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The Origins of American Unions

by Clarence B. Carson for the Foundation For Economic Education

It is widely believed that labor unions are organized to counter the weight of and contest with employers. In the common parlance, the contestants are unions and management or, according to the older ideological formulation, “labor and capital.” Most textbooks which deal with the subject simply assume that this is the nature of the contest and do not regard it as a question worthy of exploration. For example, one history text accounts for the rise of labor unions this way:

Individual workers were powerless to battle singlehandedly against giant industry. Forced to organize and fight for basic rights, they found the dice heavily loaded against them. The corporation could dispense with the individual worker much more easily than the worker could dispense with the corporation. The employer could pool vast wealth through thousands of stockholders . . . . He could import strikebreakers (“scabs”) and employ thugs to beat up labor organizers . . . .[1]

Another history textbook puts it this way: “As the factory became the only important producing unit, the individuals connected with it were demeaned. An employee could no longer hope to have his grievances heard, for he could not compete with the power of capital and management.”[2] That this is the nature of the conflict is simply affirmed by this statement in yet another history book: “Repeated efforts by trade union lawyers to persuade judges that trade societies had a legal right to carry on collective action against employers were finally rewarded in 1842 . . . .”[3] Another says, “Organized labor passed through phases of bewildering complexity before it won the power to meet organized capital on equal terms.”[4] In short, so far as the present writer’s investigation goes, there seems to be near unanimity in the view that labor unions exist for and engage in contests with management or capital.

Undoubtedly, some portion of the contest or conflict is between unions and management. They are the formally designated contenders. The rhetoric of union leaders is frequently filled with charges against management, and employers have often been at the forefront in contending with unions. If an agreement is reached, it is usually between unions and management. (Unions have often contended with one another also, but agreements do not so commonly arise from these.) Moreover, there is at least one economic basis for the contest to be between unions and management. In their pursuit of self-interest, employers will ordinarily seek to employ the most effective workers for the lowest price (or wage) they can attain. And, on the other hand, workers may be expected to seek the highest price possible for the least amount of their work.

Cooperation with Employers

Even so, the basic conflict of labor unions is not with management (or employers or capital, or whatever it should be called). Belief to the contrary is based on appearances buttressed by propaganda drawn from ideology, a point to be taken up elsewhere. Furthermore, permanent labor union organizations could not have arisen from or been sustained by contentions between employers and employees. The underlying reason for this is that the employers and employees are not competitors. Their basic relationship to one another is one of mutual benefit and cooperation. The employer provides the job, and the employee does the work. To accomplish their common purpose, they must work together, so to speak. An enduring contention which could sustain an organization is practically out of the question.

Of course, employers and employees do sometimes contend. Employees have grievances, and employers have dissatisfactions. On rare occasions, employee grievances may be so general that they will walk out. There have been a goodly number of instances of this throughout American history, usually provoked by the attempt of the employer to lower wages. But this is not the stuff of permanent labor union organization. (Indeed, nowadays such a walkout, if it were to occur among unionized employees, would be called a “wildcat strike,” i. e., an improper and unsanctioned union activity.) Such a walkout could only fail in its object or succeed; in either case, the occasion for collective action would be past, and no permanent organization would be called for. Grievances are usually limited in scope and rarely arouse collective action. True, labor unions may establish procedures for dealing with grievances, but that is an auxiliary service, not the basis of their permanence.

Excluding the Competition

What, then, is the basis of the permanent labor union organization? It is this, that the union can and will obtain for its members a larger return for their efforts, when employed, than they could obtain on the open market. There is but one way this could be accomplished on anything like a permanent basis: By reducing the supply of labor avail able in a craft, profession, or industry. There are many artifices, of course, by which this can be done.

This should tell us, too, who labor is organized against, who the basic and underlying contest is with. And it does. Organized labor unions are organized to exclude from a craft, profession, or industry all competing workmen who are unorganized or not under the discipline of that particular union. The enduring contest on which permanent labor unions subsist is not unions versus management but union worker versus non-union workers or those who are competitors belonging to a different union.

