Controversial Topic: Labor Unions

Controversial Topic: Labor Unions

A labor union refers to an organized alliance of workers, often joined by a shared industry or trade, but also frequently joined across different labor industries. Labor unions use a tactic referred to as collective bargaining to improve worker conditions, advance wages, and secure benefits, as well as supporting members in disputes with management, and engaging in political action and lobbying. This controversial topic concerns the historical and ongoing conflict of ideals, methods and goals between labor leaders, organizers and union members on one side, and business management, ownership, and industry lobby groups on the other side. Because this debate topic impacts the lives of so many working Americans, it’s also a popular subject for a persuasive essay.

Labor organization is also a highly politicized debate topic in the United States, even though the U.S. is one of the few industrialized nations without an actual Labor Party as part of its political hierarchy. The influence of labor unions has ebbed and flowed over more than a century of organized labor activities. Unions have centered their efforts on the philosophies of solidarity and collective advancement.

This controversial topic is largely framed by disagreement between:

  • Labor unions, leaders, activists, economists, political leaders and others who believe that workers should be allowed to organize and coordinate efforts to improve worker pay, hours, benefits, rights, conditions, legal protections, and more, especially in contexts where they believe labor rights are being violated; and
  • Business management, ownership, lobby groups, political leaders, economists and others who believe that unions are prone to corruption and racketeering, as well as those who reject what they view as socialist ideologies underlying unionism, and those who argue that the rights of employers and business owners are violated by regulatory intervention furthering worker pay, hours, protections, and more.

A Brief History of The Issue

The history and current outlook surrounding this issue are both deeply tied to two other controversies included on our list of the 25 Most Controversial Topics. The controversies over Social Security (#6) and Minimum Wage (#11) are both inextricably linked to the labor movement. To learn more, check out these related controversies.

Otherwise, read on...

Labor Demonstrations in Colonial America (17th Century)

Labor disputes were not entirely out of the ordinary in the earliest days of pre-Revolutionary America. But in most cases, laborers had little legal recourse or leverage. Isolated instances such as a 1636 strike by a group of fishermen off the coast of Maine, a 1677 strike by a group of carmen in New York City, and a 1746 carpenters’ strike in Savannah, Georgia demonstrated the willingness of small groups of laborers to attempt methods of collective bargaining. These attempts were unsuccessful, and were not connected to any wider labor movement. The case of the Savannah strike also resulted in prosecution of the strikers, the only known instance of this occurring in the colonial era. But in the following era, such prosecution would become the norm.

Labor and English Common Law in Post-Colonial America (18th and early 19th Century)

Though the United States emerged independent from Great Britain, the new nation carried with it both England’s master-apprentice labor system and the basic precedents of English Common Law. According to English Common Law, it was illegal for workers to use collective bargaining power to push for higher wages, shorter hours, or better working conditions. As labor demonstrations became more commonplace—especially in growing coastal urban population centers like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia—convictions for “criminal conspiracy” also became more commonplace.

The courts generally maintained, during the first decades of the 19th Century, that conspiracy to raise wages was not lawful. Convictions were not usually designed to impose harsh penalties on strikers, but simply to refute their legal right to organize and engage in collective bargaining. This legal standard was reiterated numerous times through court rulings during the first half of the century.

Commonwealth v. Hunt (1842)

Prior to the landmark court case of Commonwealth v. Hunt, convictions were commonplace for labor demonstrations and attempts at collective bargaining. However, a group of skilled artisans called the Boston Journeymen Bootmaker’s Society had achieved a fair amount of leverage using such methods. In the 1830s, the Society undertook several strikes, which proved effective at coercing higher wages from their masters.

However, it was the Society’s confrontation with one of its own rogue members that led to the landmark case. When a bootworker named Jeremiah Horne refused to perform extra labor without compensation—essentially violating one of the Society’s rules—the Society fined him. When Horne refused to pay his fine, the Society demanded Horne’s termination under the threat of a walkout. The shop owner responded by firing Horne.

Horne filed a complaint with the Suffolk County Attorney’s office claiming that the Society’s actions were coercive and that it constituted a criminal conspiracy against employers and laborers who were not affiliated with the Society. Seven members of the Society were tried as defendants and found guilty.

They appealed the decision to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts which overturned the conviction and, in doing so, set the precedent upon which all future union organizations would be legal. According to Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, the laborers in question were “free to work for whom they please, or not to work, if they so prefer... We cannot perceive that it is criminal for men to agree together to exercise their own acknowledged rights, in such a manner as best to subserve their own interests.”

