The Labor Union Movement in America
The roots of our country's trade
unions extend deep into the early history of America.
Several of the Pilgrims arriving at Plymouth Rock in
1620 were working craftsmen. Captain John Smith, who
led the ill-fated settlement in 1607 on Virginia's
James River, pleaded with his sponsors in London to
send him more craftsmen and working people.
Primitive unions, or guilds, of carpenters and cordwainers, cabinet makers and cobblers made their appearance, often temporary, in various cities along the Atlantic seaboard of colonial America. Workers played a significant role in the struggle for independence; carpenters disguised as Mohawk Indians were the "host" group at the Boston Tea Party in 1773.
The Continental Congress met in Carpenters Hall in Philadelphia, and there the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. In "pursuit of happiness" through shorter hours and higher pay, printers were the first to go on strike, in New York in 1794; cabinet makers struck in 1796; carpenters in Philadelphia in 1797; cordwainers in 1799. In the early years of the 19th century, recorded efforts by unions to improve the workers' conditions, through either negotiation or strike action, became more frequent.
By the 1820s, various unions involved in the effort to reduce the working day from 12 to 10 hours began to show interest in the idea of federation-of joining together in pursuit of common objectives for working people.
As ineffective as these first
efforts to organize may have been, they reflected the
need of working people for economic and legal
protection from exploiting employers. The invention of
the steam engine and the growing use of water power to
operate machinery were developing a trend toward a
factory system not much different from that in England
which produced misery and slums for decades. Starting
in the 1830s and accelerating rapidly during the Civil
War, the factory system accounted for an ever-growing
share of American production. It also produced great
wealth for a few, grinding poverty for many.
With workers recognizing the power of their employers, the number of local union organizations increased steadily during the mid-19th century. In a number of cities, unions in various trades joined together in citywide federations.
The Nation Labor Union, (actually a federation- an organization of local unions) formed in 1866. The NLU eventually persuaded Congress to pass an eight hour day for Federal workers. Never very strong, it was a casualty of the sweeping economic depression of 1873.
Five years later, the Knights of
Labor captured the public imagination.
Formed in 1869 by Uriah Stephens
and expanded rapidly under the leadership of
Terrance Powdery, the Knights
were an all-embracing organization committed to a
cooperative society. Membership was open to all
workers, whether they be skilled or unskilled,
black or white, male or female.
The Knights achieved a membership of nearly 750,000 during the next few years, but the skilled and unskilled workers who had joined the Knights in hope of improvement in their hours and wages found themselves fragmented by the rift between skilled and unskilled workers. Skilled workers tired of labor activity on the part of unskilled workers who were easily replaced.
The Knights, an effective labor force, declined after the Haymarket Square riots. In the riot members of the Knights of Labor where accused of throwing a bomb which killed police officers. The Knights, already fragmented, where faced with enormous negative publicity, and eventually disbanded.
The American Federation of Labor was
founded by Samuel Gompers in 1886. Gompers, born in
1850, came as a boy with his parents to America from
the Jewish slums of London; he entered the cigar-making
trade and received much of his education as a "reader"
(a worker who read books, newspaper stories, poetry and
magazine articles to fellow employees to help break the
monotony of their work in the shop) and became a leader
of his local union and of the national Cigar Makers
A statement by the founders of the AFL expressed their belief in the need for more effective union organization. "The various trades have been affected by the introduction of machinery, the subdivision of labor, the use of women's and children's labor and the lack of an apprentice system-so that the skilled trades were rapidly sinking to the level of pauper labor," the AFL declared. "To protect the skilled labor of America from being reduced to beggary and to sustain the standard of American workmanship and skill, the trades unions of America have been established." Thus the AFL was a federation that organized only unions of skilled workers.
The Pullman Strike of 1894
At the Pullman plant near Chicago,
the American Railroad Union (not affiliated with the
AFL and led by Eugene V. Debs, a leading American
socialist) struck the company's manufacturing plant and
called for a boycott of the handling of Pullman's
sleeping and parlor cars on the nation's railroads.