The union contest with management is sporadic, temporary, and, even when it is in progress, usually secondary. The enduring contest is with workers not members of the dominant or struggling union. Such union contest with management as there is has as its primary aim the formation of an alliance. The purpose of the alliance is to align management with the union in its reduction of the supply of labor available to employers. The seal of the alliance is the agreement or pact between union and management, or, since management or “capital” is inessential to labor unions, a pact binding those who perform the labor for whatever employer constitutes the seal.

Reexamining the Premises

Each of these propositions runs contrary to what is widely believed about labor unions. Since they do, it may be helpful to restate them serially. When that has been done, we can proceed to the reason and evidence on which they are based. These are the propositions:

1. The premise of the labor union is that it can and will obtain a larger return for its members than they would receive in the open market.

2. The means of accomplishing this on anything like a permanent basis is by reducing the supply of labor available in a craft, profession, or industry.

3. The union acts to reduce the supply of labor by excluding nonmembers from a craft, profession, or industry.

4. When there is an agreement between union and management, it consists mainly of an alliance by which management undertakes to enforce the union terms.

The price of labor in the market is determined by supply and demand. “Labor is not a commodity,” according to a formulation which became a part of the Clayton Antitrust Act, and therefore its price ought not to be determined in the manner of commodities. But that is a semantic irrelevance, for whether labor is a commodity or not, it is offered for sale in the market, either in goods or services or directly to employers. The argument amounts to this, that the price of labor ought not to be determined in the market. That amounts to the position, however, that labor ought not to be offered for sale in the market.

How, then, is labor to be obtained? There are only two possibilities, though there are some variations as to extent. Labor must either be freely offered (and accepted) or it must be compelled. There is no evidence, to my knowledge, that labor unions are animated by the desire to have workers compelled to work, although some labor union leaders have been attracted by totalitarian systems. Their animus runs in the opposite direction, to have less work rather than more performed, less than would be freely done.

Labor unions, then, still rely on labor being offered for sale and bought in the market. It follows, then, that the price must still be determined largely by supply and demand. (There may be elements of extortion involved in union activity, but the means of satisfying human wants are too numerous and varied for outright extortion to succeed for long in any other than a totalitarian system.) The thrust of labor unions, then, is to reduce the supply of labor available in order to raise the price for their members. The thrust is to exclude from availability competing workers. Discrimination

On rare occasions, union men have stated candidly the nature of their undertaking. For example, when Local 35 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was hailed before the Connecticut Civil Rights Commission to answer charges that it discriminated against blacks, it attempted to avoid the charge in this way. “Local 35 argued that it had not violated the law because it discriminated against all races!”[5] Young John L. Lewis put the matter forthrightly when he spoke to a conference of union men and coal operators in the Midwest in 1901. He was explaining why they were conferring with one another:

As I understand it, it is for the purpose of wiping out competition between us miners first, viewing it from our side of the question; next for the purpose of wiping out competition as between the operators in these four states. When we have succeeded in that and we have perfected an organization on both sides of the question, then as I understand the real purpose of this movement, it is that we will jointly declare war upon every man outside of this competitive field . . . .[6]

That is the best statement, too, the present writer has ever encountered of the idea of an alliance between unions and management.

Sometimes there is a confrontation between workers which reveals clearly the animus behind unionism. One such took place between Irishmen wanting work on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal which was under construction in the 1830s. Workers from County Cork organized into a secret society which attempted to keep workers from Longford from working. Pitched battles ensued, and President Andrew Jackson eventually sent in troops to restore order. The ultimate object of the contending parties, according to an engineer who was present, was “to expel from the canal all except those that belong to the strongest party and thus secure for the remainder higher wages.” According to an historian, “Laborers from Cork . . . sought to keep interloping Irishmen from competing with them for jobs on the canal.”[7]

Why Force Is Used

It should be emphasized, however, that violence is not essential to unionism. It is sporadic and temporary, like the contentions between union and management. What is essential to unionism is the limitation on the supply of labor available and some means to induce employers not to avail themselves of the general supply. Some sort of coercion or intimidation is necessary to the union enterprise, however, for two reasons. In the first place, some means must be available to keep jobs from those who would seek the higher paying union jobs. And, secondly, some means must be used to get employers to accede to acting against their best interest, i. e., to pay more than they would otherwise have to do to get workers. Both experience and reason teach that these conditions are unlikely to prevail without coercion or intimidation.

Be that as it may, the American labor union originated as a means of excluding competing workers from jobs. A brief history of the beginnings will show that.

The notion that labor unions involve primarily a conflict between themselves and management—a contest between employer and employee—introduces confusion from the outset in recounting the history of American labor unions. One history gives this account of what happened at Boston around 1760:

The masters themselves sometimes joined forces to protect their interests . . . . Thirty- two master barbers “assembled at the Golden Ball, with a Trumpeter attending them,” and jointly agreed to raise their rates for shaving from 8s. to 10s. per quarter, and “to advance 5s. on the Price of making common Wiggs and 10s. on their Tye ones.” It was also pro posed that “no one of their Faculty should shave or dress Wiggs on Sunday morning . . . .”[8]

The writer implies by the phrase, “the masters themselves,” that this did not quite qualify as union behavior. On the contrary, it was the quintessence of union behavior. A labor union is an organization of those who perform the work in a trade, profession, or industry to gain a monopoly of such employment in order to establish conditions under which they will work. Whether they work for hire for one employer or serve the general public is irrelevant. There have been, and are, unions throughout the history of them made up largely of self-employed persons—such as barbers, plumbers, electricians, and so forth who serve the general public. They function, as do all unions, to increase the rewards of their members by reducing the number who may so serve. (They may do so by intimidating non-members, by getting exacting qualifications passed into law, by charging high membership fees, or whatever.)

Unions were of little importance in the United States until well into the nineteenth century. Only in the 1830s did union membership constitute a significant portion of the population. For one thing, most Americans were farmers, and there the situation did not lend itself to unionization. For another, the courts were indisposed to tolerate disruptive tactics which they often described as the product of conspiracy.

Craftsmen Against Unskilled

There were, however, some efforts at organization, and it is important to understand what was involved. At the time of the founding of the United States, most manufacturing done for the public was done by skilled tradesmen. There were shoemakers, cordwainers, ironworkers, sailmakers, hatters, and such like. There were generally three ranks of such tradesmen: apprentices, journeymen, and masters. Apprentices had to and journeymen usually did work for a master craftsman. Masters sometimes formed trade associations, as already noted, and journeymen sometimes organized to effect conditions of employment. These relationships were traditional, however, and did not lend themselves much to what we think of as union activity.

It was the break-up of this mode of manufacturing by the use of machinery and the accompanying specialization that led to many attempts at organization. If I may generalize so broadly, what happened was that craftsmen organized in an effort to prevent the more specialized—and less skilled—workers from being employed. To put the matter somewhat grossly, it was the skilled craftsmen against the industrial workers. One historian has described these early conflicts this way:

The biggest problem faced by skilled laborers was the competition they met from inferior workmen . . . whom employers hired in order to reduce their costs. The locals [organizations of skilled workmen], accordingly, sought to create strict rules concerning the number of apprentices to be employed in a shop and to establish a minimum wage; adoption of such a wage would force the employer to pay the same rates for both good and bad workmanship and, it was hoped, would eliminate the poor worker.[9]

Class Warfare

An account by another historian shows also that these unions were organized against other workers:

. . . The attempts on the part of employers to lower standards by hiring untrained workers foreigners and boys, eventually women—also led to vigorous efforts to enforce what today would be called a closed shop. The New York Typographical Society complained bitterly that the superabundance of learners, runaway apprentices and half- way journeymen undermine the wage rates of “full-fledged workers . . . .” There were many turnouts in this and later periods against employers who tried to take on artisans or mechanics who were not union members in good standing . . . . [10]

In the course of the nineteenth century, workers other than craftsmen were sometimes organized. That did not change the fact, however, that they were most directly organized against other workers. Workers against whom they were organized were frequently classified, and it is not unfair to assert that union people thought of them as classes. The broadest and most basic category of workers against whom unions were organized were categorized as “scabs”—those who would take a union man’s job if he vacated it by walking out or going on strike. The first category in point of time was that of unskilled or lesser skilled workers, as already pointed out. Women were another class against which they were organized. One historian points out that the “natural tendency was to regard women solely as competition; accordingly, men alternately deplored, condemned, and bitterly opposed their use by employers.”[11] Negroes constituted another class who encountered opposition. Unions were much less than enthusiastic about the abolition of slavery,[12] and once they were freed “violent clashes between white and Negro laborers became frequent in the northern industrial centers.”[13]

Opposition to Immigrants

But the one class that excited the most determined opposition was immigrants. And, among immigrants, Orientals, particularly the Chinese, were the ones most opposed.[14] The union ire was focused at first on contract labor brought in from abroad. The nature of the union effort is illustrated by the following story. North Adams, Massachusetts had several prosperous shoe factories after the Civil War. Machines were introduced which greatly increased the number of shoes a workman could produce and reduced the skill required in doing it. The Knights of St. Crispin succeeded in organizing many of the craftsmen who were fearful of losing their jobs or having their pay reduced by bringing in less skilled workers. One employer hired an inexperienced workman, and the other workers went on strike. He sent to the West Coast and contracted for and brought in 75 Chinese to run his factory.[15] The unions were able to mount such strenuous opposition that the contract labor law was repealed and a Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. At about the same time, immigrants began to come, in ever increasing numbers, from southern and eastern Europe. This aroused fervor for more and broader immigration restriction. An historian described the impetus behind it this way: “While middle-class critics of laissez- faire lent dignity, organized labor put pressure behind it. Indeed, the first concentrated attack on the new immigrants came from labor leaders.”[16]

My point is not that union members were guilty of craft status, gender, racial, or ethnic prejudices. They may or may not have been, but that is incidental. My point is rather that in opposing unskilled workers, women, Negroes, Chinese, and Europeans they were doing what they are organized to do. Namely, they were trying to exclude competing workers from their undertaking so as to get higher rewards for themselves.

The most dramatic evidence of this occurs when unions resort to overt intimidation and violence. Most of this is visited upon other workers, though the fact is too seldom remarked, or is discussed as if it derived from some norm of human behavior. There have been instances, of course, when supervisory personnel, managers, and owners have been physically assaulted. One organization—the Molly Maguires—even concentrated on may hem against foremen and managers.[17] But it was exceptional and short lived. Moreover, the general practice is that in labor disputes owners, managers, and supervisory personnel can go about their affairs unharmed. If the general public are the employers (in the case of plumbers, and such like) they are rarely molested in labor disputes.

Attacking Competing Workers

It is quite otherwise with competing workmen. The whole wrath at least on the physical side—is usually focused on them. This has been so from the early days to the present. In the early nineteenth century, shoemakers walked out in Philadelphia. Six journeymen stayed on the job. “The strikers kept up a sharp eye for them and when they briefly emerged one Sunday night to visit a near-by tavern, beat them up severely.” Moreover, there “was deep resentment against non-union workers who would take the place of strikers and attacks were not unusual upon persons already being called ‘scabs.’”[18]

In 1880, when the Leadville Miner’s Union struck in Leadville, Colorado, some of the mines tried to stay in operation. These events transpired:

The managers employed every available man who could handle pick or shovel, hold a drill or swing a sledge. The strikers used every means at their command to keep men from going to work and to pull out those who were at work. . . . Every day, and sometimes twice each day, a “Committee,” composed of several hundred strikers, made the rounds of the mines that were working . . . . Fists, clubs, and sometimes pistols, were used, but without fatal results.[19]

Violence at the Herrin Mines

Indeed, for something near to warfare to occur between contending groups of workers, when some workmen persist in working during a strike is not that unusual.[20] Perhaps the most horrendous example in American history occurred at Herrin, Illinois in 1922. A national coal strike had been called by the United Mine Workers. The Southern Illinois Coal Company decided to operate a strip mine near Herrin. The steam shovel operators they employed were .members of a union, but their union had been suspended by the American Federation of Labor. John L. Lewis sent out a notice that theirs was an “outlaw organization” and that the operators should be treated the same as any other “strikebreakers.”

