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Exhibition Join In: Voluntary Assocations in America

Uniting at Work

Americans began uniting to improve their working lives in the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries. In the decades before the Civil War, organizations emerged from efforts to raise levels of professional quality, standards, and practices on the one hand; and to protect and improve wages and working conditions on the other. Professional associations distributed information and educational opportunities among their members. They also sought to enhance their business prospects by conferring and controlling the prestige of membership. The trade union movement gained momentum as industrialization transformed the lives of working people in domains such as manufacturing and mining. Although relentless and sometimes violent opposition from employers dogged their victories with repeated defeats, unions and their influence continued to grow until their heyday in the decades after World War II, when their presence across huge sectors of the economy secured the establishment of a prosperous middle class. The collective actions of both types of workplace associations helped obtain security, well-being, and a united sense of duty for vast numbers of Americans.