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Labour Unions

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Essay title: Labour Unions

In Lowell, Massachusetts, the construction of a big cotton mill started in 1821. It was the first of many that would be built there in the next 10 years. The machinery to spin and weave the cotton into cloth would be driven by waterpower. All that the factory owners needed was a cheap source of labor to run the machines. Most jobs in cotton factories did not require strength or special skills, the owners believed women could do the work as well as or better than men. The New England region was home to many young, single farm girls, but would New England farmers allow their daughters to work in factories? Many of them would not. They believed that eventually factory workers would be taken advantage of and would eventually wind up in poverty. Though the owners did succeed in attracting many of them by building decent houses in which the girls could live. These houses were supervised by older women who made sure that the girls lived by strict moral standards. The girls were encouraged to go to church, and taught to read and to write.

The factory workers did not earn very much; the usual pay was around $3.50 a week. The hours worked in the factories were long. Often, the girls worked 11 to 13 hours a day, six days a week. Workers and businessmen would both profit from the wealth created by mass production. For a while, the factory system at Lowell worked very well. The population of the town grew from 200 to around 30,000 in just 25 years. But eventually surroundings in Lowell's factories had started to change. Faced with bigger competition, factory owners started to lower wages in order to lower costs. They increased the number of machines that each girl had to operate and began to overcrowd the houses in which the girls lived, sometimes packing eight girls to one room. Factory conditions degraded, and unsafe working conditions were everywhere.

In 1836, 1,500 factory girls went on strike to protest wage cuts. (The girls called this a "turn out.") But it did not help. Poor immigrants were beginning to arrive in the United States from Europe. To earn a living, they were willing to accept low wages and poor working conditions. Before long, immigrant women replaced the "Yankee" (American) farm girls. i

In colonial America, most manufacturing was done by hand at home. Some was done in workshops attached house. As the demand for manufactured goods increased, some workshop owners began hiring helpers. Relations between the employer and helper were mostly good. They worked side by side, had the same interests and held similar political views.

As the factory system grew, many specialized workers began to form guilds to protect their interests. The first union in America to hold regular meetings and collect dues was organized by Philadelphia shoemakers in 1792. Soon after, carpenters and leather workers in Boston and printers in New York also organized unions. Labor's 3. Members of a union would agree on the wages that they thought were fair, they pledged to stop working for employers who would not pay that amount. They also sought to force employers to hire only union members.

Employers found the courts to be a good weapon to protect their interests. In 1806, eight Philadelphia shoemakers were brought to trial after leading an unsuccessful strike. The court ruled that any organizing of workers to raise wages was an illegal act. Unions were "conspiracies" against employers and the community. In later cases, courts ruled that almost any action taken by unions to increase wages might be criminal. These decisions destroyed the effectiveness of the nation's early labor unions.

In 1842 the way opened again for workers to organize. That year union shoemakers in Boston were charged with refusing to work with non-union shoemakers. A lower court judge found the men guilty of conspiracy. But an appeal to a higher court resulted in a victory for labor unions in general. Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw ruled that it was not illegal for workers to engage peacefully in union activity. "It was their right to peaceably assemble", he said.1

In the next twenty years, unions campaigned for a 10-hour working day, and also against child labor (mostly because it would take away from their jobs). In 1851, for example, New Jersey passed a law calling for a 10-hour working day in all factories. It also did not allow the employment of children under 10 years old. ii

In the years after the Civil War, the United States was changed by the growth of industry. Earlier the United States was mostly a nation of small farms. By 1900, it was a nation of cities, coal and steel. Though living standards rose, millions of workers lived in crowded, unsanitary tenements. Their conditions became desperate during depressions. Then it was common for workers to go on

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