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History of Unionized Labor

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The History of Organized Labor Where and When it all Began?

Sheila Thorn

Introduction to Business Management 101

Frank Dumas

February 28, 2008

The History of Organized Labor Where and When it all Began?

Thesis Statement: My paper will address the history of organized labor by first exploring what exactly organized labor is. It will explain how it all got started and by whom. It will then look at who benefits from organized labor and what has happened to the work force since it was organized. Finally, try to figure out if organized labor will continue to be the norm in the 21st century.

Support: 1. What exactly is organized labor? 2. How did it all get started? 3. Who benefits from organized labor? 4. What has happened to the work force since organized labor? 5. Will organized labor continue to be the norm in the 21st century work force?

Conclusion: Organized labor was started from a grass root action from people that wanted to make a difference. It has come a long way since the days of child labor in the coal mines in the Appalachian Mountains and the colonial frontier. Our ancestors etched out a plan for the work force without even realizing how huge it would become in its finest “hour.” Today’s work force continues to benefit from the days of yester years to a certain degree. But then on the other hand organized labor unions will never be the way they were thirty (30) years ago either. Organized labor and organized labor movements are continually changing. Today’s work force are people that work from their home and/or from other countries at call centers. The days of working 7 to 3, Monday through Friday are slowly going out the window.

