Labor Unions

Updated March 17, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

Here's a history of organized labor in the United States


One of the earliest and most influential labor organizations, the Knights of Labor is founded by Philadelphia tailors.


The first nationwide strike stops trains across the country. About 100,000 railroad workers are involved. Federal troops are called out to break the strike.


Samuel Gompers founds the American Federation of Labor.


During a labor demonstration in Chicago, a bomb explodes and rioting ensues. Anarchists are singled out and convicted of inciting violence during the Haymarket Square riot.


Violence ends the Homestead steel strike in Homestead, Pennsylvania.


The Pullman strike, involving 50,000 rail workers, ends in rioting and violence.


The International Workers of the World (IWW), a radical union, is formed with the aim of overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with a socialist system.


The U.S. government establishes the Department of Labor to protect the rights of workers.


The Clayton Antitrust Act legalizes nonviolent strikes and boycotts.


Over the course of the year, a record 4 million workers strike.


The Wagner Act (also called the National Labor Relations Act) affirms the right of workers to unionize and requires employers to participate in collective bargaining.


John L. Lewis breaks with the AFL and forms the Committee of Industrial Organization (CIO), later changing its name to the Congress of Industrial Organizations.


United Auto Workers (UAW) sign a contract with General Motors after a successful sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan.


The Fair Labor Standards Act establishes the minimum wage.


The Taft-Hartley Labor Act limits some of the powers of unions and the circumstances under which they can strike.


An amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 outlaws child labor.


The largest U.S. labor organization, the AFL, merges with the CIO, forming the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).


The Landrum-Griffin Act is passed to help eliminate union corruption.


One third of all workers in the United States belong to a union.


Mexican American labor leader Cesar Chavez garners national attention for the plight of farm workers by spearheading what becomes a five-year California grape pickers strike. Chavez's union, the NFWA, primarily made up of Mexican Americans, joined forces with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), primarily made up of Filipino Americans, in undertaking the successful strike.


The postal worker strike, involving 180,000 strikers, becomes the United States' largest public employee walkout.


President Ronald Reagan orders the replacement of striking air traffic controllers with nonunion workers.


Over the last several decades, union membership has dropped considerably. Only 14% belong to unions.


The Teamsters and Service Employees unions announced their withdrawal from the AFL-CIO. The split is considered organized labor's worst crisis since 1935, when the CIO split from the AFL. A few days later, another one of the country's largest unions, the United Food and Commercial Workers, also withdraws.

The new alternative union coalition is called Change to Win Federation and is comprised of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Service Employees International Union, United Farm Workers of America, and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.


Michigan becomes the 24th state to adopt a right-to-work law, striking a blow to organized labor unions.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports just over 11.4% of workers are unionized today versus 20.1% in 1983. In the private sector, the descent is steeper, with union membership dropping from 17% in 1983 to 7% today.


The U.S. Supreme Court rules 5–4 in favor of home-care workers in Illinois. The decision means they do not have to pay dues to public employee unions.


BLS reports union membership at 11.1%. Median weekly earnings for full time workers in unions were $970, compared to non-union workers with median weekly earnings of $763. This earning gap reflects not only a collective bargaining influence, but also variations in occupation, industry, age, firm size, or geographic region.

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