Labor history of the United States involves the history of organized labor, as well as the more general history of working people in the United States of America. Pressures dictating the nature and power of organized labor have included the evolution and power of the corporation, efforts by employers and private agencies to limit or control unions, and U.S. labor law. As a response, organized unions and labor federations have competed, evolved, merged, and split against a backdrop of changing social philosophies and periodic federal intervention.
The history of organized labor has been a specialty of scholars since the 1890s, and has produced a large scholarly literature. In the 1960s, as social history gained popularity, a new emphasis emerged on the history of all workers, with special regard to gender and race. This is called "the new labor history". Much scholarship has attempted to bring the social history perspectives into the study of organized labor.
Their big strikes failed and they collapsed in the wake of the Haymarket tragedy of 1886, where an unidentified person in a crowd threw a bomb into a crowd of police men. The city and police department used the incident as an excuse to repress the labor movement and arrest 8 influential anarchist labor leaders. The police and city admitted that there was no evidence connecting the anarchist labor leaders to the bombing, but Judge Joseph Gary allowed them to be convicted on the theory that their speeches had encouraged the unknown bomber to commit the act. The trial has been characterized as one of the most serious miscarriages of justice in United States history. Most working people believed Pinkerton agents had provoked the incident.
The rally began peacefully under a light rain on the evening of May 4. August Spies spoke to the large crowd while standing in an open wagon on Des Plaines Street. According to many witnesses, Spies said he was not there to incite anyone. Meanwhile a large number of on-duty police officers watched from nearby. The crowd was so calm that Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr., who had stopped by to watch, walked home early. Some time later the police ordered the rally to disperse and began marching in formation towards the speakers' wagon. A bomb was thrown at the police line and exploded, killing policeman Mathias J. Degan. The police immediately opened fire. While several police officers aside from Degan appear to have also been injured by the bomb, most of the police casualties seem to have been caused by bullets. About sixty officers were wounded in the riot along with an unknown number of civilians. In all, seven policemen and at least four workers were killed. However, it is unclear how many workers were wounded since the injured were afraid to seek medical attention, fearing punishment for their part in the riot.
During the major economic downturn of the early 1890s, the Pullman Palace Car Company cut wages. A delegation of workers complained that the corporation that operated the town of Pullman did not decrease rents, but Pullman "loftily declined to talk with them. Discontented workers joined the American Railway Union (ARU), led by Eugene V. Debs, which supported their strike by launching a boycott of all Pullman cars. The strike effectively shut down production in the Pullman factories and led to a lockout. Railroad workers across the nation refused to switch Pullman cars (and subsequently Wagner Palace cars) onto trains. The ARU declared that if switchmen were disciplined for the boycott, the entire ARU would strike in sympathy. The boycott was launched on June 26, 1894. Within four days, 125,000 workers on twenty-nine railroads had quit work rather than handle Pullman cars.
On July 5, in an act of arson that may or may not have been related to the strike, the buildings of the World's Columbian Exposition around the Court of Honor were torched. Buildings caught in the blaze included the administration hall, the manufacturer's hall, the electricity hall, the machinery hall, the mining hall, the agricultural hall, and the fair's train station. This increased national attention to the matter and fueled the demand for federal action.
The railroads were able to get Edwin Walker, general counsel for the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway, appointed as a special federal attorney with responsibility for dealing with the strike. Walker obtained an injunction barring union leaders from supporting the boycott in any way. The court injunction was based on the Sherman Anti-Trust Act which prohibited "Every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States". Debs and other leaders of the ARU ignored the injunction, and federal troops were called into action.
The strike was broken up by United States Marshals and some 2,000 United States Army troops, commanded by Nelson Miles, sent in by President Grover Cleveland on the premise that the strike interfered with the delivery of U.S. Mail. During the course of the strike, 13 strikers were killed and 57 were wounded. An estimated 6,000 rail workers did $340,000 worth of property damage.
The Federation made some efforts to obtain favorable legislation, but had little success in organizing or chartering new unions. It came out in support of the proposal, traditionally attributed to Peter J. McGuire of the Carpenters Union, for a national Labor Day holiday on the first Monday in September, and threw itself behind the eight hour movement, which sought to limit the workday by either legislation or union organizing.
In 1886, as the relations between the trade union movement and the Knights of Labor worsened, McGuire and other union leaders called for a convention to be held at Columbus, Ohio on December 8th. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions merged with the new organization, known as the American Federation of Labor or AFL, formed at that convention.
The AFL was formed in large part because of the dissatisfaction of many trade union leaders with the Knights of Labor, an organization that contained many trade unions and which had played a leading role in some of the largest strikes of the era. The new AFL distinguished itself from the Knights by emphasizing the autonomy of each trade union affiliated with it and limiting membership to workers and organizations made up of workers, unlike the Knights.
The AFL grew steadily in the late nineteenth century while the Knights disappeared. Although Gompers at first advocated something like industrial unionism, he retreated from that in the face of opposition from the craft unions that made up most of the AFL. The emphasis made for much stronger locals with which the workers could identify, and derived benefits in terms of insurance, fellowship, and bargaining power.
