By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Labor unions in the United States date back around 200 years to the Industrial Revolution. Industrial workers organized to protest, strike, and demand fairer treatment throughout the 19th century. A Starbucks in New York unionized Thursday.
Labor in the United States finds itself in a state of tumult as worker shortages have given employees of large corporations considerable power in negotiating pay and benefits. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, many have left retail and food service in pursuit of lower-risk, higher-paying careers. Now, for the first time, unionizing has come to Starbucks, the global coffee chain, as workers at a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, voted 19 to 8 in favor of forming a union.
Labor unions have a notable history dating back 200 years in the United States. In the video series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition, Dr. Allen C. Guelzo, the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, describes how the Industrial Revolution gave rise to workers forming such unions.
The Friction of Growth
The Industrial Revolution in the United States involved streamlined and more efficient manufacturing and new technology to drive it. It began in the cotton industry. Steam machinery helped power the Industrial Revolution, but it needed fuel to operate, giving rise to the coal industry. However, nothing good lasts forever.
“The more imitators the cotton mills had, the more competition between them all,” Dr. Guelzo said. “The more competition between them all, the more likely that prices would fall, as one mill sought to undercut another and keep market share, or be cut in order to keep up sales. As they did so, the old artisans, shops, and small manufacturers would find themselves undercut, undercut, undercut, and finally, bankrupted and bitter.”
Just as those artisans and small-time manufacturers were vulnerable to undercutting, so were the mill operatives at the mills who were actually doing the price reductions. This was because the only place mill operatives could cut prices without shaving off their profit margins was by cutting worker pay, either through actual pay reductions or increasing hours without adequate compensation to go with it.
Long before Jimmy Hoffa
“To protect themselves, fearful and disgruntled industrial workers began to organize themselves for protest—and, if necessary, for retaliation—through work stoppages and strikes,” Dr. Guelzo said. “Philadelphia mechanics formed a citywide trade union in 1825: the Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations. In 1834, they expanded that to create the General Trades Union of the City and County of Philadelphia.”
In this same year, shortly labor organization began in Providence, Rhode Island, workers in New York City made a try for national union organization. They created the National Trades Union, and between 1833 and 1836, they sponsored more than 170 strikes in the Northeastern states.
However, state courts at the time convicted union organizers and strikers for illegally interfering in the rights of free trade. Mill owners threatened mass firings or replacements with immigrant labor to scare employees out of unionizing.
“The era of industrial paternalism was very definitely over,” Dr. Guelzo said. “The one avenue of protest that remained open afterwards was politics. In 1829, 5,000 New York workers met to nominate a slate of candidates for a workingman’s party. To the horror of established New Yorkers—mill owners, investors, and bankers—the Workingman’s Party actually elected one of their candidates to the state senate and pulled in a third of the total vote in New York City.”
The tug-of-war between workers and business owners has continued for two centuries, to which Starbucks will attest.