What Was the Role of the Labor Unions During the Industrial Revolution?

By Staff WriterLast Updated Mar 25, 2020 12:24:53 PM ET

During the Industrial Revolution, labor unions played a critical role in empowering workers. Not only were they effective in helping improve factory conditions and pay rates, they offered workers an important entry point into the political sphere, where they came to embody a powerful constituency with demands and views that required representation. As stated by History-World.org., unions thus helped workers gain “the right to vote and expand their political power.”

In the late 18th and 19th century, the Industrial Revolution took root in Northern and Western Europe and then in the United States. As factories emerged as the dominant method of industrial production, increasing numbers of workers were forced to work in overcrowded and adverse circumstances. In these early decades, laws seldom governed the way in which industrialists treated their workers, so conditions were frequently dangerous, hours excruciatingly long and pay abysmally low. As more and more workers collectively studied their condition, they concluded that organization could help.

Unions demanded higher pay, safer practices and limited work-weeks. To give their demands teeth, workers threatened strikes and other actions that could hamper or even halt production altogether. Next, unions turned their attention to politics. As History-World states, “they campaigned for laws that would help them.” Among the most important was the right to vote, a privilege that had been reserved for societal elites.

Thus, unions were instrumental in widening the breath of democratic participation in the 19th and 20th centuries. As political parties sought union support, further divides in political ideologies became apparent, with labor usually identified as leftist. According to Australian National University, unions also encouraged developments in areas of political theory and philosophy during the period of the Industrial Revolution, particularly with Marxism and various schools of socialist thought.