This exhibition looks at a history that is perhaps longer than most people realize. Since the organized labor movement began, Virginia workers have seen major improvements in their conditions and pay. Unions were not the only reason for these gains, but they played an essential part as the most direct advocates for workers. The workplace in Virginia today reflects the benefits of more than a century of negotiation and struggle. This exhibition was on display at the VHS September 6–December 30, 2010.
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In the 1600s many settlers arrived in Virginia from Europe under contract as indentured servants, obligated to work for their sponsor for a set period of years to pay off their passage. Such indentures contained an ending date, which made them different from slavery—a labor system of unending involuntary servitude.
The 1880s in Virginia saw big growth in industry, but most workers experienced little improvement. Given the competitive politics of the period, the conditions were opportune for organizing labor unions. In 1884, locally formed unions began to affiliate with the first national union, the Knights of Labor. Membership grew rapidly after Knights leader Terence Powderly visited Richmond in January 1885.
After the decline of the Knights of Labor, a new model for labor organization arose. In the Knights, local assemblies were built from local craft unions like the typographers and the coopers. In the new model, local craft unions joined with similar unions from other places to form a larger union. The big craft unions joined together at the national level in 1890 and formed the American Federation of Labor (AFL).
For thousands of Virginians in the early twentieth century, union activities were a part of their daily lives. Local unions held monthly and sometimes weekly meetings. Big gatherings and parades took place on Labor Day, and the Virginia Federation of Labor held an annual convention.
The Progressive Movement of the early twentieth century sought to correct the less happy consequences of industrialization. Published exposés and organized campaigns helped push governmental oversight, even in Virginia, into areas previously unregulated.
The craft union and the industrial union are organized in different ways. The craft union brings together people with the same skill, like carpenters, who work for different companies. The industrial union brings the employees of a plant together in one unit that represents all the individual crafts and includes unskilled workers.
The "closed" versus "open" shop has always been an important issue for labor. In a closed shop, all employees must join the union. In an open shop employees are not required to join. Unions often view nonmembers as benefiting from collective bargaining. The open shop makes union organizing more difficult. "Right to work" describes state laws that require open shops.
This exhibition was made possible by Geoff McDonald & Associates and the Virginia AFL-CIO. Additional support for the exhibition was provided by Injured Workers Pharmacy, International Association of Machinist & Aerospace Workers, Teamsters Joint Council No. 83, Michie Hamlett Lowry Rasmussen & Tweel, PLLC, and International Brotherhood of Teamsters.