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What institutions and/or organizations existed in the United States before the structured and recognizable labor unions formed as a visible sign of organizations to come? How did these predecessor organizations pave the way for powerful labor organizations as recognized in the twentieth century?

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The earliest form of unions were guilds which identified people who specialized in certain skills. These guilds would consist of masters, journeymen, and apprentices, each with different levels of experience. As cities became more urbanized, many industries found it more practical to hire unskilled labor and train them to have the necessary skills.

The earliest form of organized unions were called craft unions, and they consisted of workers within a specific industry who possessed critical skills. They found that by removing these critical workers they could make demands on their employers that would often be met in order to resume production. These generally did little to help unskilled workers, but they did establish a model upon which future unions would be built.

In the late 19th century, trade unions started popping up. These were very similar to craft unions in that they focused on workers with skills in a particular trade. Another form of union that began to appear was industrial unions, which organized workers without regard to trade.

Perhaps the earliest organized union to represent a mass of unskilled workers in the US was a group called the Knights of Labor (KOL). They were formed in Philadelphia in 1869 and grew to a million members by the end of the century. The KOL united workers without consideration of occupation, industry, race or gender.

All information taken from Labor Unions in the United States by Gerald Friedman, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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