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Trade Unions


Trade Union, association of workers established to improve their economic and social conditions. A trade union represents its members in determining wages and working conditions through the process of collective bargaining with the employer. When agreement cannot be reached, a union may conduct a strike against the employer. In many countries a union is the economic arm of a broad labor movement that may include a political party and a cooperative organization. In the United States and other nations where no such formal ties exist, unions themselves may engage in political activities, including lobbying for legislation and supporting political candidates favorable to labor. Many unions also provide employment services, insurance protection, and other benefits to members and their families.

Trade unions are of two principal types: craft unions composed of all those performing a specific kind of work, such as electricians, carpenters, or printers; and industrial unions comprising all those in a given industry, such as automobile workers or steelworkers. Unions also exist among government employees and for such professional occupations as nurses, engineers, and teachers. In some countries, large general workers' unions include all semiskilled and unskilled workers in one organization. In the U.S. most city, state, craft, and industrial unions are affiliated with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, or AFL-CIO.


Trade unions constitute the organized response of workers to the impact of industrialization. The first unions arose in Western Europe and the United States at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries as a reaction to the development of capitalism. As the factory system developed, great numbers of people left their rural homes to compete for the relatively few jobs available in urban centers. This labor surplus made the working classes increasingly dependent on their employers. To offset this dependency and to help workers gain a measure of control over their economic lives, the earliest unions were formed among skilled artisans. These groups encountered great opposition from employers and government and were considered illegal associations or conspiracies in the restraint of trade. During the 19th century many of these legal barriers to trade unionism were eliminated as a result of court decisions and favorable legislative action, but the early unions failed to survive the economic depressions of the first half of the 19th century.

In both democratic and nondemocratic European countries, workers' movements rejected the capitalist system and advocated various substitutes such as socialism, anarchism, syndicalism, and, after the Russian Revolution of 1917, communism. Ideologically motivated trade unions also formed in the United States in the 19th century, usually under the influence of European immigrants. These organizations, however, failed to take permanent root, largely because of the more open political system and the existence of the frontier as an alternative attraction for surplus labor. During the early 20th century, unionism extended to numerous semiskilled and unskilled workers in coal mines, on the docks, in the transportation industry, and in the factories in the U.S. and in many European nations.

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