Labor unions grew out of medieval trade guilds, which also gave rise to modern trade associations. Both unions and modern associations, or guilds, are industry specific, and they are similar in that they are both groups of workers who band together to advance common causes.

The Original Guilds

In the Middle Ages, during the rise of the first mercantile class, skilled workers began to organize themselves into trade groups called guilds. These guilds became specialized to particular occupations and made themselves responsible for educating young children about the job, in what evolved into the apprenticeship system. Apprentices worked for low pay or nothing, in exchange for learning the trade. Guilds existed to maintain standards of output, protect jobs for their members, and settle disputes with outsiders and between guildsmen.

Modern Unions

The modern labor union descends from those medieval guilds. Unions consist of groups of workers who unite for the purpose of collective action, for many of the same reasons that guilds did. Unions negotiate with the companies that hire their members to set wages, document conditions for firing, and determining rules about reserving work for union members. Union have elected officials, similar to guildmasters, and often run apprenticeship programs for those interested in trying out the work the union members do.

Other Trade Associations

A trade association is similar to a union. In fact, some are simply unions by another name, like the players' associations of professional sports. Some associations call themselves guilds, like the Writers Guild of America, which is called a guild but also describes itself as a labor union for writers. Trade associations sometimes refer to associations of producers, rather than workers, such as the National Paper Trade Association.

Unions and Guilds

Unions first became a significant presence in the United States in the 19th century during the Industrial Revolution, but their roots lie in the trade guilds of earlier ages. Unions and guilds are both specific to particular trades, especially skilled trades, and both try to protect their members in terms of job security, but guilds and associations sometimes include all players in an industry, while unions are generally restricted to the workers only.