Striking union men armed themselves and surrounded the strip mine. Shooting broke out, and three of the strikers were killed. Finally, a parley was held across the lines, and the workers were offered safe passage if they would throw down their arms and surrender. This they did. They were then lined up and marched toward Herrin under armed guard. The leader who had promised safety to those who would surrender was deposed and another took his place. What then occurred may best be related in the words of the grand jury:

The surrendered men were then marched some 200 yards . . . to the vicinity of a barbed wire fence, where they were told they would be given a chance to run for their lives under fire.

The firing began immediately, and thirteen of the forty-five were killed and most of the others were severely wounded.

The mob pursued those who had escaped and two were hung to trees, six were tied together with a rope about their necks and marched through the streets of Herrin to an adjacent cemetery, where they were shot by the mob and the throats of three were cut. One of the six survived.[21]

It is only fair to note that the superintendent of the mine was also killed. He had been with the workers at the mine and had been instrumental in the surrender. He was crippled and could not keep up with the marchers. When he fell out, he was shot to death.

Even so, most of the violence and direct intimidation in strikes falls upon those who attempt to continue working or accept employment at a struck plant. Nor is this intimi dation of workers simply a tactic for getting at employers. It is that, of course, but it is more. It is of a piece with virtually the whole of the union effort, which is to limit the supply of labor. When there is an attempt to operate a struck plant this attempt to reduce the labor supply takes on flesh and blood and force is often directly applied. At other times, the impact of unions on other workers has to be established by analysis, since it expresses itself in unemployment, employment at low wages, higher prices, decline in production, and underemployment.

Employers have often resisted unionization. Over two centuries, virtually every conceivable device has been used to discourage unions. Above all, most employers resisted the kind of recognition of the union which makes it the bargaining agent for all employees. But once an employer recognized a union, what was in his interest then changed in a significant way. He enters into an alliance with the union, however reluctantly, and the expansion of the union to include his competitors becomes his interest as well as that of the union.

The union aim generally is to organize all competing workmen in a trade, profession, or industry. If only some such workers are organized, their effort will likely come to naught, for the employer whose workers are organized will probably be driven out of business, or tradesmen will lose their clientele to others. It should be noted, however, that the employer’s interest even in this respect diverges somewhat from that of the union he has recognized. Whether his competitors unionize or not is no particular concern of his. His main concern is that non-union competitors be removed from the field so that their products not compete with his. In so far as this is accomplished with the proclaimed goal of unionization, the aims of the union and the unionized employer may become as one.

The Boycott

The most direct device for eliminating non-union competitors is the boycott. Sometimes boycotts have been carried out by open agreements between unionized em ployers and unions. A flamboyant case of a combination between building contractors and union to keep out competition occurred in New York City in the 1930s. In fact, local manufacturers of equipment were also in on it.

. . . One of the three parties to this combination, Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, was interested in broadening the work opportunities of its members, who were employed by the local contractors and the local manufacturers. The local manufacturers were interested in monopolizing the metropolitan market for their products . . . . The local union contractors were interested in having more equipment built on the job . . . and also in the protection afforded them as dealers by the union agreement to handle only manufactured products that were purchased by the contractor.[22]

Suit was eventually brought against this combination under the antitrust acts. When the case was appealed to the Supreme Court that body affirmed that it was in violation of the anti-trust acts, but only because unions had acted in conjunction with business.[23] In the 1940s, when William L. Hutcheson, longtime head of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, was brought to court by the government for repeated boycotts in jurisdictional disputes with other unions, the suit failed. The Supreme Court held that he was not culpable because only unions were involved.[24]

In any case boycotts have usually been conducted by unions without overt aid from employers. The Knights of Labor had employed the boycott extensively in the latter part of the nineteenth century.[25] But the most aggressive use of the boycott was by the American Federation of Labor in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. They used it, of course, in jurisdictional disputes with other unions, but also extensively to try to exclude non-union made products from commerce. No unions were more effective in this than the Longshoremen’s, for they operated at pivotal points for blocking the transport of goods. One such boycott was undertaken in San Francisco in 1916. Here is a brief account of it:

