The history of trade unions, from the dawn of the labor movement in Great Britain, mainland Europe, and the United States in the 19th century to the successes and challenges in the 20th and 21st centuries.
What is a trade union?
• A trade union, also called a labour union (Canada) or a labor union
(U.S.) is an association of workers in a specific trade, industry, or company
who work together with the intent of attaining improvements in pay, benefits
(e.g., vacation, health care, and retirement), working conditions, or social
and political status through the increased bargaining power wielded by the
creation of a monopoly of the workers.
• The trade union, through its leadership, negotiates with the employer in
support of union members (rank and file members) and discusses labor
contracts (collective bargaining) with employers.
• The most frequent purpose of these associations or unions is “maintaining or
improving the conditions of their employment”.
• This may comprise discussing salaries, work rules, complaint procedures,
rules governing hiring, discharging and promotion of workers,
benefits, workplace safety and policies.
• As an organized movement, trade unionism originated in the 19th century in
Great Britain, mainland Europe, and the United States.
• In various countries, it is used interchangeably with the term labor movement.
• Smaller alliances of workers began forming in Britain in the 18th century, but they
remained infrequent and short-lived through most of the 19th century, partly due to the
harsh opposition they were met with from businesses and government factions that felt
aggrieved toward this new form of political and economic social action.
• At that time, unions and unionists were often put on trial under numerous restraint-of-
trade and conspiracy rulings in both Britain and the United States.
• Even though union organizers in both countries dealt with similar barriers, their
methods developed fairly differently: the British movement preferred political
activism, which led to the founding of the Labour Party in 1900, whereas American
unions practiced collective bargaining as a measure of achieving economic gains for
• British unionism obtained its legal establishment in the Trade Union Act 1871.
• In the United States, the same result was accomplished, though more gradually and
indecisively, through a succession of court verdicts that reversed the use of bans,
conspiracy laws, and other anti-union campaigns.
• In 1866, the founding of the National Labor Union (NLU) signified an early effort to
start a coalition of American unions.
• Although the NLU was dissolved in the 1870s, several of its member trade unions still
existed, representing such assorted professions as shoemakers, spinners, coal miners,
and railway workers.
• The founding of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) by numerous unions of
skilled workers in 1886 marked the launch of a permanent far-reaching labor
movement in the United States.
• Its member groups consisted of national trade or craft unions that planned local unions
and bargained for wages, hours, and working conditions.
1886 advertisement notifying workers
of a mass meeting that would end in the
• Throughout the 20th century, craft unions lost support to industrial unions.
• This change was both historic and divisive because the earliest unions had improved
in order to represent trained workers.
• These groups believed that untrained workers were unsuitable for union organization.
• In 1935, for instance, the AFL opposed efforts to unify the unskilled and later fired a
small group of member unions that were trying to do so.
• The expelled unions founded the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO),
which by 1941 had secured the success of industrial unionism by organizing the steel
and automobile industries.
• When the AFL and the CIO merged in 1955, they represented approximately 15
million workers altogether.
• At the same time, mass unions began gaining momentum in Britain and numerous
other European countries; by the end of the century, the industrial unions—
supporting sizable numbers of unskilled or semiskilled workers—were acknowledged
as influential negotiating forces.
First Constitutional Convention of
Congress of Industrial Organizations
Modern Developments –
• The strength of the labor movement at any given moment has been tied to
overall economic circumstances.
• In times of full employment and increasing salaries, unionism normally loses
some of its appeal, mainly among younger workers, whereas it tends to have
more support when there is a recession.
• By the late 20th century, the globalization of the labor force had led to new
challenges to the labor movement, efficiently undermining collective
bargaining in industries whose workers could be exchanged for a cheaper
labor force in a different part of the world.
Modern Developments –
• In the United States, the labor movement was also harmfully affected by the
movement to carry out so-called right-to-work laws, which usually forbade
the union shop, a once mutual section of labor contracts that required
workers to join, or pay service dues to, a union as a condition of
• Right-to-work laws, which had been adopted in twenty-eight states and the
territory of Guam by the beginning of the 21st century, were promoted by
economic libertarians, trade associations, and corporate-financed think
tanks as compulsory to defend the economic freedom of workers.
• They had the real-world effect of threatening collective bargaining and
restricting the political activities of unions by taking away their assets.
Modern Developments –
• Certain other states adopted separate legislation to limit or ban
collective bargaining or the right to strike by public-sector unions.
• In Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal
Employees (2018), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public
employees cannot be required to pay service fees to a union to uphold
its collective-bargaining undertakings on their behalf.
Pro-union demonstration in front
of the Supreme Court Building