History of Unionism in US Colonial Era   Leave a comment

So, Labor Day convinced me to focus on the American Labor movement for a while.

As I’ve explained before, my father was a union organizer who met my mother on a picket line. She was crossing his picket line so she could remain employed and he tried to convince her to stand with him. He offered to take her to lunch and persuade her or stop picketing her employer. He lost the argument, but got the woman.

Understand that my mother’s employer was not some huge sweatshop whose employees had asked for the union to organize. It was a small-business, four-person cafe in downtown Anchorage Alaska and my mother and her two coworkers were not displeased with their employ there. They weren’t paid in gold bullion, but they made decent tips and they all liked their boss. Dad and his crew had been sent to picket because, having organized the Captain Cook hotel the summer before, the local needed to expand their membership rolls and show some progress to the International.

Mom held out, the union moved down the street to harass some other small business owner who couldn’t afford their demands and life went on.

Growing up, I loved my dad’s stories about organizing for labor and he had some compelling stories that would rightly break your heart and turn you into a unionist. But Dad’s stories left a lot out. He didn’t mention things that didn’t put him and his fellow organizers in the best light. Mom was the one who told me about the Haymarket Riot, for example, because even after she joined the union, she was never a particularly loyal member — at least not enough to ignore history.

I give credit where credit is due and there were many instances where unions were champions for the working people when big business owners were acting wrongly. But let’s take a sane look at the history instead of acting like all that violence was the fault of the companies, when in fact, much of it was perpetrated by the unions.

“Those who tell you of trade-unions are bent on raising wages by moral suasion alone are like people who tell you of tigers that live on oranges.” – Henry George, 1891

Labor unions are collections of working people who try to increase wages and improve working conditions for the members of the collective.
Sounds good. Where do I sign up?
Well, there is the matter of tactics. Exactly how do labor unions increase wages and improve working conditions? As Henry George suggested, trade unionists have a history of violence.


Image result for image of american trade unions 1830sContrary to popular belief, trade union groups have been around in North America for almost as long as Europeans have. For a long time, they had a tough go of it because the early settlers were no really steeped in “working-class solidarity” and they were highly suspicious of the unions well-earned reputation for violent and criminal behavior. Some unions were and remain secret societies with strictly enforced oaths and members engaged in intimidation, threats, vandalism and violence, most especially against uncooperative workers, who were called “blacklegs” back in colonial times and “scabs” by men like my father.

At the founding of the America Republic, government-granted monopolies and cartels were not popular. These were a people who were deeply suspicious of government and the concentration of power into only a few hands. They celebrated private property, freedom of contract, competition and freedom of movement among occupations. Let’s just set aside the topics of slavery and indentured servitude for the time being. If you were legally a free man, they thought you should actually be free.

Legal courts didn’t much like union methods and employers, consumers and workers often resisted militancy. Yes, employers resisted unions, but the majority of workers was intensely anti-union too. This was an open society on the edge of a vast frontier, farm-oriented, sprawling and free and wages in North America were frequently double those paid in England because free labor was so scarce here.

Image result for image of american trade unions 1830sSo while unions existed, they accounted for less than 1% of the work force until the 1870s.  If a union declared a strike and then lost, it usually collapsed and withered away. Most unions failed when a depression commenced because unions stubbornly insisted on maintain wage rates even as wage rates fell elsewhere in response to current economic reality. Therefore, nonunion labor became less expensive, causing production costs to fall. Unemployment would fall, usually shortening economic depressions by expanding output and employment. Wage-price flexibility acted like shock absorbers in the economy.

Unil the 1870s and 80s, unions in the American economy were a curiosity confined largely to skilled trades in big cities and on railroads, until political philosophy shifted toward collectivism during the “progressive era”. Then national trade unions gained a real foothold.

Just take a pause here and stop and think. Back in the days when liberty was a valued principle, trade unions were not in demand because ….

Well, it certainly wasn’t because working conditions were incredibly better and benefit programs were flowing to every citizens. Unions existed. Most Americans were aware of them, but they chose not to participate in them because … well, they recognized that limiting your employment choices was a good way to go hungry and they didn’t much like the violence of the unions.

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Posted September 6, 2016 by aurorawatcherak in History, Uncategorized

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