The labor movement took its root long back in the colonial regime spanning between 1619 and 1776 plus. Initially the social set up was overwhelmingly rural with abundant land. A vast majority of the population of the Eastern US, then called New World, were self employed as independent farmers and artisans, or later in urban retail trade and professions.
Then with the shift in agricultural pattern from food crops to cash crops and from local consumption to global sale, demand for labor rose.
To satisfy the demand potential employers turned towards indentured servants and African slaves. The servants and slaves apart skilled craftsmen at first plied their trade independently. But with the growth of urban concentration master workmen set up small retail shops and employed journeymen and apprentices against wage payment. After all, the bustling seaport cities had always needed casual laborers and hired craftsmen.
Before 1840s the workers' income was based on price, the remuneration they received for the sale of end product of the labor. The payment of wages came about through introduction of machine into a factory. Around mid 18th century the labor scarcity abated with the growth of population and a curb in the supply of lands. As the fruits of industrial era started to yield people migrated to urban area where manufacturing was booming.
As the erstwhile skills were broken down the competition for these factory jobs increased. On one hand there was trade specialization and developed urban conditions, on the other, the growing fear of unemployment spelled increasing want and discontent. Then with the accumulation of capital by a special class the factory workers lost their independence and also their dignity. This change of status was the basic reason for workers' protests at its earliest form. Evidence of protests with the modern flair was seen as early as 1768 by journeymen tailors. They were joined in by a number of similar organizations later. However, none of them could be termed as labor union.
The 1830s saw the workers demanding social reforms as far as their rights are concerned. In 1827 a Mechanics' Union of Trade Associations came up in Philadelphia. It was the country's first labor organization.
During the 1840s it took a defensive form and changed to a state of uprising as the workers sought to cling to the traditions and methods of the past. The protests acquired a new face as the social reformers of the era soon joined hands with the workers.
However the attitude soon changed. As the workers in the '50s learnt to accept the loss of status they sought to organize around their crafts for the purpose of bargaining collectively with their employers.
By the '60s large portions of America had become industrialized with around 5 millions wage earners in industry, commerce and agriculture. Keeping pace with this industrial boom unions too kept flourishing. The depression in the late '60s intensified the employers' resistance to any reduction of working hours. The utility of trade unions became more apparent each day. In 1872 New Yorkers were to unleashed the most formidable labor struggle of the epoch. However the movement eventually failed.
It was 1882 when the next significant labor stir came. The Knights of Labor under the Central Labor Union held a large parade in New York City on the occasion of the national Knights of Labor conference. In 1884 the group held a parade on the first Monday of September and passed a resolution to hold all future parades on that day and to designate the day as Labor Day.
By the 1890's, when the K of L had all but disappeared, the American Federation of Labor created the 'business union' movement. Although the AFL affiliates encountered vehement employer and judicial opposition, they succeeded in organizing millions of skilled crafts personnel. Courtesy, the able leadership of Samuel Gompers. It soon earned statutory rights to organize for collective bargaining purposes from the federal government.
The creation of the industrial union movement through the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the late 1930s led to the organization of mass production industries. Competition between AFL and the affiliates of newly created Committee for Industrial Organization generated significant union growth throughout 1940s and '50s. In mid 1950s with the AFL-CIO merger unions represented approximate 35 per cent non-agricultural labor force.
Even though the private sector union participation rate has declined over the recent past public opinion surveys demonstrate that most American workers continue to believe that employment interest can be advanced through unionization.