A Brief History of Unions
Unions remain as important today as in any time of our history. Though issues facing the Union and its members have changed over the last century, our basic philosophy has not.
No longer do we fight the demons of the past – child labor, 40-hour workweek, vacation time, etc. We’ve moved forward and progressed, taking up the banner for today’s working class men and women on key fronts such as health care, fair and equitable pay, respectful treatment, short staffing, forced overtime and job and retirement security for all its members.
As the global economy evolves and the federal government and multi-national corporations back away from providing health care, retirement plans and job security for employees, Unions such as the USW are more vital than ever.
It’s fitting that the Declaration of Independence was signed in the gathering hall of the local Philadelphia Guild of Carpenters in 1776. After all, the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are only meaningful when workers are able to reap the just rewards of their labors.
While America’s Founding Fathers could not have anticipated the impact of industrialization, automation or globalization on working people, the USW continues to uphold their promise for a better, more democratic future, even in today’s rapidly changing workplace.
Affiliations of skilled workers, called "craftsmen guilds," are one of the oldest forms of Unions. Modern Unions, like the United Steelworkers, first emerged during the industrial revolution of the mid-to-late 1800’s to counterbalance the wealth and power of a very few industrialists, as well as to battle the widespread poverty, misery and abuse of most workers.
At the turn of the 19th Century, it was not uncommon for people to work 12-, to 14-hour daily shifts in unsafe conditions for little pay. Child labor also was rampant. Although protests were attempted, the law favored the industrialists and labor was repeatedly put down, sometimes by government military action.
In 1914, amidst a groundswell of public outrage, the Federal Government passed the Clayton Act which specified, "the labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce." This key legal definition, which reaffirmed our Founding Fathers’ vision, opened the way for today’s Unions.
It was in this historical context that the USW first began its organizing efforts in 1936 as an international organization, spanning the United States and Canada. By 1942, the USW had accumulated more than 700,000 members and formally adopted a constitution under the banner of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).