How important was union unity in developing labour rights? Flashcards Preview

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What were the three aspects of union unity

• Skilled vs unskilled workers
• Ethnic divisions
• Gender divisions


Skilled and Unskilled workers

- At the start of the period, in the 1860s, the unions that existed
were to protect those in skilled or craft industries

- They admitted only craftsmen, and this meant the idea of
strength through numbers was ignored

- Unions did not allow unskilled workers, women or African
Americans to join

- Despite attempts to develop unions for unskilled workers, this
was still a problem on the outbreak of the First World War

- Although skilled workers were trying to protect their positions,
their opposition to unskilled workers limited the size of union
membership and therefore the pressures that the workers
could exert on both employers and governments in this period

- However, the situation began to change in the 1930s, and
workers solidarity became more evident.

- The decision in 1935 by some unions to break away from the
AFL, which was more interested in amalgamating craft unions
than helping unskilled workers, began the process of union

- In 1955, the CIO merged with the AFL to become AFL-CIO,
bringing 85% of union membership into one unit - this gave the
organisation representation a membership of some 16 million
workers and allowed it to exert pressures over wages and

- However, after the second world war - divisions continued to limit
the influence of the unions - change of American economy meant
more white collar jobs - reducing union membership to 31% of
workforce, limiting membership and the power it could exert

- Lack of worker solidarity furthered in 70s and 80s


Ethnic Divisions

- The division between white workers and other ethnic groups
remained throughout much of the period

- White workers were particularly concerned about African
Americans, and immigrants from southern and central Europe
and Asia, taking their jobs or working for lower rates of pay

- As a result, many unions did not allow these ethnic groups to
join, especially in the early period or, when they did, offered
little support to them

- Although some African Americans established their own
unions, many remained non-unionised and this allowed
employers to exploit the divisions and employ them for low
wages and in poor conditions


Abolition and immigration

- At the start of the period it was not only the division between
white native-born Americans and African Americans that
weakened the union movement, and prevented the
development of unity needed to win workers’ rights, but also
the arrival of immigrants from Europe

- The abolition of slavery meant that many African Americans
joined the industrial workforce, but many whites were unwilling
to work and them, as were many of the European immigrants.

- However, this meant that at times of industrial unrest the
employers were able to lay off the white workers and replace
them with African Americans, which limited the ability of
workers to strike as they feared that they would be replaced

- It also meant that employers were able to sack any workers
who attempted to organise action, which resulted in the
removal of the very men who might have been able to
effectively lead unions

- Therefore, at the very time workers’ organisations needed to
be united in order to gain rights and be recognised, the
employers were able to ignore their demands and exploit the
divisions within the workforce

- This had been further exacerbated by the arrival of large
numbers of immigrants who were willing to work for low pay,
and this was a particular problem in some cities where they
accounted for over half the population

- They made up much of the semi-skilled and unskilled
workforce and therefore the refusal of white, native-born
Americans to allow them to join unions further weakened
organised labour