Labor history

The working conditions and compensation of workers have a profound effect on American society and the economy. Working people are both laborers and consumers, affecting the bottom line of businesses in many ways.

Labor history is a broad and complex topic, especially because even the basic definitions of key terms such as “labor” and “history” shift across time and place. In relation to American business history, labor history is an integral part of international and national patterns of social and economic life, and therefore, it cannot readily be separated from these broader trends. For many historians, labor history refers specifically to the long history of labor relations emerging as the modern economy of North America developed; others view it as the social history of working people.Labor;history

Historical Overview

European colonization of the Americas brought various economic and cultural practices to the New World. The established economies of the indigenous people were largely disrupted and displaced by colonial economic expansion, which sometimes involved the appropriation of Indian land and labor. Varied European models of commerce and concepts of property relations and law eventually dominated the continent, as did international markets and trade.

Workers in North America in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries included slaves, indentured servants, wage laborers, farmers, merchants, traders, soldiers, guild members, and business managers. Various forms of working, middle, managing, and owning classes emerged in the United States, creating class stratification that affected American business and social history. Race, religion, and gender also played a part in the development of American society and labor.

During the early nineteenth century, the southern states began developing plantation agriculture, depending largely on Slavery;laborslaves for labor. At the same time, the economy in many other parts of the country began a significant shift from agrarianism to industrialization and urbanization. During the early national period, workers began to organize to exert more control over working conditions and compensation. Slaves organized informally and covertly, their protests taking the form of slave revolts and uprisings. At the same time, workers in the larger industries, including coal, steel, iron, textiles, and mining, began forming labor unions, guilds, and worker organizations and leagues, and farmers in the West and Midwest began forming leagues. Their protests took the form of work stoppages and strikes. The first unions were regional in nature. One of the first national unions, the Knights of Labor, was formed in 1869 and championed a progressive agenda. During the early 1870’s, the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry (also known as the Grange), a fraternity for farmers, started to engage in political action.

Partly in response to the need for labor created by industrialization, starting in the nineteenth century, Immigrationimmigrants began arriving in the United States, first from southern and eastern Europe, then from Asia, Mexico, and other areas. Immigrant workers brought with them a range of models and traditions of labor organizing in both agriculture and industry. Companies viewed them as a source of cheap labor, sometimes using them to replace more experienced workers. Immigrants therefore faced social prejudice from other sectors of the American workforce and were rarely welcomed by labor unions.

After the U.S. Civil War resulted in the freeing of slaves, especially those engaged in agricultural work in the South, these freed slaves briefly engaged in organizing, but the economic failures of Reconstruction forced them to abandon these efforts. Like immigrants, they were often banned from joining labor unions.

Cycles and Politics

Business Business cyclescycles in the United States have dramatically affected labor. Times of expansion, recession, and depression have all sparked different strategies from labor organizers and responses from business owners. In general, during business expansion, companies employ more workers and on better terms, but in times of recession or depression, they employ fewer people and with less compensation and under poorer working conditions. Unions typically try to minimize the effects of economic downturns on their members and to gain benefits for them in upswings. Booms, crashes, and panics have had a profound impact on public support for labor organizing, particularly in their influence on the attitudes of members of the American middle and upper middle classes. Similarly, wars and wartime economies have affected labor organizing, as the government tends to regard strikes and work stoppages during war as detrimental to the war effort. For example, in 1952, during the Korean War, President Harry S. Truman seized steel mills that were about to go on strike, although the U.S. Supreme Court later ruled his actions were illegal.

American labor has a complex political relationship with the international and domestic Left. American labor’s socialist experiments and left-wing activities have included agrarian utopian communities, cooperative commonwealth movements, workingmen’s parties, communist labor organizing, and a long tradition of democratic participation in labor organizing. The CommunismCommunist Party had some influence in unions such as the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and United Automobile Workers (UAW) but was never a dominating force.

American business and governmental policy has been predominantly and often emphatically procapitalist, and therefore, labor organizing has often involved a political and ethical critique of the social and economic practices of capitalism in the United States. Conflict with owners, the government, and law enforcement (as enforcers of business policy) has been not only ideological but also physical. At times, workers involved in strikes, marches, and other protest have been met with repressive action, including violence and mass arrest. For example, a conflict between workers and Chicago police officers in 1886 erupted into the Haymarket Riot, and an 1892 strike by workers at the Homestead Steel Works Company ended in violence when Pinkerton agents and state militia were sent in to break the strike.

Some labor organizations (including the AFL-CIO), however, have been essentially sympathetic to capitalism and have argued for more power and benefits for union workers but not for changes in the capitalist structure of business. Needless to say, the political winds of American history have had a significant impact on, and been strongly affected by, the politics and philosophies followed by labor organizations.

Many historians agree that organized labor was in its heyday from the late nineteenth century until the middle of the twentieth century. During this time, labor unions and workers’ organizations made remarkable gains in membership, political influence, and economic security. After World War II, however, labor organizations began to decline in number and political power, particularly in the increasingly conservative business and political climate of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Some observers anticipate a rebound in labor organizing as American workers are increasingly affected by the globalization of capitalist markets. Others believe that the future of organized American labor remains uncertain at best and bleak at worst.

Further Reading

  • Clark, Christopher, Nancy A. Hewitt, and Roy Rosenzweig. Who Built America? Working People and the Nation’s History. 3d ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. Remarkably detailed and thoroughly researched study of all periods of American labor history.
  • Drucker, Peter F. The Essential Drucker: Selections from the Management Works of Peter F. Drucker. New York: HarperBusiness, 2001. Collection of essays by Drucker, a prolific and insightful business philosopher. He analyzes labor history in the context of management theory and social philosophy.
  • Dubofsky, Melvyn. Hard Work: The Making of Labor History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. Collection of essays by a founding scholar in academic labor history, exploring the changes in methods and presumptions guiding labor history as a scholarly discipline and analyzing labor in relation to social and political history.
  • Fraser, Steven, and Joshua B. Freeman. Audacious Democracy: Labor, Intellectuals, and the Social Reconstruction of America. Boston: Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997. Stimulating collection of essays by labor activists, social historians, and political philosophers.
  • Jones, Jacqueline. American Work: Four Centuries of Black and White Labor. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998. Excellent comparative study of black and white workers within the full sweep of American labor history, using race and labor as key analytical categories to illuminate American social history.
  • Nicholson, Philip Yale. Labor’s Story in the United States. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004. Excellent and very readable survey of American labor history, combining historical context with rich detail regarding specific movements, people, events, and organizations.


Bracero program

Samuel Gompers


Industrial Workers of the World

International Brotherhood of Teamsters

International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union

Knights of Labor

U.S. Department of Labor

Labor strikes

John L. Lewis

National Labor Union

Supreme Court and labor law