Early American Labor Unions
The “labor movement” is a term that describes group action taken to protect the rights of laborers, especially concerning better working conditions and wages. In the first few decades after the founding of the United States, early labor activity was taking place throughout the former colonies. In 1786, the first recorded American strike occurred in Philadelphia when printers halted their work in protest against their low wages. Through the country’s first century, laborers in all kinds of trades were involved in small-scale protests to better their working conditions, but it was when the first labor unions—organizations that speak on behalf of workers for fair wages and good working conditions—began to appear in the late 1800s that the labor movement gained momentum. Unions became an embodiment of democratic ideals, voicing the concerns of common workers amid the increasing production demands, inadequate salaries, and poor work environments of an industrializing nation.
The benefits and power of labor unions are best understood by looking at specific events in labor history. The Atlanta washerwomen’s strike in 1881 and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 show how labor unions helped workers change hazardous working conditions and raised people’s awareness of the problems facing many laborers.
In Atlanta in 1881, twenty black women who worked as washerwomen met to discuss setting a standard wage and gaining more control over their profession. They formed a union named the Washing Society and organized a strike, spreading the word by going door to door and inviting other washerwomen to join them. Within three weeks, they had organized three thousand strikers. The Washing Society’s group action could not be ignored, and city officials were eventually forced to acknowledge these women’s concerns. The union had successfully demanded recognition. Because so many Atlanta families depended on the services that these women provided, the strike encouraged this large population to think about the washerwomen’s situation. This group action was especially significant because it allowed black women to take part in a democratic system at a time when they were excluded from political participation because women were denied the right to vote.
Another important event in the history of the labor movement was the 1911 fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory that killed 146 of the 500 factory employees, mostly young women. On the upper floors of the ten-story building, women were trapped inside because of the owner’s policy of keeping the exits locked to prevent employees from losing work time by using the restroom. This disaster demonstrated the need for greater regulation of working conditions. The Women’s Trade Union League demanded an investigation, and soon the Factory Investigating Commission was founded, passing laws to promote safety in factories. Many other unions responded to the Triangle tragedy as well, organizing to petition for laws protecting the basic rights of laborers that were often overlooked by factory owners. At a time when much of the U.S. population was working in the manufacturing industry, and individual employees had little power to influence factory operations, unions were a means of communicating the wishes of the majority. Thus, common people could change the laws governing their daily lives— the goal of a democracy.
Opponents of the labor movement sometimes approach the issue of labor unions from the perspective of corporations and industries. [A] They say that unions are responsible for decreasing working hours and establishing safety laws, which increases costs for companies and inhibits their productivity. [B] The problem with this argument, however, is that it suggests that profit is more valuable than laborers’ well-being. [C] Workers are people with rights—a point of view that labor unions have endorsed throughout the history of the labor movement. [D] This belief has led unions to fight for the benefits that many modem working people take for granted, like eight-hour workdays, two-day weekends, laws against child labor, and minimum wages.
Because they provide people with a way of coordinating their efforts and defending : their common interests, labor unions perform a democratic function. As seen in the washerwomen’s strike and the Triangle fire, labor unions in the United States have given power to people who otherwise were denied : official representation and have responded to unjust situations by working for protective laws.
27. Which of the sentences below best expresses the essential information in the highlighted sentence in the passage? Incorrect choices change the meaning in important ways or leave out essential information.
(A) In the late 1800s, labor unions mainly focused on increasing pay rates and bettering work environments.
(B) Before labor unions, workers staged local protests to change their situations, but these protests were mostly ineffective.
(C) The labor unions that formed in the late 1800s were the first opportunity workers had to communicate their opinions.
(D) With the emergence of labor unions, laborers found a more powerful way to protest injustices they experienced in the workplace.
28. The word ideals in the passage is closest in meaning to
29. The word hazardous in the passage is closest in meaning to
30. According to paragraph 3, the Washing Society organized strikers by
(A) voting to set a standard minimum wage
(B) going from house to house to talk with people
(C) asking Atlanta families to hire more washerwomen
(D) discussing their labor union with city officials
Paragraph 3 is marked with an arrow [■♦j.
31 According to paragraph 3, what can be inferred about the general population’s attitude toward the washerwomen before the strike?
(A) People were not concerned about washerwomen’s low wages.
(B) People realized that washing work was very difficult.
(C) People thought washerwomen should be allowed to vote.
(D) People did not think the Washing Society labor union was fair.
Paragraph 3 is marked with an arrow [•*!.
32. In paragraph 4, why does the author mention the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory owner’s policy of locking the factory doors?
(A) To introduce the idea that factory owners used different methods to increase their companies’ productivity
(B) To support the idea that safety laws were needed to prevent future tragedies like the Triangle fire
(C) To give an example of the success labor unions had in changing working conditions in factories
(D) To provide an example of the steps factory owners took to protect their employees
Paragraph 4 is marked with an arrow [^¡.
33. According to paragraph 4, what can be inferred about factory safety before the founding of the Factory Investigating Commission?
(A) Employees were not aware of the dangers of working in a factory.
(B) There were few laws designed to protect factory employees.
(C) Most employers were concerned about keeping their employees safe.
(D) There were few workplace injuries among factory employees.
Paragraph 4 is marked with an arrow !■♦!.
34. The word endorsed in the passage is closest in meaning to
35. All of the following are mentioned in paragraph 5 as results of the labor movement EXCEPT
(A) a limited work week that provides employees with two-day weekends
(B) a minimum wage that guarantees employees will receive a certain amount of compensation
(C) economic growth that occurs on a national level and increases a country’s prosperity
(D) a fixed length for workdays so that people cannot be forced to work more than eight hours a day
Paragraph 5 is marked with an arrow (■*].
36. The word they in the passage refers to
37. The word coordinating in the passage is closest in meaning to
38. Look at the four squares m that indicate where the following sentence could be added to the passage.
This argument is valid because companies do have to make some concessions in order to protect their employees.
Where would the sentence best fit?
39. Directions: An introductory sentence for a brief summary of the passage is provided below. Complete the summary by selecting the THREE answer choices that express the most important ideas in the passage. Some sentences do not belong in the summary because they express ideas that are not presented in the passage or are minor ideas in the passage. This question is worth 2 points.
From the earliest days of the United States, workers have been organizing and staging group actions to improve their collective working conditions and benefits.
(A) The first and most successful strike in America took place among printers in Philadelphia who were demanding better wages.
(B) The Washing Society labor union conducted a strike in Atlanta and raised both the pay and the recognition of washerwomen.
(C) Workers were able to organize and improve the working conditions of washerwomen, but they could not prevent the deaths in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
(D) A fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and the subsequent pressure from labor unions led the government to pass laws ensuring the safety of workers.
(E) The labor movement rejects the idea that company profit is more important than workers’ rights and instead struggles to secure better benefits for laborers.
(F) American history is full of examples of labor unions that achieved significant results and made life better for workers.
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