Labor Unions and Economic History

Authored by: Gerald Friedman

Routledge Handbook of Modern Economic History

Print publication date:  December  2012
Online publication date:  January  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415677042
eBook ISBN: 9780203075616
Adobe ISBN: 9781135121211


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Labor unions and socialist political movements are as much children of the spread of democracy in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries as of the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By changing production technologies and the social relations among consumers, producers, and employers, industrialization created a working class able to challenge the organization of production and society and with a direct interest in disputing the distribution of income between workers and their employers. First in England, then throughout the industrializing world, the creation of a wage-earning class was followed by the creation of labor unions. Sustained union growth, however, began only in the late nineteenth century. By the middle of the twentieth century, unions became powerful forces throughout the developed world enrolling a substantial part of the labor force; this growth was not an inevitable result of industrialization, however, because it depended both on the extension of civil liberties to the working class and on government support for working-class collective action, usually during wartime or other national crises. This chapter discusses the nature and development of labor unions, including the role of industrial change, labor disputes, and political action in union growth. It concludes with a discussion of the decline of union membership in the late twentieth century.

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