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:
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
|3||Philip Vera Cruz|
|4||Samuel H. Friedman|
|7||John L. Lewis|
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.
|1||The Grapes of Wrath|
|2||America Is in the Heart|
|3||Of Mice and Men|
|4||Banaag at Sikat|
|5||The Feminine Mystique|
|6||I Heard You Paint Houses|
|8||Lessons of October|
|9||Little Red Songbook|
|10||Socialism or Barbarism|
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.Back to Top
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you would like to study this topic in more depth, check out these key organizations...
Interested in building toward a career on the front lines of the labor debate? As you can see, there are many different avenues into this far-reaching issue. Use our Custom College Ranking to find:
Interested in diving into another one of our controversial topics? Check out The 25 Most Controversial Topics Today!