Labor Unions Research Paper

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Labor (or trade) unions, formed by workers who join forces to oppose exploitation on the job—whether in factories or fields—use the power of collective bargaining to achieve certain employment and working rights and entitlements that relate to fair pay, safe working conditions, and general worker welfare.

The first labor unions were formed by working men and women in the mills, workshops, and small factories of late-eighteenth-century England to protect themselves against low wages, long hours, and poor working conditions. In part, growing out of Europe’s medieval craft guilds, which provided social and material benefits for their members, early unions of weavers, bricklayers, and cordwainers (shoemakers) established models and methods of labor organization that were adopted and further refined as industrialization spurred a dramatic increase in wage-earning labor in the nineteenth century. Over the next century, labor unions in Europe and the United States would expand beyond manufacturing to include miners and agrarian workers throughout those and other areas of the world. Today, tens of millions of men and women—albeit still a minority of all workers internationally— are organized into labor unions.

At least in part, the development of labor unions was linked and in response to the growth of industrial society and the rise of capitalism as an economic system. Beginning in the late 1400s, a centuries-long demographic shift from the countryside to cities took place that saw tens of millions of peasants and subsistence farmers in Eurasia, Africa, and the Americas forced off their land to become indentured servants, tenant farmers, or agrarian workers. Meanwhile, millions of men, women, and children—increasingly from western and central Africa—were enslaved. As commerce expanded and the number and size of existing cities grew, so did the number of men, women, and children brought into the paid workforce.

Simultaneously, movements for political and economic reform in the nineteenth century would help abolish slavery in the Atlantic world and then later in the Indian Ocean world. As with slavery, serfdom and other forms of quasi-forced and forced labor were made illegal throughout most of the world by the twentieth century. With agriculture becoming increasingly mechanized in the early twentieth century, the ranks of urban labor swelled. Unable to compete against large-scale agricultural production, growing numbers of small land-owning rural workers joined those whose lands had been stripped from them by force or insurmountable debt and migrated to cities seeking work.

Under the employ of shop owners who sought to maximize their profits by depressing wages, urban workers—both skilled and unskilled—helped grow both international production and the global market by transforming raw materials such as cotton, sugarcane, copper, and lumber that had been harvested, mined, or felled by rural workers and slaves into consumer goods, construction materials, and finished luxury items. Workers banded together, calling for higher wages and better working conditions; eventually they demanded insurance against illness, accidents, and work-related disabilities—benefits offered by mutual aid societies often tied to religious bodies or fraternal organizations. Labor unions would therefore contain elements of both early craft guilds and mutual aid societies.

Differing substantially in their ideologies, tactics, and degrees of influence, labor unions have assumed a variety of forms over the past two centuries. Some have called for a reorganization of society based on cooperative work, while others have sought only the material improvement of their members. While the demands of labor unions have changed over time, depending on local circumstances, their basic purpose remains the same: protecting the interests of their members by means of collective bargaining. In time, unions would also engage in political action and in some cases, militant action. Along with the right to organize, today’s unions largely seek contractual agreements with employers that guarantee workers specific wages, safe working conditions, and the right to arbitration, health care, and retirement benefits. On the whole, union members in most industrialized countries enjoy more rights, higher wages, and better working conditions than their counterparts in the less industrialized parts of the world, whose governments have yet to either enact into law or enforce standards that relatively more privileged workers have come to take for granted.

Irrespective of location, the bargaining power of labor unions ultimately rests on their members’ ability to collectively withhold their work and to exercise their organization’s financial, legal, and electoral voting strength. Since the late eighteenth century, workers have exerted their power by carrying out, or threatening to carry out, strikes, boycotts of goods, hold demonstrations, picket lines, petition governments, file class-action law suits, mobilize voters, fund political parties or electoral campaigns, and, in some cases, engage in armed struggle. Labor unions have also served as sources for community support and development, providing public forums as well as private spaces for social gatherings, educating their members, disseminating news, and training new leadership.

The appeal of union membership for workers, whether guided by self-interest or a sense of responsibility to their fellow workers and society at large, has been countered by employers threatening to fire or punish employees who join a union, or using physical violence or legal measures—backed by state force—to keep unions from growing in strength. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, courts in the United States frequently issued injunctions to halt strikes. In Peru, private industries have hired armed guards to attack striking workers—a practice seen in many parts of the world. at certain periods in South Africa, as elsewhere, labor leaders have been imprisoned for mobilizing workers.