Perhaps most importantly in Justice Shaw’s lengthy opinion was the assessment that “associations may be entered into, the object of which is to adopt measures that may have a tendency to impoverish another, that is, to diminish his gains and profits, and yet so far from being criminal or unlawful, the object may be highly meritorious and public spirited. The legality of such an association will therefore depend upon the means to be used for its accomplishment. If it is to be carried into effect by fair or honorable and lawful means, it is, to say the least, innocent; if by falsehood or force, it may be stamped with the character of conspiracy.”

Notably, Justice Shaw did not have a history of judging in support of labor, which only underscored the landmark significance of his finding, and which set forth the basis for labor organization by lawful means thereafter. Certainly, this was not the end of conviction for labor organizations, but it provided the first and strongest legal basis for defending such actions in court thereafter.

The Gilded Age and Sweated Labor (1870-1910)

This would set the stage for an actual organized labor movement. In the United States, this movement would correspond with a period, between 1870 and the early 1900s, known as the Gilded Age. So-named for America’s rapid economic growth during this time, it also led to the emergence of major industries including railroads, factory production, mining, and finance.

This growth created opportunity, especially in the big cities of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. Urban centers drew an influx of immigrants from throughout the European continent, as well as a steady flood of freed slaves from America’s rural south. With this influx came a readily available and easily exploited source of cheap labor. Though work was more widely available, wages were low, hours were long, and conditions in factories and mines were harsh.

By contrast, the families who owned and operated these mines and factories lived in opulence, luxuriating in unprecedented industrial wealth. Industrialists were often referred to derisively as “robber barons,” so-labeled for their perceived greed and their callousness toward the plight of the laborers who worked in their sweatshop factories, construction sites, and coal mines.

The enormous gap in wealth between workers and those who employed them fomented both resentment among workers and growing efforts at organizing to improve their conditions. It was in this resentment and organization that America’s labor movement was born.

Railroad Workers and the Great Upheaval (1877)

The rapid expansion of the railroad system also produced one of the first proving grounds for the growth of organized labor. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (today a part of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters) was formed in 1863, and was soon followed by more than a dozen such railroad brotherhoods.

The most noteworthy labor uprising in this industry actually occurred organically and without formal or coordinated union representation. In 1877, when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) cut worker wages for a third time in a year, workers in Martinsburg, Virginia launched a strike which ultimately rippled across railway operations throughout the United States, involving more than 100,000 workers, producing widespread property destruction, claiming more than 100 lives in the ensuing violence, and ultimately ending after 69 days due to suppression by federal troops.

The event brought about efforts at more coordinated organization by rail laborers. Rail operators, fearing further unrest, began making concessions such as death benefits, healthcare, and worker pension plans by the 1880s.

The Knights of Labor and the Haymarket Affair (1886)

The Knights of Labor were among the first trade organizations to draw together laborers from a wide breadth of industries, and were noteworthy for their insistence upon an eight-hour workday as well as their gender and racial inclusiveness. From their founding in the 1860s to their peak in the 1880s, the Knights of Labor saw rapid expansion of their membership.

With roughly 800,000 members—20% of all workers in the United States—affiliated by 1886, the Knights were the first true labor organization with permeating working class influence. However, the group’s organizational structure was underdeveloped relative to its rapid growth. Its vulnerability was laid bare on May 4th, 1886. Workers affiliated with the Knights of Labor were engaged in an ongoing peaceful protest at Chicago’s Haymarket Square, where just the day before, one worker was killed and several injured by police officers. The striking workers were there to demand the standardization of an eight-hour workday.

In an act which is believed to have been committed by a splinter group of anarchists, a stick of dynamite was hurled from the crowd toward police officers. Seven officers and four civilians were killed in the blast and the gunfire which followed. The incident led to international headlines, a celebrated trial of suspected perpetrators, several hangings, and a dramatic decline in the Knights’ influence.

The American Federal of Laborers (AFL)(1886), and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)(1935)

A group of unions which had become disaffected from the Knights of Labor splintered into their own group, and in 1886, became the American Federation of Laborers (AFL). With their reputation and internal structure permanently damaged by the Haymarket Affair, the Knights of Labor rapidly ceded their stature as the nation’s largest coalition of labor groups to the better-coordinated AFL.