Can organized labor be defined by one simple sentence, such as a group of people banding together to speak up and speak out in unison? On the other hand, do we define organized labor as the UAW (United Auto Workers) or AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations)? Organized labor is a group of people – men and woman from all walks of life banning together to fight for and demand better working conditions, better pay and fair treatment of labor workers, which we think of today as “blue collar” workers in general. In his book, Labor’s Grass Roots, (1961) Jack Barbash, Professor of Labor Education, and Economics, University of Wisconsin, defines organized labor for us when he describes the day-to-day routine of a local union. “In its workaday existence, the local union holds meetings in the union hall and on the job. It collects dues from its members and spends money for a variety of per capita payments. It engages in bargaining with employers, it handles the grievances and complaints of individual members and responds to the vexations of individual employers.” (p.3-4) He also goes on to say, “The union sends delegates to all sorts of councils and to state and city central labor bodies. It passes resolutions in favor of or against particular legislation. It is doing these and one hundred other things. This is the normal life of a union. It is in motion.” John J. Flagler’s, The Labor Movement in the United States, (1970) book tells us, “That it is important to recognize that every industrial nation in the world has a labor movement. The fact that workers have organized under every known form of political system and in widely diverse cultures and economies shows that there are obvious social needs which labor unions meet.” (p.15) Through the many years of struggle and fighting collective bargaining by unions has brought organized labor into the job market and into the lives of the everyday “Joe’s” working the “9-5” jobs trying to make a living. Depending on what book or article you read the history of organized labor dates back to the late 1700’s. In Gary Chaison’s book Unions in America, (2006), talks about workers that were organized in the form of guilds to restrict competition of their particular trade given the growing population in America at the time and the growing number of tradesman. (p.1) John L. Flagler’s description in his book of how it all got started, was a boy learned a craft from a master craftsman, he would work for him and other master craftsman until he could save enough money to venture out on his own. The boy was first an apprentice, then a journeyman, then a master of a trade. Flagler, (1970), goes on to tell us that, “One of the most obvious exits from poverty during that time was to enter a craft, and the apprenticeship system flourished.” (p.20) The trade masters began to feel threatened and hired more journeymen to work for them. By doing so, they could produce more products at a faster rate and lower wages. Flagler says, “The inevitable result was that the journeyman and apprentices, now working in the earliest form of the factory system, banded together for mutual protection against the intolerable combination of the speed-up of production, long hours, and declining wages.” (p.20) This being said, leads us to realize that over a hundred years ago our ancestors were forming unions. Today’s work force and society in general has benefited greatly by these history-making events. Employees to this day continue to organize and have some control over the working conditions they continually face. When we think of the UAW or the AFL-CIO, we realize just how powerful and influential some unions are. John Flagler’s book also tells us that, “It is important to recognize that every labor movement in the world is different. Each reflects the culture of its own society. Each has been shaped by a wide variety of influences, including the political system of the nation, the nature of its economy, and the value system of its people.” (p.15) Many people have benefited greatly by all of this. Today, there are numerous organized labor unions with different wants and needs for their members. They all have a purpose and function to fulfill. If you were to examine each one closely one would find that basically they all want the same things for their members including shorter work hours, better pay, improved working conditions, disability and insurance benefits, high standards for their trade, job security, equal pay for equal work to name a few. We can thank organized labor for all of these things mentioned. Organized labor has continued over the years to have a tremendous impact on our lives. Since the establishment of organized labor, the unions we have today such as the UAW, the AFL-CIO and even the MEA (Michigan Education Association) has helped the work force in many different arenas. According to the article Organizing Organized Labor by Beckie Capoferri, it clearly points out that the same needs and wants are still the same. She stated that, “The labor movement championed the fight for the eight hour work day, minimum wage laws, child labor laws, and compensation for workers injured on the job.” (para. 2) The labor movement has set the standard for fair treatment of union workers and non-union workers alike. The article also points out that, “While the labor movement (the union) isn’t perfect, it has a history to be proud of and deserves the support and respect of the broader progressive community.” (para.2) Capoferri article also mentions, “The connected problems of union busting, replacement of workers, exporting jobs, a floundering economy, and decreasing numbers of organized workers have all taken a very heavy toll on the labor movement.” (para.4) Now, we must ask that all-important question; Will organized labor continue to be the norm for the 21st century workers? To answer this question lets look at what is happening to the UAW today. We used to believe that the UAW would be around forever. In the article titled, Win or Lose, the UAW is doomed, (2007), Jerry Gillespie, president of a UAW local in Warren, Michigan, said, “Globalization is killings us.” (Leonard, 2007, para1) Mr. Leonard also points out the dramatic decline in the UAW membership for the “Big Three” U.S. automakers in just the last four years alone. Going from a whapping 310,000 workers to 180,000 workers. He also goes to say, “That isn’t a decline – it’s a death spiral. If ‘globalization’ is the grim reaper wielding this scythe, then the foul deed is nearly complete.” (para.3) His article also reports that the, “unionized labor for the auto making industry is wasting away and what’s left is a desperate attempt to ease the pain for a terminally ill patient.” (para.3) The right wing lobbyist blames organized labor. The left-wingers blame free trade and cheap foreign labor. Mr. Leonard’s article points to a simple calculation: “If your costs are higher than your competitors, and you make a product that customers don’t want to buy, you’re doomed.” (para.6) He also states that, “the U.S. is never again going to be able to compete with manufacturers of cheap cars, that market belongs to China and India.” (para.7) He summarizes it for us in the following paragraph. “U.S. carmakers should be doing what carmakers in other advanced industrial nations – like Germany and Japan do: make better cars than anybody else. But the U.S., a country that enjoys greater access to capital and high tech research and development expertise than any other nation on earth, and which prides itself on being the supreme font of “innovation” in the global economy, has embarrassingly missed the boat on being able to produce high-tech cars appropriate to an energy constrained world. That sad truth sure isn’t labor’s fault. Instead, it represents a miserable failure by both government and management. However, labor takes the hit! (para.8)
Symbolically speaking, the history of the United Auto Workers (UAW) is in many ways the history of the rise and fall of organized labor in the United States.” (para.11)
Barbash, J. (1961) Labor’s Grass Roots. New York: Harper & Brothers
Chaison, G. ( 2006) Unions in America. Thousand Oaks ∙ London ∙ New Delhi
Flagler, J. (1970) The Labor Movement in the United States. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications Company.
Capoferri, Beckie, Oregon Public Employees’ Union, Organizing Organized Labor, Retrieved on February 19, 2008 from
Leonard, Andrew (September 25, 2007) Win or lose, the UAW is doomed, Retrieved on February 17, 2008 from

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