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A labor union is an organization formed by a group of workers with similar jobs in order to protect and advance the rights, benefits, wages, and working conditions of the members. In the United States (US) in the late 1800s, craftsmen guilds began to form. During this time, it was not uncommon for workers to be required to put in 12 to 14 hour shifts each day under poor and unsafe working conditions. Child labor was also common. Many protests were attempted, but the laws of the day favored the few wealthy industrialists and the protests were put down in different manners, including military action.
The craftsmen guilds attempted to provide a balance between the common worker and the power of the wealthy industrialists; this move was the precursor to the organization of modern labor unions. Craftsmen guilds sought to ensure the quality of produced goods and services by ensuring that unskilled workers were not hired to produce the goods or provide the services. Through the years, these local associations began to expand and unite, forming larger and more persuasive bodies. The focus of the unions shifted slightly, and local labor union workers rallied for new and better conditions, rights, and benefits.
In 1914, the turning point for modern labor unions came during a mounting surge in public outrage; the US federal government then passed a law called the Clayton Act, stating that "the labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce." This step of legally defining labor paved the way for the modern unions. Further victories by the local labor union movement include the passage of the Wagner Act and the Social Security Act in 1935, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
With the passage of such supportive bills, the local labor union began to expand. One of the first modern labor unions, the United Steel Workers began organizing as an international organization across the US and Canada, having amassed more than 700,000 members in the first six years of organizing. In many countries in Europe and across the world, labor unions have further organized into political parties. Modern local labor unions often exist and operate as an arm of a national or international organization.
Local labor union and other union membership began to climb worldwide. In the 1950s, 36 percent of workers in the US were union members. By comparison, worldwide union membership numbers included: 95 percent in Denmark and Sweden, 85 percent in Finland, 60 percent in Norway and Austria, 50 percent in Australia, and 40 percent in West Germany and Italy. Since World War II, union membership has continued to decline steadily, especially in the private sector. Membership numbers in 1990 show decline in public sector membership of 42 percent in the US, 15 percent in Italy, 14 percent in the UK, 9 percent in Austria, 7 percent in Switzerland, 6 percent in West Germany, 3 percent in Norway, and 2 percent in Canada.
Some argue that union membership reached its peak in part because of violent, threatening organization tactics. A US Senate committee appointed to investigate union activity exposed collusion, extortion, use of violence in organization and dispute settlement, and misuse of funds. Because of the findings of the McClellan Committee, the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959 was passed in an effort to correct the abuses in labor-management relations. Investigation and subsequent laws to discourage those tactics may have led to the decline of labor union membership in the US.