Labor Unions in Europe

Europe’s labor unions have gained a number of lasting concessions since the nineteenth century, making the continent’s workforce among the most privileged in the world today. Still, every gain made by these workers— from the right to organize, to paid maternity leave—came as the result of protracted labor struggle. During the second half of the nineteenth century, and only after engaging in decades of boycotts, strikes, work slowdowns, and physical violence, European labor unions secured minimal legal protections. In France, the bourgeoisie-dominated revolutionary government of the late eighteenth century enacted the Le Chapelier law to make workers’ coalitions illegal, while Britain’s parliament reinforced existing laws against organized workers through the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800. Nevertheless, by the 1820s recognizable European labor movements had emerged, accompanying the growing importance of coal production (over steam) and the concentration of large urban populations.

In 1868, Napoleon III, who had used the military to quell striking workers, finally assented to the formation of labor associations. Fourteen years later, France’s Third Republic fully legalized unions. In turn, Britain’s Parliament legalized labor unions in 1871; four years later they granted British workers the right to picket. Workers in Germany were extended the right to organize unions with relatively less struggle than their British and French counterparts, but not until the 1890s. Over the course of the nineteenth century, tens of thousands of workers were killed or seriously injured, whether on the job, because of hazardous working conditions, or in the course of labor agitation. Thousands more were beaten or imprisoned for union organizing and making demands by stopping or temporarily interrupting production.

The politicization of labor unions in the mid-nineteenth century produced incendiary results— most notably, the revolutions of 1848. Such ferment, whether in the factories or fields of Europe, served as the backdrop for later reforms that attempted to appease workers, even as governments and private enterprise shored up their forces to repress dissent. Despite legal and illegal measures to thwart European labor movements, union-led revolts continued.

One of the most dramatic instances of organized European workers asserting their political power took place in 1871, when French workers, together with anarchists, socialists, and communists, temporarily formed their own revolutionary government, the Paris Commune. In the spring of that year, workers seized control of the capital and quickly enacted a series of laws establishing debt relief and shorter working days. While the Communards, as they were called, were defeated within two months by loyalist French and Prussian military forces, their brief takeover served as a reminder of the power of organized labor. As increasing numbers of adult male workers gained the franchise in the latter half of the nineteenth century, organized labor across Europe began to exercise greater influence in determining which candidates and parties best served their interests.

By the end of the nineteenth century, efforts to organize unions extended to the unskilled labor force. Industrial labor unions comprising workers across entire industries regardless of skill (as opposed to trade unions that had been restricted to skilled workers) were formed. As expected, industrial unions, like trade unions, were met with bitter opposition from employers and the state. In the decade preceding World War I, Europe saw a rash of strikes as labor unions fought to keep wages in line with rising inflation; strikes could last for months, entailing extraordinary hardship for working-class communities.

Despite the many obstacles, labor unions in Europe continued to grow. By 1910, approximately three million workers were organized in Britain; two million in Germany; and one million in France. Still, the vast majority of workers in Europe remained unorganized. As the century wore on, industrialization steadily supplanted other forms of production and the labor force came to be dominated by industrial workers; as citizens and soldiers, many also bore the brunt of World Wars I and II. The first of these wars witnessed the birth of Soviet Communism, and with it a “workers’ state” (deformed under Joseph Stalin). The second saw the defeat of European and Japanese fascism.

With the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Russia’s trade unions were incorporated into the structure of government. Meanwhile, socialist countries in Europe, including those in Scandinavia, had been transformed into constitutional monarchies that instituted sweeping social and economic reforms. As the Soviet Union extended its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, trade unionism came to dominate the region.

During the 1930s, and at the other end of the political spectrum, the fascist government of Italy attempted to contain its labor movements by sponsoring its own trade unions. In 1933, Germany’s fascist regime destroyed what had been Europe’s best organized trade union movement, and then attempted to bring its entire labor force under the control of the Nazi party. But following the defeat of fascism in World War II, and their “corporate” attempts to control labor, those countries’ union movements were revived.