In the later decades, the AFL would also find cause for dispute with its own member chapters. The AFL supported “industrial unionism”—organizing across all skills and trades in a single industry, whereas some member chapters practiced “craft unionism”—organizing only within specific skill and trade areas. Groups expelled for the latter view formed an alliance which, in 1935 would become the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

By this time, membership in the Knights of Labor had dwindled to irrelevance. For the next several decades, the AFL and CIO would become chief ideological competitors with occasionally overlapping political interests. For the first half of the 20th Century, the AFL and CIO were, in that order, the two most influential forces in American organized labor.

Women’s Suffrage and the Labor Movement (Early 1900s)

Another critical strand of the early labor movement overlapped closely with the Women’s Suffrage movement. Women and children made up a significant portion of the labor class. Thus, as women organized on behalf of their own civil liberties and protections for their children, the labor movement gained an essential exponent.

In 1890, a group called the New York Consumer’s League organized to confront labor issues on behalf of the city’s factory and mill workers. Taking on sweatshop labor through consumer boycotts, their influence led to the formation of such leagues throughout the U.S., ultimately leading to the collective formation of the National Consumer League in 1899, which made minimum wage a key piece of its platform.

The Progressive Era and the Lawrence Textile Strikes (1890-1912)

As labor conditions in the United States gave way to an increasingly organized labor advocacy movement, the National Consumer League worked in close concert with local groups to promote causes such as improved working conditions, shorter workdays, and a minimum wage. These efforts were especially concentrated in a collaboration between the NCL—in particular, labor pioneer Florence Kelley—and the Massachusetts-based Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL)

Between 1910 and 1912, these groups led a coordinated effort by a host of groups to institute a statewide minimum wage. Their efforts were granted a national stage with the outbreak of labor protests in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Following the passage of a statewide law cutting the working week for laborers from 56 hours to 54 hours, workers learned that they would be bearing the brunt with a $2 a week pay cut.

Thousands—composed significantly of Italian immigrants, many women and children—mounted a strike, protesting in coordinated fashion under the organizational aegis of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The strike lasted for two full months in harsh winter conditions, and included some violent, even deadly, clashes with authorities. But when national reports revealed the working conditions in Lawrence, it created the necessary pressure to bring about the nation’s first statewide minimum wage law. On June 4th, 1912, Massachusetts became the first state to create a minimum wage, though at this early stage, the state only had the authority to recommend, and not necessarily mandate, these wages. Over the next decade, 15 states and Washington DC would follow suit with their own minimum wage laws.

The New Deal Coalition (1930s)

In the throes of the Great Depression, Americans elected Franklin D. Roosevelt, who promised sweeping change with his New Deal. The set of reforms focused heavily on the needs of American workers. Roosevelt drew on support from an extremely wide coalition which included Italian and Jewish immigrants, African Americans, poor Southern Whites, urban intellectuals and, critically, organized labor groups. This wide cross-section of the electorate swept Roosevelt and a progressive left set of Northeastern Democrats into power.

The so-called New Deal Coalition helped to both secure Roosevelt’s ambitious array of labor-friendly New Deal initiatives and to advance the influence of organized labor to the center of American politics. Groups like the AFL and CIO remained powerful entities in electoral and legislative politics for the next several decades, alongside several decades of relative Democratic Party dominance.

The result was an array of economic and legal gains for the working class, including the institution of a federal minimum wage, standardized work week, social security benefits, and increased attention to improved worker conditions and safety regulations.

This period also initiated a long-standing connection between labor union organization and the increasingly left-leaning and northeastern Democratic Party. By 1955, the aligned interests of labor groups also led to the highly consequential merger between labor’s two biggest groups. The formation of the AFL-CIO created a single major alliance in labor organization.

The Decline of Labor Influence (1960s-1970s)

The labor movement was, for a century, centered on advancing the needs of the labor class. But as America’s industrial economy gave way to a growing service sector in the mid-20th Century, membership in labor unions began to wane. So too did their political influence.

The connection between organized labor and Democratic dominance of national politics inclined Republican leaders to target labor groups with regulatory disruption such as with the Taft-Hartley Act. The Justice Department used this legislation to allege widespread corruption and racketeering amongst labor leaders, and ultimately to discredit organized labor in the eyes of the public. Claims of corruption and ties to organized crime were embodied by figures like Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa, whose alleged connections to mob activities saw him imprisoned in 1976, and which likely led to his still-partially-unsolved disappearance in 1975.

