Where Did Organized Labor Start?

industrial revolution catalyzed unions

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Organized labor in one form or another dates back 1,500 years. For example, craft guilds sprang up in the Middle Ages. Modern unions, however, are entirely a different story.

Polish oil refinery workers in Bayonne, New Jersey, confront company guards outside the Standard Oil Works moments before the private police opened fire. Five strikers were killed. July 22, 1915.
Five strikers were killed on July 22, 1915, when Polish oil refinery workers in Bayonne, New Jersey, confronted company guards outside the Standard Oil Works moments before the private police opened fire. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Groups of workers organize for their own rights and interests—and they’ve done so since the Middle Ages. The first iterations of organized labor were craft guilds, comprised of skilled artisans of one trade or another. However, these were a far cry from the workers’ unions we know of today.

Ex-Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz recently faced off against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in a hearing in which Starbucks was accused of waging a union-busting campaign against its workers, who are currently debating unionizing nationwide.

Headlines like this have left many asking: Where did organized labor start in the United States? In his video series The Skeptic’s Guide to American History, Dr. Mark Stoler, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Vermont, answers questions about the American labor movement.

Working Conditions during the Industrial Revolution

According to the website of the Library of Congress, the National Labor Union was founded on August 20, 1866, in Baltimore, Maryland. Why?

“Before the Industrial Revolution, a shoemaker would make an entire shoe,” Dr. Stoler said. “He would also own his own shop, set his own hours, and probably live above his own store. Come the Industrial Revolution and the assembly line, which could produce shoes much cheaper than this individual working by hand, he would be closed down; he could not compete.”

Instead of making an entire shoe, an assembly line worker may spend his day nailing the heels onto 100 shoes. This work was not only boring and repetitive, but it often was done in dangerous working conditions, over long hours for low pay. According to Dr. Stoler, steelworkers worked 12-hour days, seven days a week. Miners may be paid in scrip only redeemable at the company store. Layoffs and pay cuts were par for the course.

Due to this situation, more than half of industrial workers made too little to support their families, so their wives and children had to work, and for even less pay.

Industrial Revolution Led to Organized Labor

“Workers responded to all of this with efforts to organize into labor unions in order to fight for better pay and better working conditions,” Dr. Stoler said. “Their key weapon was the strike to force employers to agree to bargain over their demands or face a shutdown of factories.”

However, the U.S. government at the time was so pro-business that its policy included hostility toward labor unions of the day. Armed force was utilized to suppress strikes, delaying unionization of industrial workers, as compared to Europe, and changing its ideologies, as compared to other nations.

“In addition […] the courts defined corporations as individuals possessing the same guaranteed rights as citizens,” Dr. Stoler said. “Consequently, the courts voided state laws that attempted to regulate industry as violations of the equal protection clause in the Fourteenth Amendment. Employers also hired private armies, often of Pinkerton detectives, to violently break strikes.”

Despite—or maybe even partially because of—this opposition, labor unions rose to prominence. Major work disruptions like the Railroad Strike of 1877, the 1892 Homestead Strike, and the 1894 Pullman Strike showed the nation that workers wouldn’t stand for unfair wages or working conditions.

The Skeptic’s Guide to American History is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily