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What Were The Main Reasons Workers Formed Unions?

An organized association of workers formed to protect and further their rights and interests including income, benefits and job conditions

Unions are formed when employees or people in a specific trade get together to take joint action. There can be numerous reasons for this, but the common factor is protesting and resisting changing or current conditions and asking for better ones.

As unions bring people together, they help workers understand their rights and give them a voice. They also give the workers more power, as when they’re united, the message from representatives carries more weight. Although unions can bring about change through talks, they might also use action, such as strikes.

History and Origins

There are records of strike action dating back to the Ancient Egyptians, which suggests that informal unions have existed since then. However, trade unions and officially organized movements started appearing around the time of the industrial revolution and the birth of America. 

During this period, many new workers were entering the job market. It was also a time of establishing free trade in the early years of the American nation. A strike action of tailors in New York was recorded in 1768, and there are documents referring to a federal society of shoemakers being formed in Philadelphia in 1794. 

Reasons Unions Were Formed

The birth of a nation and the industrial revolution created unique circumstances for the workforce. The growth in the workforce and the use of machinery contributed to the rapidly changing and difficult conditions for workers. Laws and expectations weren’t firmly set for this new way of doing things.

As a result, workers found themselves using dangerous equipment without protection. Since it was a time of manufacturing, machines replaced people in their jobs, and there was an expectation to work longer and harder for less pay, as there were many workers available to replace an individual.

Better Wages

Back in Ancient Egypt and those early days in New York, the reason for striking was the same. Workers encountered a wage reduction and protested. They found their power in coming together to show that the reduced wages were unacceptable. 

Many craft unions were formed in the early 19th Century to unite workers over their pay. They created list prices for certain types of work to ensure that everyone got the going rate. Initially, these organizations were for a single city, but central labor bodies unified them. This action brought about national and even international unions, as workers in Canada united with their US counterparts.

Improved Conditions

In the early days of unions, there was a lack of labor laws. In most cases, English common law applied. Workers gathering to improve their conditions could be prosecuted under a charge of criminal conspiracy. However, a landmark case in 1842 set a precedent for workers being able to join together.

On the other hand, people who were killed or injured at work didn’t have much success when action was taken for compensation. Since employers didn’t have to pay out, or at least not much, safety wasn’t a primary concern. Workers joined forces to ask for better conditions. By the beginning of the 20th Century, compensation laws were introduced.

Protecting Skilled Work

Most early trade unions were formed by skilled workers. Another reason that workers formed unions was to protect their craft. There were two crucial reasons that they felt it needed protecting. 

Skilled trades, such as tailoring, shoemaking, and carpentry, were in demand. However, other workers were entering the market and charging much less money, but without the knowledge or expertise.

This threat of diluting the skill, plus the addition of machines, meant that independent workers of the same trade joined together. They would agree on standards, develop ways to demonstrate approved skills, and set price lists. 

Against Child Labor

According to a census in 1900, one out of every five children was working. Families on low income needed the money, and it was thought that children should not be idle, so they were sent to work from a young age. Children worked in mines, cotton mills, factories, and on the land. There were child labor standards, but they weren’t detailed or applied consistently.

As early as the 1830s, unions protested child labor, mentioning concerns for the children’s well-being. Most actions involved protests and talks suggesting minimum age laws for work. Groups like the Working Men’s Party and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) made proposals and called on legislators to prevent child labor.

A Gathering of Social Equals

Unions in the US were formed at a time when the idea of a just society was at the front of everyone’s minds. When workers gathered, they had reasons associated with their work. However, many associations also had a social basis. Members regarded each other as equals working together to fight for their place and treatment in society. 

Sources

https://www.history.com/topics/19th-century/labor 

https://www.investopedia.com/financial-edge/0113/the-history-of-unions-in-the-united-states.aspx#:~:text=3-,Why%20Were%20Unions%20Created%3F,influential%20enough%20to%20engineer%20change

https://www.unionplus.org/page/brief-history-unions

https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1089/the-first-labor-strike-in-history/

https://eh.net/encyclopedia/history-of-workplace-safety-in-the-united-states-1880-1970/

https://laborcenter.uiowa.edu/special-projects/child-labor-public-education-project/about-child-labor/child-labor-us-history

https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2017/article/history-of-child-labor-in-the-united-states-part-1.htm#:~:text=As%20child%20labor%20expanded%20through,every%208%20children%20was%20employed.&text=This%20rate%20increased%20to%20more%20than%201%20in%205%20children%20by%201900.&text=Between%201890%20and%201910%2C%20no,children%20ages%2010%E2%80%9215%20worked

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