In spite of these stains on its reputation, organized labor would play an important organizational role in the Civil Rights Movement. The United Auto Workers (UAW), for instance, who were composed significantly of African American factory laborers, were instrumental in funding and supporting Civil Rights activism. Likewise, the influence of labor groups help precipitate the formation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1970 to standardize health and safety protections for American workers.

All told, AFL-CIO membership peaked in 1979 with 20 million members before beginning a steady decline.

Reagan and the PATCO Strike (1981)

In 1980, President Reagan ushered in a pro-business era of presidential leadership. The president’s divergence from union interests was magnified by a Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) union strike. The Union, which had actually supported Reagan’s candidacy, rejected what it deemed an unsatisfactory pay raise offer and directed its members to strike. They demanded a number of significant improvements in pay, working hours, and conditions, but their strike was said to be in violation of federal law. The supposed illegality of their activities allowed the airlines to deploy a backup staff of military air controllers. The result was not only the collapse of the strike, but the wholesale termination of 11,000 workers, and a collapse of the union itself.

The collapse had a profound impact on labor organization throughout the United States, heavily damaging the influence of organized labor, reducing the willingness of workers to strike, and generally damaging the ability of labor groups to engage in effective collective bargaining. Pay rates suffered, and membership in worker unions declined in a pattern that has largely persisted for the ensuing decades. These trends have been magnified by the continuing movement of America’s economy from manufacturing to service, as well as the ongoing trend of moving labor jobs overseas, often to countries where labor, wage and environmental protections are more relaxed.

Top Ten Historical Influencers in the Labor Unions Debate

Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential figures relating to the “labor unions” in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. Our Rankings produced a list of prominent labor leaders and activists, as well as some with notorious ties to both organized labor and organized crime. Other influencers included in the search are political leaders who have either had an impact by supporting and obstructing the goals of organized labor.

Top Ten Historical Influencers in the Labor Unions Debate
1Jimmy Hoffa
2Cesar Chavez
3Philip Vera Cruz
4Samuel H. Friedman
5Bernie Sanders
6Miguel Contreras
7John L. Lewis
8Dolores Huerta
9Florence Reece
10Joseph Lanza

Top Ten Most Influential Books About Labor unions

Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential books on the topic of “labor unions” in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. This list presents an interesting array of texts, including historical fiction with close philosophical connection to labor ideologies, memoirs from individuals with consequential experiences as part of the early labor movement, and a number of non-fiction texts with sociological imperatives surrounding gender and class equality.

Top Ten Most Influential Books About Labor Unions
RankBook Title
1The Grapes of Wrath
2America Is in the Heart
3Of Mice and Men
4Banaag at Sikat
5The Feminine Mystique
6I Heard You Paint Houses
7Bullshit Jobs
8Lessons of October
9Little Red Songbook
10Socialism or Barbarism
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The Current Controversy

Labor unions hold less influence today than at their peak. In 1983, 17.7 million Americans were affiliated with unions. By 2019, that number was 14 million. The most prominent union-affiliated professions today are part of the public sector—as opposed to private sector laborers. For instance, public sector groups like police unions, teacher unions, and government workers form some of the most visible union groups today.

Numerous trade associations—comprised of electricians, carpenters, autoworkers and other skilled laborers—continue to play an important role in advocating for worker’s rights, organizing around collective bargaining goals, lobbying for policy priorities, and participating in electoral politics. And as globalization has removed borders between national economies, labor groups in the U.S. have also taken an increased interest in global labor protections.

Today, the vast majority of the union members belong to groups affiliated with the The AFL-CIO—which claims roughly 12 million members—and the Change to Win Federation, which splintered from the AFL-CIO in 2005.

Among the largest segments of the AFL are the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) (1.7 million members), American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), (1.4 million members), and United Food and Commercial Workers (1.3 million members).

In recent years, there has been some increased interest in union organization, but annual membership generally fluctuates in the United States due to trends in hiring and layoffs. Broadly speaking though, the decades-long trend of decline has negatively impacted labor wages. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the reduced role of labor unions on the American employment landscape has led directly to lower pay for workers.

Today, widespread economic disaffection in the U.S. has renewed some interest in organization. “Nearly half a million workers went on strike in 2018 and 2019, the largest numbers in three decades. Union growth in 2017 was primarily millennial workers. For instance, about 76 percent of new UAW union members during their increase came from workers under the age of 35.”

