May 2009

A history of unions

A history of unions

According to, unions originated during the Middle Ages in Europe when the first worker organizations were formed—merchant guilds and craft guilds. Merchant guilds began in the 11th century and consisted of merchants and traders banding together; craft guilds formed in the 12th century and consisted of people engaged in a particular craft. Journeymen members of craft guilds eventually formed their own associations, seeking higher wages and better working conditions and creating what would become a part of modern labor unions.

Labor unions arose in Western Europe and the U.S. during the late 18th century and early 19th century. The rise of industrialization led to a changing economic environment with people working in large factories and relying on their employers. During this time, laborers worked 12- to 14-hour shifts in unsafe conditions for meager pay; child labor was prevalent; and protests were struck down—sometimes by military action—because the law favored industrialists. As a result, skilled crafts workers formed unions to battle poverty and abuse of workers. However, unions were not viewed favorably.

For example, in 1908, the Supreme Court's Loewe v. Lawlor decision upheld a judgment against the United Hatters of North America. The union had organized a consumer boycott against a nonunion producer; the court viewed this as reducing the flow of goods and deemed it restraint of trade in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. That reasoning was used in subsequent decisions to outlaw strikes.

Additionally, employers used "yellow-dog" contracts that required workers to agree not to join a union as a condition of employment. Unions would try to organize these workers, who would be found guilty of a breach of contract.

In 1914, the federal government passed the Clayton Act, which stated "the labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce" and helped clear the way for unions.

However, unions did not begin to become socially and politically acceptable until the 1930s when the legal environment began to change. During this time, legislation regulating the labor movement, such as the Norris-La Guardia Anti-Injunction Act of 1932 and National Labor Relations Act of 1935, emerged.

The Norris-La Guardia Anti-Injunction Act of 1932 restricted employers' use of court orders to hinder union organizing drives and limit strikes. It also made yellow-dog contracts unenforceable in federal courts. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 required employers to bargain with unions and not interfere with workers' rights to organize. The law prohibited firing workers involved with unions; prohibited discrimination against workers who support unions; and established the National Labor Relations Board to investigate unfair labor practices and order such practices to cease.

During the years, workers have gained more rights—equal pay, health care, respectful treatment and retirement security, among others. But they also have gained not only the right to join unions but the right not to join unions. This choice is alive today and is a vital part of protecting workers and their freedom.

This Web exclusive information is a supplement to As I was saying ….