Labor unions experienced success in the early 1900s in America as native-born and immigrant workers petitioned for higher pay and better working conditions. Individual workers didn’t have a voice in most industries, so unions provided a way for laborers to unite into a strong, powerful force that couldn’t be ignored. The united front forced employers and business owners to make significant labor changes.
One of the biggest successes of labor unions in the early 1900s was increased awareness of poor labor practices and a surge in union membership. At the beginning of the 20th century, union membership rose to 6 percent of the entire labor force. By 1913, there were 2.7 million members, according to the Ludwig von Mises Institute. The increasing numbers made front page headlines in newspapers and academic journals, pressuring industry leaders and politicians to address union members’ concerns. Business owners feared labor strikes and economic downturns so many listened to the increasing number of activists.
Child Labor Laws
Unions played a big role in the adoption of child labor policies and public awareness that protected underage children from being exploited for their cheap labor. In 1904, the National Child Labor Committee was formed to reform child labor laws and draw attention to the poor working conditions, low wages and unsanitary conditions children faced as full-time workers. The Committee promoted anti-sweatshop campaigns and fought for free compulsory public education, funded by the government, for all children. However, it wasn’t until 1938 that minimum employment ages and limited work hours for children were regulated by federal laws, outlined in the Fair Labor Standards Act.
American Federation of Labor
Even though the American Federation of Labor was established by Samuel Gompers in the late 1800s, its growth and impact directly influenced the early 1900s. Employers attempted to combat the unions with John Sherman’s antitrust laws established in 1890, so the AFL sought legislation and political methods to exclude unions from those precedents. For example, Gompers convinced President Woodrow Wilson to create a wartime labor policy that supported independent trade unions and collective bargaining, including wage negotiations and better working conditions. During World War I, labor union membership reached peak numbers. The exact number is unknown but historians speculate it was in the millions.
Women's Labor Concerns
Women benefited from labor union successes early in the 20th century. In 1900, several trade unions joined together to form the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in New York City that contained a large number of Jewish female immigrants. The women sought reform for better wages, safer working conditions and more acceptable work hours. The first national trade association for organizing women workers, known as the Women’s Trade Union League, was established in 1903. The WTUL included women from all socioeconomic classes who united and petitioned their employers for fair labor practices.
- Ludwig von Mises Institute: A History of Labor Unions from Colonial Times to 2009
- Child Labor Public Education Project: Child Labor in U.S. History
- AFL-CIO: Samual Grompers (1850-1924)
- U.S. History: American Federation of Labor
- American Federation of State, County and Municipal Authorities: Trilogyinteractive: Women in Labor History Timeline
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