These activities underscore the ongoing battle between workers and employers, as well as their political allies on both sides. Labor organization is not inherently controversial, but the methods employed, the aims of individual activities, and the economic or ideological disposition of participants in these activities paint an extremely complex picture of labor organization in the U.S. and the world today.

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A Quick Overview of Our Method

Our goal in presenting subjects that generate controversy is to provide you with a sense of some of the figures both past and present who have driven debate, produced widely-recognized works of research, literature or art, proliferated their ideas widely, or who are identified directly and publicly with some aspect of this debate. By identifying the researchers, activists, journalists, educators, academics, and other individuals connected with this debate—and by taking a closer look at their work and contributions—we can get a clear but nuanced look at the subject matter. Rather than framing the issue as one side versus the other, we bring various dimensions of the issue into discussion with one another. This will likely include dimensions of the debate that resonate with you, some dimensions that you find repulsive, and some dimensions that might simply reveal a perspective you hadn’t previously considered.

On the subject of labor unions, this requires us to consider key terminology such as “labor unions” and “trade unions” as well as broader concepts such as the “labor movement” and “organized labor.” Key organizations such the “AFL-CIO” figured into this search as well. On the other side of the controversy are the early industrialists who stood in opposition to the labor movement, best represented by terms such as “Robber Baron,” “Gilded Age,” and “Mining Operator.”

Our InfluenceRanking engine gives us the power to scan the academic and public landscape surrounding the labor union issue using key terminology to identify consequential influencers. As with any topic that generates public debate and disagreement, this is a subject of great depth and breadth. We do not claim to probe either the bottom of this depth or the borders of this breadth. Instead, we offer you one way to enter into this debate, to identify key players, and through their contributions to the debate, to develop a fuller understanding of the issue and perhaps even a better sense of where you stand.

For a closer look at how our InfluenceRankings work, check out our methodology.

Otherwise get started with a look at the key words we used to explore this subject:

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Key Terms

Labor Unions

The key term in the present discussion, “labor unions” refers to the organizations which began organically, and eventually coalesced into a coordinated movement, to promote collective bargaining on behalf of worker’s rights.


  • Robert Fechner was a national labor union leader and director of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which played a central role in the development of state and national parks in the United States. Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. With only a public school elementary education he had risen to become an American labor union leader and vice president of the International Association of Machinists. He had a reputation for fairness, tact, and patience in all his dealings. On April 5, 1933 he was appointed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to be the Director of the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was Fechner’s fairness and ability for organization and administration that impressed the president to his appointment as director. Although he had been an important labor figure, Fechner objected to attempts of union organizers to form unions among CCC enrollees in the camps. He felt that the government was doing all it possibly could for the well-being of the enrollees: well fed, supporting dependents with monthly earnings, getting an education; and they were contributing in a constructive manner to the conservation needs of the nation. The need for a union in this situation was not necessary, and he issued orders to keep union organizers out of the CCC camps and gave instructions that if any of the CCC enrolees joined a union they were to be discharged. Upon Fechner’s death while still serving as CCC Director he was succeeded by James McEntee.
  • Ray Rogers is an American labor rights activist, labor union strategist, and organizer as well as a major figure of prominence in the American labor and human rights movement. Rogers is credited with pioneering the strategy of the “corporate campaign,” a tactic that has been used with success by labor unions, human rights advocates, and environmental activist groups in their battles against corporations in the United States and all over the world.
  • Victor Riesel was an American newspaper journalist and columnist who specialized in news related to labor unions. At the height of his career, his column on labor union issues was syndicated to 356 newspapers in the United States. In an incident which made national headlines for almost a year, a gangster threw sulfuric acid in his face on a public street in New York City on April 5, 1956, causing his permanent blindness.

Labor Movement

As unions achieved more widespread coordination, they became part of a larger movement. The labor movement incorporated unions from across a broad landscape of activities including strike organization, public demonstration, literature, and more. Influencers netted by our search include exponents of the women’s suffrage movement, leaders among laborers, and social activists.