Within a week, 125,000 railroad workers were engaged in
a sympathy protest strike. The government swore in
3,400 special deputies; later, at the request of the
railroad association, President Cleveland moved in
federal troops to break the strike-despite a plea by
Gov. Aitgeld of Illinois that their presence was
unnecessary. Finally a sweeping federal court
injunction forced an end to the sympathy strike, and
many railroad workers were blacklisted. The Pullman
strikers were essentially starved into submissive
The strike illustrated the increasing tendency of the government to offer moral support and military force to break strikes. The injunction, issued usually and almost automatically by compliant judges on the request of government officials or corporations, became a prime legal weapon against union organizing and action.
A better method of federal
intervention occurred during a 1902 strike of
anthracite coal miners, under the banner of the United
Mine Workers. More than 100,000 miners in northeastern
Pennsylvania called a strike on May 12, and kept the
mines closed all that summer. When the mine owners
refused a UMW proposal for arbitration, President
Theodore Roosevelt intervened on Oct. 3, and on Oct. 16
appointed a commission of mediation and arbitration.
Five days later the miners returned to their jobs, and
five months later the Presidential Commission awarded
them a 10 percent wage increase and shorter work
days-but not the formal union recognition they had
In 1911 a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. on New York's lower east side. About 150 employees almost all of them young women-perished when the fire swept through the upper floors of the loft building in which they worked. Many burned to death; others jumped and died. Why so large a casualty list? The safety exits on the burning floors had been securely locked, allegedly to prevent "loss of goods." New York and the country were aroused by the tragedy. A state factory investigation committee headed by Frances Perkins (she was to become Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of labor in 1933, the first woman cabinet member in history) paved the way for many long needed reforms in industrial safety and fire prevention measures.
Another of the historic industrial conflicts prior to World War I occurred in 1912 in the textile mills of Lawrence, Mass. It was led not by an AFL union but by the radical Industrial Workers of the World-the IWW, or the Wobblies, as they were generally known -an organization in frequent verbal and physical conflict with the AFL and its affiliates. The strike in Lawrence started when the mill owners, responding to a state legislature action reducing the work week from 54 to 52, coldly and without prior notice cut the pay rates by a 31/2 percent. The move produced predictable results: a strike of 50,000 textile workers; arrests; fiery statements by the IWW leaders; police and militia attacks on peaceful meetings; and broad public support for the strikers. Some 400 children of strikers were "adopted" by sympathizers. When women strikers and their children were attacked at the railroad station by the police after authorities had decided no more youngsters could leave town, an enraged public protest finally forced the mill owners not only to restore the pay cuts but to increase the workers' wages to more realistic levels.
Congress, at the urging of the AFL, created the U.S. Department of Labor with a legislative mandate to protect and extend the rights of wage earners. A Children's Bureau, with a major concern to protect the victims of job exploitation, was created. The LaFollette Seaman's Act required urgently needed improvements in the working conditions on ships of the U.S. merchant marine. Of crucial importance, the Clayton Act of 1914 made explicit the legal concept that "the labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce" and hence not subject to the Sherman Act provisions which had been the legal basis for injunctions against union organization. Clayton legalized strikes and boycotts and peaceful picketing, and dramatically limited the use of injunctions in labor disputes. Little wonder that AFL President Gompers hailed the Clayton Act as a "magna carta."
The "Roaring Twenties," nostalgically depicted in some movies and musical comedies as an era of unbounded prosperity and champagne-induced gaiety, fell a good deal short of those marks for most American working people. Throughout the decade, unemployment rose, quietly, almost anonymously. It was a time of considerable hardship for many of the unemployed, long before the days of unemployment insurance or supplementary benefits.
