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The Drive for Unionization Previous Next
Digital History ID 3188


For the last half-century, Americans have experienced a remarkable degree of labor-management peace and enormous rates of productivity. But this development did not come easily. It took decades of industrial strife, economic upheaval, and political battles to establish the right of workers to unionize and have some say in work rules. It would not be until the 1930s that the United States adopted laws that guaranteed the right of workers to bargain collectively.

During the late 19th century, union members seeking higher wages and better working conditions were described as anarchists or Communists. The term "Communist" referred not to advocates of Marxism, but, rather, to a violent upheaval that had taken place in France in 1871 known as Paris Commune.

The struggle for the right to unionize was a remarkable achievement. It not only involved overcoming employers' resistance, but also ethnic divisions within the working class itself. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the American working class was deeply split not just into the native and foreign born, but also into the "old" and "new" immigrants. The old immigrants not only included English-speaking immigrants from Ireland and Britain, but also northern European immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia. The new immigrants, who came primarily from southern and eastern Europe, included many Hungarians, Italians, Jews, and Slavs. Employers often hired workers from different ethnic groups to work in the same plant in order to make unionization more difficult.

The depth of labor conflict in post-Civil War America is illustrated by bitter disputes that erupted in the nation's rail yards and coalfields in 1877, the first year of the country's second century.

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