By the second half of the twentieth century, many of the demands made by industrial and trade unions in Europe had been translated into government policy, benefiting the broader population—beyond organized workers. The adoption of universal health care programs was among the most important of government reforms enacted under pressure from labor unions in Europe.

Labor Unions in the United States

Organized labor in the United States succeeded in gaining a number of critical concessions: a minimum wage, reduced working hours, child labor laws, disability insurance, and retirement benefits. But the incalculable social, political, and economic impact of slavery in the United States (which produced material surpluses for the accelerated growth of capitalism internationally), combined with large-scale European immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, led to multiple fractures within the skilled and unskilled labor force. Workers were divided, and often pitted against one another, on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender.

The first labor unions in the United States appeared in the early nineteenth century, growing directly out of the established guilds—blacksmiths, carpenters, cabinetmakers, and cobblers. By the 1820s, various trade unions were calling for the reduction of the work day from twelve to ten hours. As the use of steam engines along the Atlantic seaboard and internal waterways gave rise to new factory systems, paralleling the development of factories in England, labor unions in the United States sought to join together in citywide federations. In 1866 these federations formed the nationwide National Labor Union (NLU), which succeeded in persuading Congress to pass an eight-hour workday for federal workers. But by the early 1870s the NLU had unraveled.

Labor agitation resurfaced with unprecedented force later in the decade. In 1877, a national railroad strike paralyzed the nation’s transportation system when workers in Martinsburg, West Virginia began a strike that quickly spread to St. Louis and Chicago, to Baltimore and New York, eventually reaching Pittsburgh, where discontent over reduced wages had originated. In several places workers resorted to violence, destroying railway lines to protest low wages and ill treatment. The national strike, known as “The Great Railroad Strike of 1877,” attracted widespread public sympathy and was only suppressed through the force of state militias.

Over the following decade, the Knights of Labor, a union formed by Philadelphia garment cutters in 1869, became labor’s preeminent organization. Expanding nationally under the leadership of Terrence V. Powderly, the Knights organized skilled and unskilled workers, men and women, blacks and whites. By 1886, the organization boasted a diverse membership of 750,000, which included urban and rural workers, although the southern branch had increasingly become all-black as southern white laborers refused to participate in interracial locals. The all-black membership soon joined the ranks of other African American workers in the Cooperative Workers of America and the Colored Farmers Alliance, whose combined membership grew to over one million strong, forming the largest movement of black agrarian workers and sharecroppers in U.S. history. In the coming years many within the organized rural black labor movement— Black Populism—joined white farmers and laborers to establish the People’s Party, which advocated on behalf of labor and agrarian interests.

In the 1880s, as the Knights of Labor became a national force demanding an eight-hour workday, both its leaders and the rank and file were targeted for retribution. On 4 May 1886, the Knights held a mass rally to protest police brutality: the day before, striking employees at the McCormick Harvester Company had been severely beaten; one was killed during a clash with the police. Following the mass rally, eight anarchists were accused of throwing a bomb that killed seven policemen, while the police were accused of indiscriminately shooting into the crowd, beating up dozens of workers, and killing four in the process. The incident became known as the Haymarket Massacre, for which the Knights were unjustly blamed. A precipitous decline in the union’s northern, and mostly white membership followed soon thereafter.

The year 1886 also saw the formation of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), led by Samuel Gompers, a cigar roller. The AFL would soon assume the preeminent position that had been occupied by the Knights of Labor. Unlike the Knights, however, which organized across industries, the AFL concentrated on organizing craft unions of highly skilled workers. Opposed to any alliances with radical political parties, Gompers emphasized economic rather than broad ideological goals. Under his stewardship, the AFL ushered in the modern era of organized labor, maintaining emergency funds to help members during strikes, and employing paid organizers to sign up members in nonunion shops. But the exclusive posture of the AFL precipitated a serious rift within the U.S. labor movement, its ranks swelling with immigrant and mostly unskilled workers. In the long run, the organization’s decision to focus on the economic interests of the nation’s most skilled workers—a decision fueled by racism and growing anti-immigrant sentiment—debilitated the potential for a unified labor union movement.

