loose alliance of unions, didn’t believe in collective action, no political agenda

-       1914 – over 2 million members

-       Gompers believed Unions should care for people in sickness and after retirement.

-       Approach proved insignificant in Carnegie Homestead steel plant strike 1892 when management easily crushed the


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