  • Frances Nacke Noel was a women’s labor activist and suffragette, and was known as “the most eloquent female orator of Southern California” in the early 20th century. Nacke acted as one of the primary female labor and suffrage leaders in the Los Angeles labor movement. She was one of the first “progressive activists” to tie the suffragette movement to the labor movement, thereby achieving mutual goals of emancipation of both women and workers. Through her oration and organization, Nacke was a key contributor to the passing of the suffrage movement in Los Angeles. A large part of Nacke’s platform throughout her life was compromising the differences between class divisions in the labor movement.
  • George Edwin McNeill, was an American mill worker, labor leader, and writer. McNeill is best remembered for a pioneering study of the American labor movement, The Labor Movement, or, the Problem of To-day, published in 1892.
  • Kim Moody is an American-born writer on labor who advocates social movement unionism, a revitalized labor movement of mobilized and militant rank-and-file workers rather than business unionism structured from the top down and compromised by coziness with corporations.
  • Katharine Ellis Coman was an American historian, economist, sociologist, educator, and social activist. Coman worked at Wellesley College for 35 years as an instructor, professor, and dean. Believing that the field of political economy could be harnessed to solve the pressing social problems of the day, Coman created new courses in the discipline. She specialized in research and teaching about the development of the American West, and British and American industrialism. In her work, she criticized capitalism and supported the labor movement. She wrote the first history of American industry as well as the first paper published in The American Economic Review. She was the first female statistics professor in the US and the only woman co-founder of the American Economics Association. Throughout her life, she traveled widely to conduct her economics research. A social activist, Coman supported the settlement movement and the labor movement. She shared a home with poet Katharine Lee Bates for 25 years, and the two women often traveled together. Coman died of breast cancer in 1915. Wellesley College created the Katharine Coman Professorship of Industrial History in her honor.

Labor Leaders

Labor leaders are those who took on key roles in organized union and coalition activities. Influencers would include the founders and elected heads of groups such as the United Auto Workers and the National Farm Workers, as well as notable Women’s suffrage and Civil Rights leaders.


  • Jerry Tucker was an American labor leader and educator associated with the United Autoworkers. He was involved in rank and file struggles for union democracy and struggled against union-busting efforts, including leading the UAW’s efforts to defeat right-to-work in Missouri in the 1978.
  • John Francis Henning was a U.S. labor leader, civil servant, and a former U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand and Under Secretary of Labor. Called “one of organized labor’s greatest leaders” and “legendary” for his defense of labor, he is also credited with a positive role in the defense of minimum wage laws and civil rights.
  • Richard Estrada Chavez was an American labor leader, organizer and activist. Chavez was the younger brother of labor leader César Chávez, who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, now known as the United Farm Workers. Richard Chavez is credited with building the United Farm Workers into a major California agricultural and political organization.

Trade Unionist

A term for an active participant in labor organization, “trade unionist” invokes a number of influencers with involvement in craft unionism, women’s suffrage and labor organizations such as the United Cigarmakers Union and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.


  • Alice Henry was an Australian suffragist, journalist, and trade unionist who also became prominent in the American trade union movement as a member of the Women’s Trade Union League.
  • William H. Sylvis was a pioneer American trade union leader. Sylvis is best remembered as a founder of the Iron Molders’ International Union and the National Labor Union, the latter being one of the first American union federations attempting to unite workers of various crafts into a single national organization.
  • Adolph Strasser, born in the Austro-Hungarian empire, was an American trade union organizer. Strasser is best remembered as a founder of the United Cigarmakers Union and the American Federation of Labor. Strasser was additionally the president of the Cigar Makers’ International Union for a period of 14 years, heading the union during the period in which it introduced its successful union label and gained substantial organizational strength.
  • William Hutcheson was the leader of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America from 1915 until 1952. A conservative craft unionist, he opposed the organization of workers in mass production industries such as steel and automobile manufacturing into industrial unions. Under his administration the Carpenters Union grew by taking an aggressive stance toward other trade unions that claimed work that Carpenters also claimed. He took his union out of the American Federation of Labor’s Building Trades Department on several occasions when he was displeased by its ruling on jurisdictional disputes involving the Carpenters.

Organized Labor

With greater national coordination, labor unions banded together into sweeping alliances like the Knights of Labor and the AFL-CIO. Such coordination gave birth to the American entity of organized labor. Influencers included in our search represented groups like the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, the Boston Women’s Trade Union League, and the United Public Workers Union.