The post world war I depression brought wages down sharply and caused major erosion of union membership-a loss of about a million members in the years from 1920 to 1923. The difficulties were multiplied by the decision of the National Association of Manufacturers and other antiunion "open shop" groups to wipe out or seriously diminish the status of American , can unions. The fear of "Bolsheviks," often hysterical, that was nurtured by the Russian communist revolution was used gleefully by the antiunion forces. As early as 1913, President John Kirby of the NAM had decided the trade union movement was "an un-American, illegal and infamous conspiracy." As the Senate Civil Liberties Committee, headed by Sen. Robert LaFollette Jr., reported years later, such demands as "union recognition, shorter hours, higher wages, regulation of child labor and the hours and wages of women and children in industry" came to be seen-under the influence of the NAM-sponsored 'American Plan' -as aspects of the alleged communist revolution from which the anti-labor employers wanted to save the nation. Strikebreaking, blacklisting and vigilanteeism became, for a time, acceptable aspects of this new and spurious brand of patriotism. The "yellow dog contract," which workers had to sign in order to get a job, bound them never to join a union; at the same time, the corporations promoted employee representation plans or company unions-pale and generally useless imitations of the real thing.
In November 1935, John L. Lewis
announced the creation of the CIO, the Committee for
Industrial Organization, composed of about a dozen
leaders of AFL unions, to carry on the effort for
industrial unionism. Industrial Unions are unions that
organize an entire industry regardless of skill. In
short they where unions of unskilled workers. Lewis,
born in Iowa in 1880 of Welsh immigrant parents, went
to work in the coal mines and became president of the
Mine Workers in 1920. An orator of remarkable
virtuosity, Lewis voiced increasingly bitter attacks on
his colleagues on the AFL Executive Council; his words
helped speed the break. In 1936, the various CIO unions
were expelled from the Federation. In 1938 the CIO held
its first constitutional convention and became the
Congress of Industrial Organizations.
In any event, the CIO began a remarkably successful series of organizing campaigns, and over the next few years, brought industrial unionism to large sectors of basic American industry. At the same time the unions remaining in the AFL registered even more substantial gains in membership. During World War 11, the AFL and CIO, while preserving areas of disagreement, began to find more substantial bases for working together on problems affecting all workers. In time many of the old antagonisms had died out and the old issues had been resolved. The stage was set for merger of the two labor groups.
They were reunited into the AFL-CIO at a convention in New York opening on Dec. 5, 1955.
The AFL-CIO merger and its accompanying agreements brought about the virtual elimination of jurisdictional disputes between unions that had plagued the labor movement and alienated public sympathy in earlier years. The unions placed a new priority on organizing workers in areas, industries and plants where no effective system of labor representation yet existed. In many cases, it meant crossing the barriers of old thinking and tired methods to reach the employees of companies which for years had resisted unions.
For the past forty years there has
been a steady decline in both union membership and
influence. There are several reasons for such a
decline, the first having to do with employers keeping
their businesses union-free. Some were active in their
opposition and even hired consultants to devise legal
strategies to combat unions. Other employers put
workers on the management team by appointing them to
the board of directors or establishing profit-sharing
plans to reward employees. The second reason for union
decline is that new additions to the labor force have
traditionally had little loyalty to organized labor.
Because more and more women and teenagers are working
and their incomes tend to be a family's second income,
they have a proclivity towards accepting lower wages,
thus defeating the purpose of organized labor. The
third and possibly the most important reason for the
decline in unions is that they are victims of their own
success. Unions raised their wages substantially above
the wages paid to nonunion workers. Therefore, many
union-made products have become so expensive that sales
were lost to less expensive foreign competitors and
nonunion producers. This resulted in companies having
to cut back on production, which caused some workers to
lose their jobs, and hence, unions some of their
members. Also, the recent shift in this country towards
technology and service has made our economy less
reliant in the types of industrial jobs that tended to
be union strongholds.
Today's worker tends to more highly educated and tends to the professional, white collar class. All of these have conspired to decrease union membership.