Unions have received a lot of negative press in the United States as of late. Some are calling for their complete removal, especially in terms of public employees. Over the course of the last 100 years, however, unions have also be instrumental in the improvement of worker safety, better worker pay, and even better benefits so that everyone can have a successful employment experience. Although union leaders like Jimmy Hoffa tend to come to mind at first, these famous union leaders helped to make the modern work environment safer.
1. Samuel Gompers
Gompers helped to create American Federated Labor in the 1880′s. He led the union for all but one year afterward until he passed away in 1924. The methods used to solve labor disputes originated from his creativity and he helped to define the purpose of what the labor movement in the US should be about. Gompers believed in three basic things: better wages for workers, improved working conditions, and the elimination of unfair treatment. He called it “simple unionism.”
2. John Lewis
In 1935, John Lewis helped to form a Committee for Industrial Organization within the AFL, turning the union into the AFL-CIO that is recognized still today. He worked to expand the unionization movement by helped to organize workers that he called “unorganized.” While serving with the AFL, he also became the head of the United Mine Workers. While unions were bringing together workers with similar skills, Lewis believed that any worker within the same industry deserved the chance to organize.
3. Walter Reuther
Walter Reuther knew how to make tools that could cut metal. He joined the United Automobile Workers union when it first formed and was later the President of the union for 23 years. Reuther was rather aggressive in his tactics and became the first to make productivity increases become linked with pay increases. He was willing to strike to have demands met, but expected workers to work harder to earn more money. His ideas were recognized around the world, but they also brought 3 assassination attempts his way.
4. Philip Randolph
Randolph is one of the few union leaders who didn’t grow up in a family of laborers. His father was a minister and he was college educated. At one point he was even the publisher of a socialist magazine. What made his contributions noteworthy, however, was that he brought an emphasis of fusing civil rights with worker rights. He fought the Pullman Company and was part of the first labor agreement for an African American union.
5. Cesar Chavez
Cesar Chavez was responsible for starting the first farmer’s union. He only had 8 total years of formal schooling, but he read a lot and was self-educated in a number of ways. Chavez was greatly influenced by the methods of Gandhi to create change and so he led workers on marchers to get better pay. Union workers under Chavez walked thousands of miles while carrying a simple phrase: long live our cause.