The Early History
The early history of American labor unions is marked by strikes, violence and political challenges. During the nineteenth century, unions established themselves in American society and politics. Indeed, an early union's effort to strike to achieve its ends -- the Philadelphia Cordwainers case of 1806 -- was ruled to be illegal. Not only were the Philadelphia leather workers unable to form a union, but they were fined by the court for their efforts.
The legal landscape did not improve until 1842 when the Commonwealth vs. Hunt case was decided; the case established that unions could legally exist as long as they did not use coercive means to achieve their goals. As the nineteenth century progressed, unions continued to be formed. These organizations tended to be focused around a particular occupation, company or location.
Though many of the early unions had exclusively male membership, there were important labor unions with women. For example, an organization of women textile workers in Lowell, Massachusetts sent a delegation to the state government which triggered an investigation of working conditions. This early investigation as well as union political efforts contributed to the eventual creation of workplace safety and health laws.
The next major developments for organized labor in the US was the 1886 creation of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), one of the first organizations to bring together unions from different industries and regions together. This organization would later become very important in U.S. politics and elections. The AFL and other groups that brought together labor unions sought to make a combined case for the needs and interests of workers.
Most unions in this period fought for improved safety conditions, limits on working hours and improved pay. The late nineteenth century also witnessed the creation of the United Mine Workers (1890) organization which represented miners of coal and other natural resources.