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The Labor Unions

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Essay title: The Labor Unions

The Labor Unions

Unions have become commonplace in the labor arena. They provide employees with a valuable tool that allows them to stand together against their employer to make sure that their rights are upheld in the workplace. This paper will focus on labor unions with regards to how they work in two very different companies, Ford Motor Company and United Airlines. Also, a brief history will be outlined as well as legislation regarding unions.

Many unions are at battle with their respected employers. Some of these fights are better known than other fights. United Airlines is trying to renegotiate contracts to save their company money. This has been a long battle for United, that some may see as having begun with the events of September 11, 2001. In truth, the International Association of Machinists, the union that represents a majority of United employees and United have been locked in a heated battle for some time now, even before the events of that September.

By contrast, Ford Motor Company has had very little trouble recently with the union that represents the majority of their employees. The UAW has not gone on strike at Ford since 1976. The last time that Ford-UAW relationship even made the news was in 1999, when the UAW was negotiating their new contract. Comparatively speaking, the two companies could not be further apart when it comes to working with their respective unions.


Although some people trace the beginning of labor unions in the United States to the very beginning, when guilds men got off the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock, the beginning of the modern labor movement began in 1886. That is the year when Samuel Gompers founded the American Federation of Labor. The statement of the founders of the AFL reads in part:

The various trades have been affected by the introduction of machinery, the subdivision of labor, the use of women's and children's labor and the lack of an apprentice system-so that the skilled trades were rapidly sinking to the level of pauper labor. To protect the skilled labor of America from being reduced to beggary and to sustain the standard of American workmanship and skill, the trades unions of America have been established. (AFL-CIO, 2002)

The first major union strike in this country was the Pullman strike. This strike took place in 1894 at the Pullman plant near Chicago. The American Railroad Union called for a boycott of the handling of Pullman’s sleeping and parlor cars on the nation’s railroads. Within one week, 125,000 railroad workers were engaged in a sympathy protest. The government swore in 3,400 deputies. President Cleveland moved in federal troops to break the strike, despite a plea by then-governor Aitgeld of Illinois that such a move was unnecessary. A sweeping federal court injunction forced an end to the sympathy strike, and many railroad workers were blacklisted. The Pullman strikers were starved into defeat (Britannica, 2002).

At the time, before labor laws or standards, this strike showed the tendency of the federal government to offer moral support to the companies and use military force to break strikes. The injunction, usually issued immediately by compliant judges at the request of government officials, became a prime legal weapon against union organizers and actions.

The modern model for government intervention in a strike came about in 1902. On May 12, of this year, mineworkers in northeastern Pennsylvania went on strike under the name of the United Mine Workers. More than 100,000 miners spent that summer on strike, keeping the mines closed. After mine owners refused a proposal for arbitration, President Theodore Roosevelt intervened. On October 16, 1902, Roosevelt appointed a commission of mediation and arbitration. Five days later, the miners returned to their jobs and five months later, the Presidential commission gave the miners a 10% wage increase and shorter workdays but not the formal recognition that the union wanted.

Another concern of unions, worker safety, caught the nation’s attention in 1911, when a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. on New York’s lower east side. Around 150 employees, mostly young women, died in the fire because the safety exits on the burning floors had been locked to prevent the goods on the floor from being stolen. A state factory investigation headed by Francis Perkins, who would go on to become the secretary of Labor in 1933, helped create reforms in industrial safety and fire prevention measures.

Labor Laws and Legislation

Congress, starting to feel pressure for groups like the AFL, created the U.S. Department of Labor. The department has a mandate to protect and extend the rights of wageworkers. A children’s bureau was created.

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