History of Labor Unions

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
and expanded rapidly under the leadership of Terrance
, 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 Union.

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 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 sought.

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 a
separate 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 gave 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
, 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 coller class. All of these have conspired to
decrease union membership.