How successful were efforts to organize a national labor movement in America?
With increasing industrialization after the Civil War unionism
became more and more important. The National Labor Union
(NLU), a federation of national and local unions and of city
federations, was founded in 1866. Was the first national union.
Within two years it had more than 600,000 members. The NLU collapsed
in in 1872 as the result of a national depression.
The 1870’s was a period of widespread activity, largely because of
the terrible working conditions faced by workers after the disastrous
economic crisis of 1873. Many unions struck against pay cuts and the
replacement of workers by machines. Most employers strongly opposed
unions. The struggle between workers and employers often took violent
forms. The violent acts of the Molly Maguires, a secret
organization of workers operating illegally in the coal fields of
Pennsylvania, reached a peak during this period. In the Great
Railroad Strike of 1877, federal troops had to be used to restore
order. The 1870’s saw the creation of the Knights of Labor.
Founded by Uriah Stephens and expanded by Terrence
Powderly the Knights of Labor were a true national union. The
Knights admitted both skilled and unskilled workers as well as those
of each race. The Knights declined after the Haymarket Square Riot.
In 1886 the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was founded
by Samuel Gompers, president of the Cigarmakers International
Union. The initial membership of the AFL was estimated at about
140,000 workers grouped in 25 national unions. The AFL was a
national federation of independent unions. The AFL concerned
itself primarily with organizing skilled workers.
n 1905 the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), was
organized in Chicago to represent unskilled workers. The IWW never
had more than about 100,000 members, who were called Wobblies,
but it conducted numerous strikes, many marked by bloodshed, and
exerted a major influence on the American labor movement until the
early 1920’s. In the early 20th century, the first woman workers
became members of unions, notably of the International Ladies’
Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU).
In 1933 a faction of the AFL led by John L. Lewis calling
itself the Committee for Industrial Organizations staged a battle
within the AFL for the representation of industrial unions to
represent unskilled workers. In 1938 the committee split from the AFL
and formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The CIO as it
was called grew in strength and in 1955 after many years of
acrimonious competition the AFL and CIO merges under Lewis’
leadership. Today the AFL-CIO is the nations largest union
In Re Debs (1895)
Union Strikes/Commerce Clause v. First & Fourteenth Amendments
Eugene V. Debs, an American railway union officer and one of the
leaders of the Pullman Railroad Car workers’ strike in 1894, refused
to honor a federal court “injunction” ordering him to halt the
strike. Debs appealed his “contempt of courts conviction. At issue
was whether the federal government has the constitutional authority
to stop railroad workers from striking.
The Supreme Court of the United States, in a unanimous decision,
upheld the authority of the federal government to halt the strike.
The Court reasoned that the federal government has “enumerated
powers” found in Article 1, Section 8, to “regulate commerce …
among the several states,” and to establish post offices and post
roads. When the American Railway Union struck, it interfered with the
railroad’s ability to carry commerce and mail which benefited the
needs and “general welfare” of all Americans.