What Is The Relevance Of Unions Past And Present?

by Whitney Kendall


"With all their faults, trade unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education, for the betterment of the race, for the developing of character in men, than any other association of men." - Clarence Darrow (1857 - 1938)
   The Industrial Revolution was arguably one of the most pivotal points in history, radically transforming economic structures, the social stratus, urbanization, lifestyle, and many other crucial aspects of society. Interchangeable parts, sewing machines, Bessemer steel processing, assembly lines - each of these innovations changed industry and its output forever, yet with little regard for the vast workforce necessary to build an industrialized society. Workers were simply part of the machine, replaceable parts in the mechanism of industry with no say in operations, no standard of safety or equity. The rise of successful organized unions was a humanizing force, elevating workers beyond mere machinery. The struggle of labor unions was and continues to be a battle to balance human needs against those of corporations who lose sight of their humanity.
   Unions of skilled workers, particularly artisans, date back centuries, though they were mainly exclusive association seeking business advantages. In the United States in the nineteenth century, changes in industry coupled with influxes of immigrants created a need for unionization of unskilled workers. Many groups entering the workforce for the first time, such as women, children, and ethnic minorities, were especially vulnerable to inhumane conditions. Resentment among workers and the looming threat of massive tragedy from unsafe conditions combined to create volatile pressure, and unions were the release this pressure found.
   Every historical movement has a point that pushes it over the edge, a tragic occurrence or powerful symbol that a capable leader can use to provide necessary momentum. Labor found this catalyst in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the needed voice of Rose Schneiderman. In 1911, a fire erupted on the top floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory garment factory in New York City, and because the doors were locked to keep union organizers out and seamstresses in, over 140 young women were burned or leaped to their deaths. Largely due to the influence of union activist Rose Schneiderman, the public's outrage grew and resulted in wider support for unionization. This was neither the first tragedy nor the beginning of organized labor, but the fire emblemizes unionization's foundation in human compassion. Schneiderman and others demanded safety standards not just out of solidarity for the women who perished, but to save the lives of workers working in conditions just as treacherous as those in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
   The successes of unions during the Progressive Era, the time turn of the century through the First World War, came from the need to reconcile human needs with the changing economic landscape of the nation. Union's goals - reasonable hours, livable wages, safe conditions, equality - were never frivolous. They all came from a desire to show that despite seemingly insurmountable economic disparity, human beings are not commodities or machinery, that human dignity and welfare cannot be sacrificed for profits. Methods employed by unions of the Progressive Era reflected the deep moral fortitude of their cause in their passivity: sit-ins, slow downs, strikes. Certainly there were lapses, violent reactions and sabotage, but the underlying ideologies of the widespread union activity in the Progressive Era were righteous and peaceful.
   Today, unions' original domains are rapidly deserting the United States as manufacturing and other industries are outsourced to countries with lower costs and diminished standards of treatment for workers. This is a clear regression, transporting all the faults of nineteenth century American industry to the developing world. Unions are still crucial in the US, certainly, but the real battle is with the worst transgressions. The world can wait passively for workers in these nations to organize on their own and history to repeat itself, which may take far too long, or developed nations like the US who have experienced this struggle can work toward global standards of industrial ethics. Unions clearly have an immense potential to bring humanity and dignity to workers most in need, so it is time to test this capacity on a wider scale. Fair trade and uniform international labor standards will not be easy to implement, but it is an essential next stage in the vital effort toward universal human rights. Across the world today people are being treated as commodities and parts of a machine, so it is time to test once more the demonstrated paradigm that unionization is humanization.