IntroductionSurprising as it may seem, the United States -- a relatively new nation -- has the world's oldest organized trade union movement. There have been unions in the United States since the end of the 18th century. An examination of three factors within early U.S. society can help to explain this. First, labor was in short supply and was able to use its scarcity as a basis for relatively successful bargaining. Second, male suffrage was generally accepted in the United States by the early years of the 19th century; European labor movements were struggling to get this voting power when American workers had already achieved it. (Slaves could note vote, of course, and women didn't win the right to vote until 1920. Black Americans living in the South didn't achieve full voting rights until the 1960s.)
And finally, there was virtually no history of feudalism in the United States, and few working people have considered themselves to be involved in a class struggle. For the most part, they have seen themselves as the equal of all the other elements of American society, with access to the same opportunities for advancement.
The philosophical basis of the American labor movement is very different from that of other countries. The U.S. labor movement puts great emphasis on workers' collective ownership of job opportunity, something considered to be a logical extension of traditional property rights, which is itself a conservative doctrine. American unions have concentrated on job issues in order to obtain benefits within the existing free enterprise system. The earliest U.S. unions in the United States had very specific goals: among them were improving wages, hours and working conditions, and obtaining free elementary school education.
The American Federation of Labor (AFL), originally founded in the 1880s, was the nation's dominant labor organization until 1955 -- when it merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO); the merged AFL-CIO has remained the nation's largest union organization since that time. The leaders of the AFL and the AFL-CIO have been the despair of socialists. Each has stressed the essentially pragmatic nature of the American labor movement. These leaders have sought, with some success, to enhance real living standards, not just the political power, of American workers.
Since most American working people have thought of themselves as essentially no different from other groups of Americans, there has been little agitation to organize an American labor party. But it would be wrong to assume that the U.S. labor movement has eschewed political action. In state and local politics, the labor movement always has been very active, endorsing candidates and seeking favorable legislation. On the national level, however, the American labor movement traditionally was quite careful about revealing its hand. It tacitly supported President Woodrow Wilson during his terms of office (1913-1921), then overtly supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1932-1945) and President Harry S. Truman (1945-1953). By the early 1950s, the American labor movement clearly was deeply involved in the internal politics of the Democratic Party. At times it has gotten enthusiastic cooperation from the party's leadership; at other times it has not fared so well.
Ever since Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, the United States has been a land with a relative tolerance for workers' organizations. It was not always so. Prior to 1933, unionism faced strong and sometimes violent opposition from employers, except in wartime. In the 1920s, the personnel administration movement, scientific management and rising real wages combined to offer American workers what was advertised as an efficient alternative to unionism. But the Great Depression of 1929-1940 was the impetus for great union growth.