In the United States unionism in some form is almost as old as the nation itself. Crafts that formed local unions in the late 18th and early 19th cent. included printers, carpenters, tailors, and weavers. Their chief purpose was to keep up craft standards and to prevent employers from hiring untrained workers and importing foreign labor. From 1806 there were numerous prosecutions by employers of unions as combinations in restraint of trade. The early 1830s, a period of industrial prosperity and inflation, was a time of union development; however, the financial Panic of 1837 halted this growth. After the Civil War, in 1866, the National Labor Union was formed; it had such objectives as the abolition of convict labor, the establishment of the eight-hour workday, and the restriction of immigration, but it collapsed with its entry into politics in 1872.
Among the most important of the early national organizations was the Knights of Labor (1869–1917), organizing among both skilled and unskilled workers. That policy brought them into conflict with the established craft unions, who joined together to form the American Federation of Labor (AFL; see American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) in the 1890s under Samuel Gompers. The Knights, thereafter, declined in numbers and effectiveness. The leaders of the AFL opposed the entry of the federation into politics. In 1905 a huge, unwieldy but militant industrial body arose—the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). It concentrated on unskilled workers—lumbermen, migrant workers, and miners. With the conviction of most of its leaders under the Espionage Act during and after World War I, IWW membership shrank, and the organization became ineffective in the 1920s.
During the depression of the 1930s, unions experienced a rapid growth in membership. At this time the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was formed; it was made up at first of dissident unions of the AFL and was led by John L. Lewis. During the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, steps were taken to restore seriously deteriorated standards of employment and to facilitate the development of trade-union organization. The accomplishment of those goals were sought through the passage of such acts as the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act of 1935, an enactment that enlarged the rights of unions and created the National Labor Relations Board, and by protective labor legislation such as the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) and the Social Security Act (1935). There were often severe conflicts between the AFL and the CIO during the 1930s and 40s. It was therefore considered a momentous step when in 1955 the two labor groups merged to form the AFL-CIO. The AFL, the larger of the two organizations, was given a proportionate share of the offices of the new federation, and its president, George Meany, was unanimously elected president of the combined body. Industrial unions of the CIO were given a department of their own within the merged organization.
The AFL-CIO issued a series of ethical-practice codes to govern the behavior of union officers and expelled the Teamsters for corruption in 1957. Nevertheless the entire labor movement found itself on the defensive in the late 1950s, following the disclosures made by the Senate Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field (popularly known as the McClellan Committee); the committee exposed such abuses as collusion between dishonest employers and union officials, extortions and the use of violence by certain segments of labor leadership, and the misuse of funds by high-ranking union officials. As a result of the findings of the McClellan Committee, the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959 was enacted to correct abuses in labor-management relations.
Since World War II, U.S. unions have undergone a period of decline. In 1960 one third of all American workers belonged to a union, but by 2012 the proportion had dropped to about 11%. Faced with foreign competition and financial troubles in its traditional power base—manufacturing and mining—organized labor was hurt in the 1980s by layoffs and was, in many cases, forced to accept reduced wages and benefits. In response, many unions adopted a more conciliatory attitude, reducing the number of strikes to record lows in the 1980s and early 90s, and attempting to negotiate contracts providing job security for members. Unions have also placed greater emphasis on organizing drives for new members. Although unions have been very successful in organizing government employees, they have been less successful with recruiting office workers in the rapidly expanding services sector. Another problem is demographic: The fastest growing parts of the labor force (women, service industries, and college-educated employees) have traditionally been the most reluctant to organize.
By 1996 the number of strikes in the United States had reached its lowest level in 50 years; at the end of the decade, however, a tighter labor market and more aggressive union leadership led to a resurgence of strikes against such major companies as Northwest Airlines, General Motors, and United Parcel Service. In 2005 disagreements over policy led a number of large unions in the AFL-CIO to leave and form the Change to Win Federation, but by 2010 two of the unions had rejoined the AFL-CIO.
In the early 21st cent., public-sector employees and women made up a larger share (approaching 50% in both cases) of union members than they had historically, and manufacturing employees had diminished (to roughly one in ten union members) while college graduates had increased (to four in ten). In the early 2010s, public-sector unions, especially at the state level, found themselves under particular pressure after the economic downturn of 2008–9 led to a significant drop in tax revenues. Unlike European union movements, American organized labor has in general avoided the formation of a political party and has remained within the framework of the two-party system.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.