A labor movement is defined as “a movement campaigning to improve the rights and conditions of working people.” While the individual groups we researched span the globe, the overarching theme is a constant fight to let workers share in the wealth they have created. The movements we have chronicled, past and present, are wholly grassroots, as they sprung from the abysmal working and living conditions of exploited workers. Strikes and protests are often the last resort for these workers, as there is no other way to advance their interests besides withdrawing their invaluable labor. Whether it is factory workers in India or fast food workers in the U.S., the shared goal is to use their integral position in the capitalist political-economy to slow down the flow of global capital. Within the U.S., labor movements are responsible for the weekend and the 40-hour workweek, which were not granted to workers but rather fought for in protracted battles.
Throughout history, labor movements have played an integral role in the development of basic rights for workers. Labor movements occurred in North America almost 150 years before the United States was even recognized as an independent nation. The American labor movement came about in the formative years of the nation, when a free wage-labor market emerged in the artisan trades late in the colonial period. The earliest recorded American strike took place in 1768 when New York journeymen tailors protested a wage reduction. The Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers (shoemakers) was formed in 1794, marking the beginning of sustained trade union organization among American workers. From then on, local craft unions continued to proliferate in cities, which gave way to American trade unionism. In 1827, the Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations in Philadelphia was established, with central labor bodies uniting craft unions within a single city for the first time. Then, the International Typographical Union was created in 1852, which saw national unions bringing together local unions of the same trade from across the United States and Canada for the first time. Though factories were starting to be established, these unions mostly consisted of skilled workers. As industrial capitalism developed, notions of equal rights and the Ricardian labor theory of value gave rise to the workingmen’s parties of the 1830's. The most notables were the National Labor Union, launched in 1866, and the Knights of Labor, which was at its peak in the mid-1880's and drew national membership. But the Knights of Labor was weakened in 1886 when the Haymarket riot saw the death of police officer, overshadowing the Knights’ message and turning public opinion against them. Soon after, the union collapsed. But in 1886, the American Federation of Labor, a national federation of unions for skilled workers, was started by Samuel Gompers. It was only after the advent of this federation that labor movements gained real power and started to take the shape of the movements we see today.
Between 1860 and 1910, the population of the US tripled, and so did the industrial work force. New types of commercial enterprise were established to stand alongside the pre-Civil War textile factories. But labor movements did not gain real power until the 1930's and 1940's, when organized labor first took an institutional form in the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the modern industrial relations mechanisms we have today. After World War II, 35 percent of the American workforce was unionized. But union power and membership began to decline in the late 1970's into the 1980's and 1990's. While the labor movement contributed to this decline by failing to organize service sector industries early enough, changes in labor laws and an increased militancy in employers have also contributed to the paucity of power for modern labor. Today, union density, workplace protections, the minimum wage, and occupational safety and health are all exceedingly weak. Thus, going forward, a major question is if American workers will reclaim their structural power to effect a lasting shift in the nation’s political economy.
In India, interestingly, in spite of the severe repression and deplorable treatment laborers have faced dating back to times even before the British Raj, the history of the labor union movement is not very long. Perhaps one of the big reasons for this is that major industrial development only took place in the mid to late nineteenth century, as it brought with it more labor exploitation. Historically and even currently, the industrialists’ primary objective was to protect their own interests and formed their own unions to do so. As industrialization increased, the condition of laborers in India further deteriorated and the need for labor reform, in some way or another, was crucial. However, this was not made easy by business managements, who were often able to garner the support of the government in order to prevent this.
Early pioneers of the labor movement in India were Narayan Meghaji Lokhande and Lokmanya Tilak, who fought for laborers rights and played a vital role in establishing some of the early trade unions in India. As this was during the British rule, the government tried their usual tactic of divide and rule to prevent such formations. However, from 1905-1918, India saw the rise of a few trade unions.
After the first World War, a labor awakening spread across India, as there were big changes in the economic and industrial conditions coupled with national leaders who were more strongly pushing for greater labor rights and equality. A branch of the International Labor Organization was established and in 1920, the All India Trade Union Congress was formed. As more laborers began to understand their worth and the importance of their rights, a number of strikes for better treatment and wages occurred in the 20s, and as a result, the Indian Trade Union Act was passed giving the unions legitimate recognition.
As time went on, trade unions began to get formed along political lines spreading across numerous industries such as railways, textiles, mining, engineering etc. From being divided among socialist and communist lines throughout the mid twentieth century, the unions began to face different challenges post the economic liberalization in 1991. The government was generally less economically involved and promoting the free market and private sector, which posed major problems for the unions due to the shift in support to the big corporations, which still exists to date.
In spite of the various divisions among these unions, however, is an overlapping interaction between them especially when fighting for a united cause.