The unions of the AFL were composed primarily of skilled workers; unskilled workers, African-Americans, and women were generally excluded. The AFL saw women as threatening the jobs of men, since they often worked for lower wages. The AFL provided little to no support to women's attempts to unionize and affiliate themselves with the parent union.
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), whose members became known as "Wobblies", was founded in 1905 by a group of about 30 labor radicals. Among their most prominent leaders was William “Big Bill” Haywood. The IWW organized along the lines of industrial unionism rather than craft unionism; in fact, they went even further, pursuing the goal of "One Big Union" and the abolition of the wage system. Many, though probably not all, Wobblies favored anarcho-syndicalism. Much of the IWW’s organizing took place in the West, and most of its early members were miners, lumbermen, cannery, and dock workers. In 1912 the IWW organized a strike of more than twenty thousand textile workers, and by 1917 the Agricultural Worker's Organization (AWO) of the IWW claimed a hundred thousand itinerant farm workers in the heartland of North America. Eventually the concept of One Big Union spread from dock workers to maritime workers, and thus was communicated to many different parts of the world. Dedicated to workplace and economic democracy, the IWW allowed men and women as members, and organized workers of all races and nationalities. At its peak it had 150,000 members, but it was fiercely repressed during, and especially after, World War I with many of its members killed, about 10,000 organisers imprisoned, and thousands more deported as foreign agitators. The IWW proved that unskilled workers could be organized and gave unskilled workers a sense of dignity and self-worth. The IWW exists today with about 2,000 members, but its most significant impact was during its first two decades of existence.
The party was factionalized. The conservatives, led by Victor Berger of Milwaukee who promoted progressive causes of efficiency and an end to corruption. The radicals wanted to overthrow capitalism, tried to infiltrate labor unions, and sought to cooperate with the IWW. With few exceptions the party had weak or nonexistent links to local labor unions. Immigration was an issue--the radicals saw immigrants as fodder for the war with capitalism, while conservatives complained the immigrants lowered wage rates and absorbed too many city resources.
Many of these issues were heatedly debated at the First National Congress of the Socialist Party in 1910, and the national convention in Indianapolis in 1912. At the latter the radicals won an early test by seating Bill Haywood on the Executive Committee, by sending encouragement to western "Wobblies," and by a resolution seeming to favor industrial unionism. The conservatives counterattacked by amending the party constitution to expel any socialists who favored industrial sabotage or syndicalism (that is, the IWW), and who refused to participate in American elections. They adopted a conservative platform calling for cooperative organization of prisons, a national bureau of health, abolition of the Senate and the presidential veto, and a long list of progressive reforms that the Democratic party was known for. Debs did not attend--he saw his mission as keeping the disparate units together in the hope that someday a common goal would be found.
There was little money--his campaign cost only $66,000, mostly for 3.5 million leaflets and travel to rallies organized by local groups. Debs criss-crossed the country, His biggest event was a speech to 15,000 in New York City. The crowd sang the "Marseillaise," and "International" as Emil Seidel, the vice-presidential candidate, boasted, "Only a year ago workingmen were throwing decayed vegetables and rotten eggs at us but now all is changed....Eggs are too high. There is a great giant growing up in this country that will someday take over the affairs of this nation. He is a little giant now but he is growing fast. The name of this little giant is socialism." Debs said that only the socialists represented labor; he condemned "Injunction Bill Taft"; ridiculed Roosevelt as "a charlatan, mountebank, and fraud, and his Progressive promises and pledges as the mouthings of a low and utterly unprincipled self seeker and demagogue." Debs insisted that the Democrats, Progressives and Republicans alike were financed by the trusts. Party newspapers spread the word--there were five English-language and eight foreign language dailies along with 262 English and 36 foreign language weeklies. Debs won 900,000 votes, about 6% of the total cast. The great majority of labor union members voted, as always, for one of the major parties.
State legislation 1912-1918: 36 states adopted the principle of workmen's compensation for all industrial accidents. Also: prohibition of the use of an industrial poison, several states require one day's rest in seven, the beginning of effective prohibition of night work, of maximum limits upon the length of the working day, and of minimum wage laws for women.
The Great Railroad Strike of 1922, a nationwide railroad shop workers strike began on July 1. The immediate cause of the strike was the Railroad Labor Board's announcement that hourly wages would be cut by seven cents on July 1, which prompted a shop workers vote on whether or not to strike. The operators' union did not join in the strike, and the railroads employed strikebreakers to fill three-fourths of the roughly 400,000 vacated positions, increasing hostilities between the railroads and the striking workers. On September 1 a federal judge issued a sweeping injunction against striking, assembling, picketing, etc. colloquially known as the "Daugherty Injunction."
Unions bitterly resented the injunction; a few sympathy strikes shut down some railroads completely. The strike eventually died out as many shopmen made deals with the railroads on the local level. The often unpalatable concessions — coupled with memories of the violence and tension during the strike — soured relations between the railroads and the shopmen for years.
