How did the United States labor movement develop throughout the 20th Century?

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Answered by: Danae, An Expert in the 20th Century History - General Category
The United States labor movement is anything but easy to describe. It developed over a period of about one hundred years, but this essay will focus primarily on the late 19th and early 20th century. The event that seems to have had the most influence in bringing about the development of a labor movement was the Industrial Revolution.Industrialization necessitated the creation of an entirely new type of economic system, capitalism, and in the process totally transformed social, cultural and economic life in not just the United States, but the entire western world.

Industrialization moved work out of the home and into the public sphere. The traditional economic unit, the family, was replaced by individual workers in factories, sweatshops, on railroads or in shipyards. People flocked to factories, hoping to obtain a job so that they could provide their family with the means to survive. People could no longer rely on the land for their daily subsistence. Food, clothing and any other daily necessity now had to be purchased, and the only way to do that was to go to work. Human labor was a commodity just like everything else, and in the United States there was an abundance of it. Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, immigration was at an all-time high. People came from all over Europe by the boatload, hoping to share in the “American Dream.” This had the effect of flooding the labor market with labor and driving the price of labor down. As an individual there was little one could do. If you did not accept the poor working condition and low pay that employers were offering, there were hundreds of unemployed men (and women) just waiting to take your spot. Furthermore, there was little political action that could be taken. Language barriers, sexual discrimination and racial discrimination ensured that a majority of the population remained politically excluded.

Out of this desperate situation arose the United Sates labor movement. As it began to develop distinct segment of the population joined together. One such group was unskilled factory workers. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the "Wobblies", was created at the turn of the 20th century. Under the leadership of Big Bill Haywood, the IWW set about on a mission to organize the unskilled industrial workers, attempting to give one voice to the plethora of ethnic groups working side by side in the factories, as well as organizing strikes in order to gain better working conditions, shorter hours and better wages for their members.

Skilled labor was yet another segment of the population that joined together. Unions, like the AFL, organized workers along the lines of trades or crafts, such as cigar makers, miners or longshoremen for example. Like the IWW, the AFL fought for better working conditions and pay for its members, leaving the political sphere practically untouched.

Political reform was not part of the agenda for the early United States labor movement. Most unions, whether they were connected to the IWW or the AFL, were content with the small gains they made in the areas of working conditions and pay rates. While it was most certainly understood that political change would was necessary for real changes to happen, most organizers of the early United States labor movement were too busy fighting for material gains to worry about political gains. Politics would just have to wait for the time being.

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