Other labor unions competed with the AFL for membership. In 1894 the American Railroad Union under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs, a leading socialist, organized a strike at the Pullman manufacturing plant near Chicago and called for a boycott by the men who handled the company’s sleeping cars for the nation’s railroads. Within a week, over 125,000 railroad workers across the nation went on a sympathy strike. At the request of the Illinois governor, the U.S. president Grover Cleveland intervened, moving in federal troops to break the strike. Under the threat of military intervention and a broad injunction, the sympathy strike was ended. The Pullman strikers were defeated, many of whom were blacklisted for their involvement.

The opening of the new century witnessed a flurry of strikes. In 1902, coal miners in northeastern Pennsylvania called for a strike. Under the leadership of John L. Lewis, their union, the United Mine Workers (UMW), mobilized some 100,000 coal miners who shut down the coal mines in which they worked. When the owners of the mines turned down a UMW proposal for arbitration, President Theodore Roosevelt, like his predecessor, intervened. This time the president appointed a commission for mediation and arbitration. Five months later, the commission awarded the workers a 10 percent increase in wages and a shortened workday. But it denied the union’s demand for formal recognition, which was a precondition for arbitration; in its absence, workers faced loss of wages, and maybe even starvation.

It sometimes took an industrial catastrophe to spur the enactment of workplace safety regulations. In 1908, twenty thousand women garment workers in New York and Philadelphia walked off their jobs to protest harsh working conditions. But it was only after 146 young female workers died when a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company on New York’s Lower East Side in 1911 that the government finally acted to remedy hazardous working conditions in New York factories. Many of the women at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company had plunged to their deaths, forced to jump out of windows when the fire broke out because the owners had insisted on keeping the doors of the building locked from the outside to prevent “loss of goods.” An outraged public helped pave the way for the enactment of industrial safety reforms, beginning with the targeting of sweatshop conditions in the garment industry.

Favorable public sentiment played an important role in the growth of labor unions. In 1912, the Industrial Workers of the World, a militant multiracial union, led a strike of fifty thousand workers in the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts. When striking women and their children were attacked by police, a large public protest ensued; the textile workers’ pay was eventually restored and then increased. An important victory for the broader U.S. labor movement was won two years after the Lawrence strike when Congress passed the Clayton Act, which legalized strikes, boycotts, and peaceful picketing. Referred to as the “Magna Carta” for labor, the Clayton Act also limited the use of injunctions to halt strike actions. But another generation would pass before unions were fully recognized.

During the Great Depression, when labor agitation reached new heights, the federal government finally conceded the right of unions to legal recognition. Such labor agitation included pressure by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, whose membership was predominantly Jewish and Italian immigrants. Pressure also came from A. Philip Randolph’s black-led Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Beyond government recognition, other important demands gained during the 1930s by labor unions were the long-fought-for minimum wage, the reduction of working hours, child labor laws, and welfare programs. The rising tide of labor union agitation in that decade culminated in the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which brought millions of unskilled workers from the rubber, steel, and other basic industries under a single umbrella.

In 1935, Congress passed the Social Security Act and the Wagner Labor Relations Act, which created the National Labor Relations Board. While labor unions thereby gained increased power, the federal government’s concessions set the stage for the cooptation of the movement and its leadership under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The advent of World War II saw an increase in union organizing, which was accompanied by a deepening alliance of organized labor and the Democratic Party. The abandonment of the U.S. labor movement’s political independence (through the support of prolabor third parties in the electoral arena), ostensibly to unify the country in the face of fascist forces overseas, left the movement vulnerable to attacks once the war was over. Upon the conclusion of the war a purge of left-wing union leaders took place, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. The era saw the enactment of the Taft- Hartley Act, which made “closed shops” (where only union members were permitted to work) illegal and outlawed the secondary boycott (whereby union members draw the sympathy of others to boycott the goods of a given company). The legislation also allowed the states to pass right-to-work laws, thereby placing further obstacles in the way of union organizing.

With radical leadership effectively barred from union movement, the AFL and CIO merged in 1955. One consequence was a threefold increase in weekly earnings for workers in manufacturing by 1970; less positive, however, was the severing of the low-wage secondary labor market from organized labor. Union organizing has never extended beyond one-third of the U.S. labor force; as a result the most highly skilled workers have come to benefit from the advantages of organized labor, while the distance between them and other workers continues to grow.

