The Gilded Age, 1870-1914 • Workers of the World, Unite!
Objective: Understand the development of labor unions and evaluate their success.
- What reasons did workers have for organizing labor unions?
- What tactics did labor unions employ to get their demands met?
- How did employers respond to workers' early attempts to form labor unions?
- Do you think labor union demands were fair for workers? For employers?
Notes on Implementation:
- Students can research all three labor unions or choose just one.
- To extend the activity, ask students to describe what benefits they could envision by forming a student union today.
Student Activity: Students can access the below activity in The Gilded Age Topic Center within the American History database.
In this era, workers across the country began to believe in the need to organize. If one worker demanded better pay, he or she would be fired. If the workers at a single factory banded together, they had a slightly better chance of winning better pay and shorter hours. If the workers across an entire industry joined a union, they would have far more bargaining power. Early labor unions had a big impact on work, pay, and the rights of employees.
In this activity, you will use the links below to research information on the three different labor unions.
- Labor unions developed as social and political movements
- Government accountability relies on a politically engaged populace
- A balance between public safety and economic growth is desirable
Possible Answers for Activity:
- Identify the goals of the labor union
- Increased wages
- Improved working conditions
- Eight-hour work day
- Abolition of child labor
- Describe its members
- AFL - skilled workers
- IWW - unskilled trade workers of all genders, race, and ethnicities, ties to socialism
- KOL - skilled and unskilled labor rof all genders, race and ethnicities
- List and explain the strategies they used to get their demands met
- Lobbying for legislation to protect workers
- Evaluate the success of the labor unions in achieving their demands
- AFL - Had a degree of success in getting new legislation passed; however, the legislation was eventually overruled by the courts. The AFL focused on wages and hours and distanced themselves from political or social change typical of the IWW. In large integrated companies they struggled to organize labor unions due to the diversity of workers' needs. This led to a change in organization and a growing reluctance to unionize industry workers. In 1955, the AFL and the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) merged to become the AFL-CIO to create a union that would represent both trade and industry.
- IWW – Was a strong organizational force whose legacy was to provide the ideas and organizing tactics that led to the mass unionization of the unskilled, foreign-born, nonwhite, and female workers of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and AFL unions of the 1930s and 1940s. Such techniques as the sit down strike, chain picketing, and car caravans were pioneered by the IWW in the early decades of the century. The IWW encountered severe setbacks during World War I, where their communist views and anti-military stance, as well as their continued practice of striking, led to a crackdown from the federal government with members, called Wobblies, being labeled subversive and even imprisoned for 10 to 20 years.
- KOL - Successful for its time partly due to its inclusive membership. It was successful in winning wage increases in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. However, the union's image was tarnished because of member participation in Chicago's Haymarket Square Riot, in which a bomb resulted in the deaths of seven police officers. KOL eventually merged with the AFL.
"Workers of the World, Unite!." History Hub,
Entry ID: 2042980