  • Henry Pope Anderson was a farm labor union organizer, activist, author, and historian. He studied the Bracero program as a graduate student in Public Health at the University of California. He was Director of Research at Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, an early AFL/CIO-sponsored effort to unionize farm workers. Anderson organized and led Citizens for Farm Labor, a San Francisco Bay Area-based group that supported farm labor organization activities. He wrote the book So Shall Ye Reap documenting the history of farm labor unionization in California.
  • Rose Finkelstein Norwood was an American labor organizer. During her long career she led labor campaigns for telephone operators, garment and jewelry workers, boiler makers, library staffers, teachers, sales clerks, and laundry workers. She was active in many labor and civil rights organizations, including the Boston Women’s Trade Union League, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She was a vocal opponent of antisemitism, racism, and fascism, a lifelong supporter of women’s rights and workers’ education, and an advocate for the elderly.
  • Helen Lake Kanahele was an American labor organizer. She was president of the Women’s Auxiliary of the International Longshoreman’s and Warehousemen’s Union and worked with the United Public Workers union. Due to her labor organizing and opposition to the death penalty, Kanahele was subpoenaed by the Territorial Committee on Subversive Activities in the 1950s.

Robber Baron

The phrase “Robber Baron” was used to describe the class of exceedingly wealthy industrialists who controlled large scale operations such as the railroads, coal mines, steel plants, and textiles mills where America’s laborers worked. Their tight-fisted control of working conditions, pay, and hours helped to spark the backlash which became the labor movement.


  • Louis Francois Menage was a real estate speculator and prominent figure in early Minneapolis, Minnesota history. Born in Rhode Island, he settled in Minneapolis in 1874. Characterized as a “tycoon” and “robber baron,” Menage earned a fortune developing land on the city’s borders into residential housing and financing the mortgages to enable people to buy his properties. During the 1870s and 1880s, he developed large areas of South Minneapolis including much of the area around Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet. He also developed a luxury resort on Lake Calhoun and built a corporate headquarters which was at the time the city’s tallest skyscraper.
  • John Cleveland Osgood was a self-made man who founded the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company and Victor-American Fuel Company but has been referred to as a robber baron. He also created Redstone, Colorado./li>
  • Thomas Alexander Scott was an American businessman, railroad executive, and industrialist. President Abraham Lincoln in 1861 appointed him to serve as U.S. Assistant Secretary of War, and during the American Civil War railroads under his leadership played a major role in the war effort. He became the fourth president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which became the largest publicly traded corporation in the world and received much criticism for his conduct in the Great Railway Strike of 1877 and as a “robber baron.” Scott helped negotiate the Republican Party’s Compromise of 1877 with the Democratic Party; it settled the disputed presidential election of 1876 in favor of Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for the federal government pulling out its military forces from the South and ending the Reconstruction era. In his final years, Scott made large donations to the University of Pennsylvania.
  • James Fisk Jr.—known variously as “Big Jim”, “Diamond Jim”, and “Jubilee Jim”—was an American stockbroker and corporate executive who has been referred to as one of the “robber barons” of the Gilded Age. Though Fisk was admired by the working class of New York and the Erie Railroad, he achieved much ill-fame for his role in Black Friday in 1869, where he and his partner Jay Gould befriended the unsuspecting President Ulysses S. Grant in an attempt to use the President’s good name in a scheme to corner the gold market in New York City. Several years later Fisk was murdered by a disgruntled business associate.
  • Jason Gould was an American railroad magnate and financial speculator who is generally identified as one of the robber barons of the Gilded Age. His sharp and often unscrupulous business practices made him one of the wealthiest men of the late nineteenth century. A highly controversial and unpopular figure during his life, Gould is widely regarded as one of the great villains of his era, with few defenders then or now.
  • Matthew Josephson was an American journalist and author of works on nineteenth-century French literature and American political and business history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Josephson popularized the term “robber baron”.
  • Amasa Leland Stanford was an American industrialist and politician. He is the founder of Stanford University. Migrating to California from New York at the time of the Gold Rush, he became a successful merchant and wholesaler, and continued to build his business empire. He spent one two-year term as Governor of California after his election in 1861, and later eight years as a United States Senator. As president of Central Pacific Railroad, beginning in 1861, and later Southern Pacific, he had tremendous power in the region and a lasting impact on California. He is widely considered a robber baron.

The Gilded Age

An era of rapid economic growth in the U.S., The Gilded Age is distinctive for drawing a growing chasm between the experiences of the wealthy and the working classes in the United States. This chasm helped to spark many of the demands which informed early organized labor.


