U.S. Labor History
Unionism can be described as "a continuous association of wage-earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment"(Smelser). This means that a group of workers can unite to gain more power and leverage in bargaining. The bargaining may include many aspects but usually consists of wages, benefits, terms and conditions of employment. The notion of union came about in the 1700's. In the beginning as it is today workers united to "defend the autonomy and dignity of the craftsman against the growing power of the company" (Montgomery).
These early unions had many names including societies, social societies and guilds. These primitive unions or guilds of carpenters, cordwainers, and cobblers made their appearance, often temporary, in cities around the east coast of colonial America. These group of workers were a far cry from what unions are today. They mainly focused on friendship and trust between the workers and management. The first recorded form of a union was a group called the "Friendly Society of Cotton Spinners, who in 1775 instructed its members not to work below the usual price" (Smith).
As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence "in the pursuit of happiness" through higher wages and shorter work hours, printers were the first to go on strike, in New York in 1794; carpenters in Philadelphia in 1797, and cordwainers in 1799.
In the 1800's the construction of cotton mills brought about a new phenomenon in American labor. The owners needed a new source of labor to tend these water powered machines and looked to women. Since these jobs didn't need strength or special skills the owners hired women. They felt that women could do the same or a better job as the men and were more compliant. They began recruiting young women from the farms. To lure them to work in their factories they built houses where they could live. These houses were supervised by older women who made sure the girls lived by a high moral standard, and urged them to attended church, to read, to write and to attend lectures. The girls worked in the mills/factories from 12 to 13 hours a day, six days a week for $3.50 per week salary. On the other hand "male workers made 50 percent more than women. And white workers commanded significantly higher wages than African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, or Chinese"(Freeman).
The entry of a large number of women into the labor force led to raising the consciences of the hour of labors, "adding to the pool of unskilled workers, women and children made possible a fuller division of labor in lines of skill" (Roediger).
Around 1800 factories became more prevalent. Workers and employers no longer worked side by side. Employers were more concerned with the cost of labor than with the welfare
of the workers. As factories grew workers became more involved in forming unions to protect...