The History and Evolution of

Trade Unions

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A trade union is “a continuos association of wage-earners for the purpose

of maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment.”1 This

means that it is a group of workers who unite to gain more power and

leverage in bargaining. This bargaining can include many things from wages

to working conditions, promotions or fringe benefits. Unions usually elect a

leader to speak to management on their behalf. The idea of unions came

about in the late 1700’s. These early unions were called friendly societies or

social societies. They were very different than the unions we have today.

They focused on friendship and trust between the workers and the

management. The groups of workers and managers alike often met to drink,

talk, or play card games. One of the first recorded forms of a union was a

group called the “Friendly Society of Cotton Spinners, who in 1785 instructed

its members not to work below the ‘usual prices.’”2 As the gap between the

social classes of the workers and the management widened, their friendly

relationship also deteriorated rapidly. Now, unions in the form we see them

today began to develop. Management no longer associated with its workers.

The unions changed very quickly to fit the needs of workers during the

booming industrial revolution.

Today’s trade unions fight for most of the same causes that they have been

fighting for since the beginning. Although some unions have been criticized

most are reasonable. Trade unions have been, and will continue to be a key

part of our American capitalist system.

Smelser,Neil. Social Change in the Industrial Revolution. London: Routledge

& Kegan paul, 1959.

Smith,Page. The Rise of Industrial America. New York: McGraw-Hill Book

Company, 1984.

1Smelser, Social Change in the Industrial Revolution, p. 313.

2Ibid., p. 315.

By Andrew Martin Dierks

Word Count: 305