  • Edith Wharton was an American novelist, short story writer, and designer. Wharton drew upon her insider’s knowledge of the upper class New York “aristocracy” to realistically portray the lives and morals of the Gilded Age. In 1921, she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Literature, for her novel The Age of Innocence. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1996. Among her other well known works are the The House of Mirth and the novella Ethan Frome.
  • John Warne Gates, also known as “Bet-a-Million” Gates, was an American Gilded Age industrialist and gambler. He was a pioneer promoter of barbed wire. He was born and raised in what is now West Chicago, Illinois. He did not enjoy farm life and began offering neighbors various business propositions at an early age, including the sale of firewood to homes and to the local railroad. When he started a local grain brokerage that failed, Gates began spending time at the local railroad station and became reacquainted with the men he previously sold firewood to. He was invited to join their poker games and through this, Gates’ aptitude for cards and other games of chance was developed.
  • James W. Pirsson was an American architect and a founder of the New York City architectural firm Hubert & Pirsson, later Hubert, Pirsson, and Company with Philip Gengembre Hubert, AIA,. The firm produced many of the city’s “Gilded Age” finest buildings, including hotels, churches, and residences.


In 1955, the aligned interests of labor groups also led to the highly consequential merger between labor’s two biggest groups. The formation of the AFL-CIO created a single major alliance in labor organization, which consequently became—and remains—the most influential labor group in the United States.


  • Damon Silvers is an American lawyer and former government employee who serves as a policy director for the AFL-CIO. Silvers led the AFL-CIO legal team that won severance payments for laid off Enron and WorldCom workers. Silvers also served as Deputy Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel from 2008 to 2010.
  • William George Meany was an American labor union leader for 57 years. He was the key figure in the creation of the AFL-CIO and served as the AFL-CIO’s first president, from 1955 to 1979.
  • George Hardy was a Canadian-American labor leader who was president of the Service Employees International Union from 1971 to 1980. At the time of his death, SEIU had grown to become the fifth-largest affiliate of the AFL-CIO. Hardy was a vice president of the AFL-CIO from 1972 to 1980, and a member of its executive council. He was a former member of the Democratic National Committee and the California Democratic State Central Committee.

Mining Operator

This self-explanatory phrase offers an example of a type of “robber baron.” Mining operations during the era of industrialization were noted for their dangerous conditions and poor worker protections. As the labor movement grew, industrialists such as those who operated mines came directly into conflict with striking labor groups.


  • William S. O’Brien was an American businessman who formed a business partnership with fellow Irishmen James Graham Fair, James C. Flood, and John William Mackay, the Consolidated Virginia Mining Company. The four dealt in mining stocks and operated silver mines on the Comstock Lode, and in 1873 discovered the great orebody known as the “Big Bonanza” in the Consolidated Virginia and California Mine, an orebody more than 1,200 feet deep, which yielded in March of that year as much as $632 per ton, and in 1877 nearly $190,000,000 altogether. The four-way partnership, although formally called “Flood and O’Brien,” was more commonly known as the Bonanza firm. Together they also established the Bank of Nevada in San Francisco, California.
  • George Hearst was an American businessman, miner, and politician. After growing up on a small farm in Missouri, he founded many mining operations, and is known for developing and expanding the Homestake Mine in the late 1870s in the Black Hills of South Dakota. In 1879 he listed it on the New York Stock Exchange, and went on to other pursuits. The mine operated continuously, producing gold until 2001.
  • Edward G. Stoiber was an American mining engineer and owner of the Silver Lakes Mines and Mills near Silverton, Colorado. Stoiber went to Germany and completed a mining degree program. When he returned he began working as a mining engineer in Leadville, Colorado. In the mid-1880s, he went into business with his brother Gustavus, establishing a mill and mine in San Juan County near Silverton. By 1887, the brothers decided to part ways, with Edward keeping the Silver Lake mine. The following year he married Lena Allen Webster who would become joint owner of the business and an operational manager. Edward focused on mining engineering, which was crucial to find economical ways to mine and process low-grade ore. He investigated mining practices and ore processing until he was able to become a profitable enterprise that also brought prosperity to the San Juan mining district. Lena was a hard-driving, yet also caring manager, ensuring that the mining operations were effective. That included wearing men’s clothes and performing work as needed. They were involved in community, philanthropic, and industry efforts, including dual-membership in the American Institute of Mining Engineers.
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Influential Organizations Involved in the Labor Unions Controversy

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National Labor Organizations

Opponents of Organized Labor

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