In total disregard of federal laws the union boldly proposed to interfere with the shipping of commodities which were classed as nonunion or unfair, in order to fasten closed-shop conditions not only upon the port of San Francisco but upon the entire Pacific Coast. Sugar landed on the docks was refused unloading because somewhere on its journey it had been handled by nonunion men. A shipment of shingles was embargoed because the shingles had been made in an open shop . . . .[26]

And so it went.


Masses of evidence could be compiled to support the conclusion that labor unions are organized, basically, against other workers. The evidence that they engage in open conflict mainly with other workers can hardly be disputed. Reason clearly supports the conclusion that unions can only succeed in getting higher rewards for their members by reducing the available supply of labor. That when a union is recognized by a company an alliance has been formed is largely an inference, albeit a logical one. Of course, unions have done many things which do not fit closely into this pattern, but when the matter is surveyed broadly the conclusion emerges that unions are organized against other workers primarily.

It is greatly to be doubted that labor unions would have gained much of a following had they flown those colors. In any case, they did not. In fact, unions made little headway for most of the nineteenth century. It was only after they had adopted an ideology which helped to conceal what they were about that they began to gain anything like widespread adherence.

1.   Thomas A. Bailey and David M. Kennedy, The American Pageant (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1979), p. 501.

2.   Charles S. Miller and Natalie Joy Ward, History of America (New York: John Wylie and Sons, 1971), p. 432.

3.   Henry W. Bragdon and Samuel P. McCutchen, History of a Free People (New York: Macmillan, 1978), p. 289.

4.   Samuel E. Morison, The Oxford History of the American People (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 768.

5.   Ray Marshall, The Negro Worker (New York: Random House, 1967), p. 75.

6.   Walter G. Merritt, Destination Unknown (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1951), p. 151.

7.   Richard B. Morris, “Andrew Jackson, Strikebreaker,” American Historical Review, vol. 55, p. 55.

8.   Foster R. Dulles, Labor in America (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1960, 2nd rev. ed.), p. 21.

9.   Joseph G. Rayback, A History of American Labor (New York: Macmillan, 1959), p. 55.

10.   Dulles, op. cit., p. 27.

11.   Rayback, op. cit., p. 121.

12.   See ibid., p. 100.

13.   Ibid., p. 122.

14.   See, for example, Joseph R. Buchanan, The Story of a Labor Agitator (Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1971), p. 66.

15.   Frederick Rudolph, “Chinamen in Yankeedom: Anti-Unionism in Massachusetts in 1870,” American Historical Review, vol. 53, pp. 1-29.

16.   John Higham, “Origins of Immigration Restriction, 1882-1897: A Social Analysis,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, vol. 39, p. 81.

17.   TSee James F. Rhodes, “The Molly Maguires in the Anthracite Region of Pennsylvania,” American Historical Review, vol. 15, pp. 547-61.

18.   Dulles, op. cit., p. 28.

19.   Buchanan, op cit., p. 14.

20.   For recent examples, see Sylvester Petro, The Kohler Strike (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1961), p. 45 et. passim: The Kingsport Strike (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1967); pp. 154-57.

21.   Merritt, op cit., p. 154.

22.   Ibid., p. 103.

23.   Ibid., p. 109.

24.   Maxwell C. Raddock, Portrait of an American Labor Leader: William L. Hutcheson (New York: American Institute of Social Science, 1955), p. 249.

25.   See Norman J. Ware, The Labor Movement in the United States (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1959), pp. 334-45.

26.   Merritt, op. cit., p. 160.

This article was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in The Freeman on January 1980, Volume 30, Issue 1.

About The Author

Clarence B. Carson has written and taught extensively, specializing in American Intellectual history. His recent series In The Freeman, World In the Grip of an Idea, Is being published by Arlington House. It is scheduled for release by early January 1980, and also may be ordered from The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y. 10533 at $14.05.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.