October 8th, 2014

The Industrial Revolution: The Rise of Labour Unions

1912_Lawrence_Textile_Strike_1Times of industrial revolution stand out as pivotal turning points for all western nations that brought prosperity and fast paced expansion. The rise of labour unions can be linked to Europe (in the late eighteenth century) and in North America (in the nineteenth century) where the movement from rural to urban life in order to work in factories and machines was the most pronounced. This max influx of workers into the workplace helped provide gains in profits of developing industries, however at the expense of less than ideal working conditions.

Labour unions arose because there were many who found difficulty in accepting how “big business” was run; on the backs of the workers in the factories who saw very little in compensation. Along with less money, mechanized production of goods replaced household manufacturing, but these machines were difficult to use and could be dangerous to work with. Labour unions helped spread the balance of power more evenly so that labourers could bargain for more rights such as more pay and better working conditions.

The imbalance of power between industry and labourers made the first few labour movements, such as the National Labour Union, limited in their success. The largest union at this time was the Order of the Knights of St. Crispin that represented the shoe and printing industry. They sought to decrease the trend toward mechanized production that stood to replace master cobblers and printers. Ultimately, as we see today, efficient machines took their place in the industry and prevailed. Labour unions saw much more promise when the American Federation of Labour sought to focus on improving wages and the working conditions of its members.

Today, we see the effects that these early labour unions have had with helping our labour force. The laws developed to set minimum wage standards, living wage standards, maximum hours worked etc. were all developed with pressure from these early labour unions. Whether fighting for better working conditions, compensation when hurt on the job, or better wages the principles that labour unions stood for during the industrial revolution are still incredibly relevant.

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