Labor Unions in Latin America, Africa, Asia

Like their counterparts in the most industrialized regions of the world—Australasia, Europe, the United States, Canada, and Japan—skilled urban workers in Latin America, Africa, and certain areas of Asia have made significant gains over rural and unskilled workers. The most important of the union labor movements on these continents were affiliated with communist or socialist-led political forces, most notably the People’s Republic of China, founded in 1949.

The Chinese Communist revolution, like its predecessor in the Soviet Union, attempted to place agrarian production under state control and to bring about large-scale industrialization over a much shorter period of time than the Western capitalist countries had experienced. Social, political, and economic advancements notwithstanding, for significant segments of China’s population, the accelerated pace of industrialization produced significant social disruption, uneven development, and a reworking of power relations that left hundreds of millions of peasants, previously under the authority of overlords, now subservient to local party officials who were inclined to practice the same kinds of oppressive behavior exhibited by the landed gentry they replaced.

In Latin America, working-class political parties worked closely with the unions to support their labor movements. In the first decade of the twentieth century Argentina’s anarchists assumed leadership in union organizations, promoting anti-government policies that provoked the government to become increasingly repressive of organized labor. Labor leaders were deported and waves of general strikes were met with state-sanctioned violence. To undercut radicalism and build support for their regimes among the growing indigenous and mestizo work force, governments throughout Latin America enacted legislation to provide at least a minimum level of social welfare for its citizens. This approach was carried out first in Uruguay at the turn of the twentieth century, followed by Mexico in the 1920s, and Brazil in the 1930s. Many labor unions in Latin America went underground while working to support pro-labor political parties and their candidates—as was the case in Bolivia with the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario, a party closely tied to the miner’s federation. Today, a minority of workers in Latin America, concentrated in its major cities, are organized into labor unions.

The economies of many African nations continue to rely on subsistence farming, with relatively little industrialization. A continent rich in minerals, the mining industry is among Africa’s principal sources of industrial labor; it is also the industry with the most viable unions. Following independence from European colonialism, many industries on the continent were placed under state control. But many industries also remained under de facto European corporate control or majority ownership. In 1973, however, a wave of strikes in Durban, South Africa, marked a new militancy among African labor unions not seen since the formation of the anarchist-led Industrial Workers of Africa, the first union of black workers in South Africa. The union influenced the African National Congress in a more radical direction, which led, ultimately, to the overthrow of the apartheid regime in 1994. Over the course of the second half of the twentieth century, legislation was passed in South Africa to regularize industrial action, giving new legitimacy to union organizing. Despite such legislation, and coupled with the end of apartheid, like workers in the more industrialized regions of the world, most of South Africa’s labor force remains unorganized.

As in the case of South Africa, a militant workers’ movement in Egypt helped to undermine British colonial presence as well as Egypt’s monarchy. Between 1947 and 1953, a rapid growth in the textile, tobacco, and sugar industries saw the doubling of Egyptian union membership. The International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions, founded in 1956, would, in turn, shape the Egyptian government’s commitment to organized labor in the Arabic-speaking region while integrating the nation’s active trade unions into the state system.


A history of labor union movements suggests certain common threads as much as it illuminates the diversity of organized labor around the world. While most workers have not been organized into labor unions (in the U.S. only about 15 percent of workers are currently organized; down from 30 percent during the 1950s), and while there is now a greater disparity in wealth within nations around the world than had existed at the beginning of the nineteenth century, certain segments of the international labor force have won legal rights that offer them some protection against the exploitative tendencies and practices of industrial capitalism.


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  2. Campbell, J. (Ed.). (1992). European labor unions. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  3. Foner, P. S. (1982). Organized labor and the black worker (2nd ed.). New York: International Publishers.
  4. Goswami, D. (1983). Trade union movement in India: Its growth and development. New Delhi, India: People’s Publishing House.
  5. Greenfield, G. M., & Maram, S. L. (Eds.). (1987). Latin American labor organizations. New York: Greenwood Press.
  6. Posusney, M. P. (1997). Labor and the state in Egypt: Workers, unions, and economic restructuring. New York: Columbia University Press.
  7. Schiavone, M. (2008). Unions in crisis? The future of organized labor in America. Westport, CT: Praeger.
  8. Thompson, E. P. (1963). The making of the English working class. New York: Vintage Books.
  9. Yates, M. D. (2009). Why unions matter. New York: Monthly Review Press.

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