I've seen people say this a lot. Why? Why were they useful then? What makes them not useful now (since they were useful "then")? Being younger, I don't understand what people mean when they say this. I'm not debating your viewpoint or being sarcastic. I really want to know. Thanks.
During the industrial revolution Unions forced employers into making the work enviroment safe and set some standards for pay and work hours. Since then, the goverment has taken over that roll with OSHA and labor laws. The unions now simly threaten to shut down a company unless the keep the outlandish wages and benefits.
Google this: history of unions in the US
The wiki hit is as good a place to start as any.
Good question, during the later part of the 19th and earlier part of the 20th centuries workers in basic industries were not treated as they are today. The federal government had not gotten involved with health and safety nor wage/hour regulations and in some industries like coal mining and steel making working conditions were primitive at best.
Some activities like mining took place in remote areas but still required large labor forces. Because the labor force needed to be in close proximity to the job site, company towns were created with company built rental "housing" and which usually included a company store (a "general" store which sold food as well as a variety of things one might need to set up and maintain a home). The store usually operated as a post office and bank. Since workers pay was low they would buy on credit at the store which carried their debt against future earnings.
As you may well imagine this arrangement led to abuse where workers were working 12 hour shifts with very little left over for food after paying down previous indebtedness. (rather like what's happening today?)
If you consider the conditions, working far removed from other potential employers, dangerous conditions, low pay, and spiraling debt one can understand why workers would be "dissatisfied". In the early 20th century workers dissatisfaction had reached a point where changes were inevitable. Some industries were shutdown by wildcat strikes and walkouts. Mine/mill owners responded by hiring "Pinkerton" detectives by the hundreds and set about to break the strikes and punish the organizers. This activity went on for some time as the two sides fought an undeclared but bloody war. The federal government got involved, siding with the owners against the workers and sent in troops in some cases.
As time wore on public sentiment began to swing towards support of the workers (there but for the grace of God...), the federal government passed legislation allowing the formation of labor unions and set up the national labor relations board as an "impartial" arbiter. Eventually, unions were established (after a bumpy start). Local unions merged in to larger and larger configurations until they were international in scope. Meanwhile industry itself was changing from single proprietorship to corporations with ownership distributed over the population at large and a hired management structure. In many cases the union organization "protecting" workers in an industry were as large or larger then the individual employer they were dealing with. This resulted from the federal government granting unions immunity from the legislation banning monopolies.
As the unions grew in size they became employers in their own right. To maintain themselves they charged dues to the workers they represented. They realized that to gather and continue to hold power vis-à-vis the industrial conglomerates, service industries, &c. they would have to achieve and maintain a strong relationship with the federal government. To do this they hired lobbyists much like the industrial management people who were their counterparts.
More time passed and we find the federal government, captains of industry, and union bosses all sitting around a big table, having a friendly dinner with brandy and cigars to follow. Meanwhile the average unionized worker is still shoveling a good portion of his income into an organization which has outlived its usefulness by at least 100 years. The abysmal conditions which sparked the formation of unions in the first place not longer exist and most probably haven't since the second world war.
The problems that unions vociferously objected to came to the attention of the public at large as well as the federal government (somewhat the same thing). Americans generally do not favor people who lie, steal, or take advantage of the less powerful and as partial owners of industry made their views known. Industrial management people came to realize that satisfied, healthy workers generate more profit then the injured or disgruntled. So corporate cultured changed to include workers in the decision making process and some even featured profit sharing.
Even so public and private unions have driven the cost of labor (wages and benefits) to a the point of non competitiveness in a global market. Their massive "war chests" are focused on lobbying to maintain the status quo which is ironic since almost all of their cash goes to the "progressive" party. Their attitude of "solidarity forever" is philosophically drawn from hard core Marxism and is reflected in the thought that each working member is interchangeable, whereas free market capitalism holds that superior talents deserve superior reward.
Unions have devolved from guardian of the worker's welfare to the fund raising arm of the democrat party.