U.S. Labor History
The Labor Movement in the U. S. has a Turbulent History
From the time that the American Colonies were established (in the early 1600s) there were labor struggles between workers and land owners. Indentured servants as well as slaves were used to make the rich richer. The United States of America was founded by Revolutionists who fought for their independence against an Imperialistic Power. Similarly, the stories of American Labor struggles have a sometimes radical and turbulent history that pitted working class people against Industrialists, Corporate Management and “Robber Barons” who used industrial spies, hired goons, police (local, state and federal), judges, a sometimes hostile press, propaganda and politicians (including mayors, governors and even some Presidents of the United States) to fight against worker rights.
Despite incredible odds against the American workers who engaged in labor struggles - their efforts won many benefits most people have no idea of, or simply take for granted today. Some of the notable benefits that have been earned during the history of American Labor struggles are:
Fair Wages, Seniority Rights, Union Recognition, Anti-Child Labor Laws, the Labor Day Holiday, Unemployment Compensation, Workplace Safety and Health Laws (OSHA), Minimum Wage, the 40 Hour Workweek, Pension Plans…
Significant Events in United States Labor History
Recent and Current Events in the U. S. Labor Movement
* Guatemalan Immigrant Luisa Moreno Was Expelled From the U.S. for Her Groundbreaking Labor Activism - The little-known story of an early champion of workers’ rights receives new recognition (Published: 7/26/2018)
Notable People in United States Labor History
César Estrada Chávez
Nelson Hale Cruikshank
Eugene Victor Debs
Thomas Reilly Donahue
Henry M. Flagler
Henry Clay Frick
Arthur Joseph Goldberg
Fred A. Hartley Jr.
Hubert H. Humphrey
Lucy Randolph Mason
Peter J. McGuire
Esther Eggertsen Peterson
Allen, Robert & William (Pinkerton)
James Rand, Jr.
A. Philip Randolph
John D. Rockefeller
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Robert A. Taft
U.S. Labor History in the News
Historic Labor Movement Posters
Historic Labor Movement Buttons
Detailed Stories about Various Episodes in U.S. Labor History
Indentured Servitude in Colonial America
First of all it is important to define what an indentured servant was during the Colonial America era. Indentured servants first arrived in America in the decade following the settlement of Jamestown by the Virginia Company in 1607. The idea of indentured servitude was born of a need for cheap labor. The earliest settlers soon realized that they had lots of land to care for, but no one to care for it. With passage to the Colonies expensive for all but the wealthy, the Virginia Company developed the system of indentured servitude to attract workers. Indentured servants became vital to the colonial economy.
The timing of the Virginia colony was ideal. The Thirty Year's War had left Europe's economy depressed, and many skilled and unskilled laborers were without work. A new life in the New World offered a glimmer of hope; this explains how one-half to two-thirds of the immigrants who came to the American colonies arrived as indentured servants. Servants typically worked four to seven years in exchange for passage, room, board, lodging and freedom dues. While the life of an indentured servant was harsh and restrictive, it wasn't slavery. There were laws that protected some of their rights. But their life was not an easy one, and the punishments meted out to people who wronged were harsher than those for non-servants. An indentured servant's contract could be extended as punishment for breaking a law, such as running away, or in the case of female servants, becoming pregnant. For those that survived the work and received their freedom package, many historians argue that they were better off than those new immigrants who came freely to the country. Their contract may have included at least 25 acres of land, a year's worth of corn, arms, a cow and new clothes. Some servants did rise to become part of the colonial elite, but for the majority of indentured servants that survived the treacherous journey by sea and the harsh conditions of life in the New World, satisfaction was a modest life as a freeman in a burgeoning colonial economy.
In 1619, when black Africans came to Virginia (now known as the "20 and Odd Negroes" that were captured by English privateers from a slave ship heading to Spanish colonies) there were no slave laws in place and they were initially treated as indentured servants, and given the same opportunities for freedom as white indentured servants. However, slave laws were soon passed – in Massachusetts in 1641 and Virginia in 1661 – and any small freedoms that might have existed for blacks in the English colonies were taken away.
As demands for labor grew, so did the cost of indentured servants. Many landowners also felt threatened by newly freed servants demand for land. The colonial elite realized the problems of indentured servitude. Landowners turned to African slaves as a more profitable and ever-renewable source of labor and the shift from indentured servants to racial slavery had begun.
During the 1930’s, a political organization called the Black Legion splintered from the Ku Klux Klan. Their membership numbers were estimated to be between 20,000 and 30,000. They were active in the Michigan and Ohio areas of the United States. The Associated Press described the organization on May 31, 1936, as a group of loosely federated night-riding bands operating in several States without central discipline or common purpose beyond the enforcement by lash and pistol of individual leaders' notions of "Americanism." Twelve men associated with the Black Legion kidnapped and murdered Charles Poole, a Works Progress Administration worker. Their arrests and convictions led to the disbanding of the organization and its reign of terror.
Great Sit-Down Strike in Flint, Michigan
The Great Sit-Down Strike in Flint, Michigan (December 30, 1936 thru February 11, 1937) was a very important event in American history. Worker determination and community mobilization forced major corporations to address worker rights. Solidarity brought workers together to the point that they were not acting as individuals - they were part of an organization. One of the doctrines of the times was “Get Wise Organize!” Read the following paper that explores various aspects of this historical event and find out how workers took on the government, police, corporate thugs and negative propaganda and won one of the most important struggles in American Labor History.
The Molly Maguires were a secret society in 19th century Ireland and were active in the United States (although that has been debated for over 100 years.) The "Mollies" are mostly known for their activism against the repression of coal mine industry management and ownership in the Pennsylvania coal region area. After a series of often violent conflicts, twenty suspected members of the Molly Maguires were convicted of murder and other crimes and were executed by hanging in 1877 and 1878. The history surrounding the Molly Maguires remains mysterious and is part of local Pennsylvania lore.
Child Labor in the Industrial Revolution
Child labor refers to the employment of children in any work that deprives children of their childhood, interferes with their ability to attend regular school, and that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful. During the Industrial Revolution (19th and 20th centuries) many children aged 5 through 14 mainly from poorer families worked in agriculture, home-based assembly operations, factories, mining and in services such as news boys. Some worked night shifts lasting 12 hours.