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The history of labor unions & fight for fairness at work

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What is the origin of labor unions?


The origin of labor unions dates back to the eighteenth century and the industrial revolution in Europe. During this time there was a huge surge of new workers into the workplace that needed representation.

In the United States history of unions, early workers and trade unions played an important part in the role for independence. Although their physical efforts for the cause of independence were ineffective, the ideas they introduced, such as protection for workers, became part of our American culture.

Labor union history in the U.S. began in the 19th Century


The history of unions in the United States exploded in the nineteenth century with the founding of the National Labor Union (NLU) in 1866. Unlike today's unions, the NLU was not exclusive to a particular type of worker. And although the NLU crumbled without making significant gains in establishing workers' rights, its founding set an important precedent in our country.

Soon after, the Knights of Labor emerged in 1869. This group's membership peaked at about 700,000 and its efforts were focused on addressing key issues such opposition to child labor and demands for an eight-hour day.


  • Kurt Stewart, USW Local Union 286

    It's never easy to be out of work when you have a family to support but I'm glad that I've always had solid job security. For 25 years the union has provided me with a good job, with good benefits.

    - Kurt Stewart, USW Local Union 286




The most famous labor union in history


In the history of America's trade and labor unions, the most famous union remains the American Federation of Labor (AFL), founded in 1886 by Samuel Gompers. At its pinnacle, the AFL had approximately 1.4 million members. The AFL is credited with successfully negotiating wage increases for its members and enhancing workplace safety for all workers.

The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) under John L. Lewis and the larger AFL federation underwent a huge expansion during World War II. The AFL-CIO merger occurred in 1955.

Union membership and power peaked around 1970. At that time, private sector union membership began a steady decline that continues today. However, membership in public sector unions continues to grow consistently. According to a 2010 Bureau of Labor Statistic report, union membership is over 14 million in the United States and in the public sector has grown to over 37%.

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