The active industrial development in the United States of the 19th century caused significant changes in the working conditions of many Americans. Even though the general social conditions were improved because of the economic growth and increases in wages, working Americans were still unprotected in their workplaces. Furthermore, the need for the workforce puts more accents on the interests of such unprotected categories of workers as immigrants, women, and children.
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Thus, the rise of labor unions in the United States as a result of realizing the workers’ intentions to protect their rights; the development of the labor movement was a reaction to the strikes in different states; and the organization of labor unions was an attempt to respond to the changes in the American industrial world.
Immigrants, women, and children were the most unprotected categories of workers in American society. The intentions of the labor activists to protect the rights of these vulnerable workers and avoid disparities in the working conditions and wages were realized in the form of organized strikes and protests. The Molly Maguires was the well-known group of Irishmen working in the Pennsylvania coalfields who used terror to support the rights of immigrant workers (Tindall and Shi 763). Similar groups of activists organized strikes in many cities of the United States to draw the public and authorities’ attention to the needs of workers, including immigrants, women, and children.
Strikes were an effective method to focus the manufacturer’s and governors’ attention on the daily problems experienced by workers. The most widespread strike was the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 (Tindall and Shi 763). Two other strikes which provoked the intensification of the labor movement were the Homestead steel strike of 1892 and the Pullman strike of 1894 (Tindall and Shi 770). These widespread strikes demonstrated that only changes in the working conditions could satisfy workers, and the organization of labor unions was a necessary step in protecting the workers’ rights.
To address the changes in industrial America, the first labor organizations were established in the late part of the 19th century. The National Labor Union was organized in Baltimore in 1866. The activists of the union reflected the interests of many strikers and declared the ideas about improving the working conditions and following the eight-hour workday (Tindall and Shi 765). It is important to note that first labor organizations reflected the interests of diverse groups of workers.
Thus, the Knights of Labor created in 1869 was discussed as a highly egalitarian organization (Tindall and Shi 765). Moreover, craft unions were organized to protect the rights of the skilled workers in contrast to the workers from other industries (Tindall and Shi 768). The organization of these different unions was a result of the prolonged process of worsening the working conditions in industries and violating the rights of laborers.
The first labor unions in the United States were established to respond to the changes in social and economic spheres. America became the influential industrial state which had no developed policy to regulate the interests of laborers. As a result, social tensions were observed in the industrial cities of the United States. Strikes and labor protests became the reaction not only to the spread of large corporations but also to worsening the working conditions for all the laborers, including immigrants, women, and children.
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Tindall, George Brown, and David Emory Shi. America: A Narrative History, Volume 2. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007. Print.