Lewis threw his support behind FDR at the outset of the New Deal. After the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935 Lewis traded on the tremendous appeal that Roosevelt had with workers in those days, sending organizers into the coal fields to tell workers that "The President wants you to join the Union." His UMW was one of FDR's main financial supporters in 1936, contributing over $500,000.
Lewis expanded his base by organizing the so-called "captive mines," those held by the steel producers such as U.S. Steel. That required in turn organizing the steel industry, which had defeated union organizing drives in 1892 and 1919 and which had resisted all organizing efforts since then fiercely. The task of organizing steelworkers, on the other hand, put Lewis at odds with the AFL, which looked down on both industrial workers and the industrial unions that represented all workers in a particular industry, rather than just those in a particular skilled trade or craft.
This dispute came to a head at the AFL’s convention in 1935. Lewis called together leaders of seven other unions within the AFL to form a group known as the Committee for Industrial Organizing to push the AFL to change its policy opposing industrial organizing. William Green, now President of the AFL, treated this group as an enemy within the AFL. Anatagonism escalated until the CIO, now calling itself the Congress of Industrial Organizations, formally established itself as a rival union federation in 1938, with Lewis as its first president. Lewis, in fact, was the CIO: his UMWA provided the great bulk of the financial resources that the CIO poured into organizing drives by the United Automobile Workers (UAW), the USWA, the Textile Workers Union and other newly formed or struggling unions. Lewis hired back many of the people he had exiled from the UMWA in the 1920s to lead the CIO and placed his protégé Philip Murray at the head of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. Lewis played the leading role in the negotiations that led to the successful conclusion of the Flint sit-down strike conducted by the UAW in 1936-1937 and in the Chrysler sit-down strike that followed.
The CIO's actual membership (as opposed to publicity figures) was 2,850,000 for February 1942. This included 537,000 members of the UAW, just under 500,000 Steel Workers, almost 300,000 members of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, about 180,000 Electrical Workers, and about 100,000 Rubber Workers. The CIO also included 550,000 members of the United Mine Workers, which did not formally withdraw from the CIO until later in the year. The remaining membership of 700,000 was scattered among thirty-odd smaller unions. (Galenson, p. 585)
The Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 revised the Wagner Act to include restrictions on unions as well as management. It was a response to public demands for action after the wartime coal strikes and the postwar strikes in steel, autos and other industries were perceived to have damaged the economy, not to mention a threatened 1946 rail strike that would have shut down the national economy. It was bitterly fought by unions, vetoed by President Harry S. Truman, and passed over his veto. Repeated union efforts to repeal or modify it always failed.
The Act, officially known as the Labor-Management Relations Act, was sponsored by Senator Robert Taft and Representative Fred Hartley. President Truman described the act as a "slave-labor bill" in his veto, but he did use it. Congress overrode the veto on June 23, 1947, establishing the act as a law.
The Taft-Hartley Act amended the Wagner Act, officially known as the National Labor Relations Act, of 1935. The amendments added to the NLRA a list of prohibited actions, or "unfair labor practices", on the part of unions. The NLRA had previously prohibited only unfair labor practices committed by employers. It prohibited jurisdictional strikes, in which a union strikes in order to pressure an employer to assign particular work to the employees that union represents, and secondary boycotts and "common situs" picketing, in which unions picket, strike, or refuse to handle the goods of a business with which they have no primary dispute but which is associated with a targeted business. A later statute, the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, passed in 1959, tightened these restrictions on secondary boycotts still further.
The Act outlawed closed shops, which were contractual agreements that required an employer to hire only union members. Union shops, in which new recruits must join the union within a certain amount of time, are permitted, but only as part of a collective bargaining agreement and only if the contract allows the worker at least thirty days after the date of hire or the effective date of the contract to join the union. The National Labor Relations Board and the courts have added other restrictions on the power of unions to enforce union security clauses and have required them to make extensive financial disclosures to all members as part of their duty of fair representation. On the other hand, a few years after the passage of the Act Congress repealed the provisions requiring a vote by workers to authorize a union shop, when it became apparent that workers were approving them in virtually every case.
The amendments also authorized individual states to outlaw union security clauses entirely in their jurisdictions by passing "right-to-work" laws. Currently all of the states in the Deep South and a number of traditionally Republican states in the Midwest, Plains and Rocky Mountains regions have right-to-work laws.
The amendments required unions and employers to give sixty days' notice before they may undertake strikes or other forms of economic action in pursuit of a new collective bargaining agreement; it did not, on the other hand, impose any "cooling-off period" after a contract expired. Although the Act also authorized the President to intervene in strikes or potential strikes that create a national emergency, a reaction to the national coal miners' strikes called by the United Mine Workers of America in the 1940s, the President has used that power less and less frequently in each succeeding decade.
Although most unions threw their support to Reagan in the 1980 presidential election, one of his first acts as President was to betray them. In August 3 1981, the PATCO union went on strike. They thought that by keeping the nation’s planes grounded, they could quickly work out a deal. Unbeknownst to them, Reagan had hired a bunch of scabs to replace them, and said that if they didn’t return to their posts within 48 hours, he would have them all fired and ban them from again working in a Federal capacity. Since only a few returned to work, thousands lost their jobs, and the wages remained stagnant.