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Labor in History of Labor Unions

Key Points

  • Labor movement has always been divided over aims and tactics
  • Some unions wanted broad social change, others focused narrowly on "bread and butter" issues of wages, benefits, and work rules
  • Some unions wanted to organize all workers into industrial organizations, others wanted to organize smaller units of skilled workers into craft organizations

Higher Wages or a New Society?

  • Terence Powderly's Knights of Labor sought industrial unionism in pursuit of broad social change
  • Samuel Gompers's American Federation of Labor favored craft unionism in pursuit of narrow economic gains
We talk about the labor movement as if it were a single entity, but workers have always debated the nature of their movement among themselves. Who was to be included in a union? What goals should the movement fight for? How should the organization be structured? Disputes about these questions, the conflict within labor, shaped labor history almost as much as the conflict between workers and employers.

Faced with the horrendous working conditions and starvation wages that the industrial revolution imposed on some, many early union members felt that the whole system was flawed. Working for wages was not the way to go. The workplace needed to be reformed from top to bottom, with workers calling the shots. But other unionists felt that wages and hours were what counted and that labor's goals should be limited to well-defined workplace issues.

The divide between these two broad approaches to the labor movement can be seen clearly in the experiences of the two most important American union leaders of the late nineteenth century, Terence Powderly of the Knights of Labor and Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor. Each was interested in advancing the cause of workers, but each had a very different vision of how to do so.

Terence V. Powderly, a machinist who led the Knights of Labor through the 1880s, was a utopian who believed the wage system and employers' monopoly on power were the core of the problem. He saw a divide not strictly between employers and employees but between "producers," including both workers and managers; and "parasites," people like bankers, speculators, and lawyers, who he felt lived off the labor of others. He wanted to discard corporations for cooperatives in which workers would have a real stake in the business—the Knights actually started producer and consumer cooperatives, but they all failed.

On the other hand, Samuel Gompers, leader of the AFL, wanted pure and simple business unionism. He had no truck with social reform or utopian schemes. In the early days, Gompers even declared that unions should stay out of politics. Organized workers should go toe-to-toe with employers in collective bargaining sessions. He believed in the capitalist system and the free-market; his goal was simply to win workers a bigger piece of the pie.

In addition to their disagreement about what a union should do, the two men differed on which workers should make up a union. Powderly wanted to include all workers. The Knights welcomed unskilled workers, as well as blacks and women to their ranks. Gompers remained suspicious of unskilled workers and focused on organizing only skilled craftsmen. The philosophical differences between the two men would come up again and again in labor history, sometimes to the point of tearing the movement apart.

Enter the Wobblies

  • Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies): labor radicals who saw class conflict as inevitable and sought to organize all workers to take direct action against employers
  • Advocated violence, although in actual conflicts they tended to be victims rather than instigators
  • Terrified most Americans
By the late 1880s, the Knights faded away, undermined by employer resistance, public suspicion, and ineffective leadership. Though their goals had aimed at fundamental change, their methods had been modest. But in 1905 there arose a truly radical organization that cast management-labor conflict in the starkest terms. "The working class and the employing class have nothing in common," stated the Industrial Workers of the World in the preamble to their platform.16 Emerging from hard-fought struggles with western mine owners, the IWW, or Wobblies as they were called, offered an energetic, radical, and possibly dangerous alternative to the AFL.

The Wobblies wanted to organize all workers everywhere into a single union, then seize the factories from the capitalists and take over the entire system. They did not believe in bureaucracy or written contracts with employers. They advocated direct action, including immediate strikes when workers had grievances and even acts of sabotage. These radical beliefs boosted members' enthusiasm but limited the IWW's wider appeal; most Americans were terrified of the Wobblies.

Aiming toward "one big union," Wobblies organized labor's outcasts—unskilled workers, immigrants, farm workers. One of their most successful actions was a 1912 strike of textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Many of the workers there were immigrants, but the IWW helped bring them together. United, they withstood the bayonets and fire hoses turned against them. They carried signs saying, "We want bread and roses too," meaning more than just the bare minimum to survive—the two-month walkout became known as the Bread and Roses Strike.17 The workers won their demands.

However impractical, the ideals of the IWW energized workers. One prominent Wobbly was Joe Hill, a Swedish immigrant who traveled the country giving speeches, singing songs, and writing satirical poems. Hill was hanged in 1914 on a dubious murder/robbery charge and became a martyr to the movement. He had sung:

Come, all ye workers, from every land,
Come, join in the grand Industrial band,
Then we our share of this earth shall demand.
Come on! Do your share, like a man.

If it inspired some workers, the Wobblies' radicalism terrorized both employers and much of the public. The Wobblies advocated violence but were usually on the receiving end of the mayhem. This was particularly true during the World War I era, when the IWW opposed the war and members were labeled traitors. In July 1917 two thousand vigilantes rounded up twelve hundred Wobblies in Bisbee, Arizona, and ran them out of town on cattle cars.

The IWW declined rapidly following the war. But the radicalism that the group espoused lived on. Half a century later, Joan Baez kicked off the first night of the 1969 Woodstock Festival with a rendition of "The Ballad of Joe Hill."

Said I, but Joe you're ten years dead,
I never died said he.

And the Wobblies never did die. They still have an organization and are still trying to organize workers. One of their recent campaigns was to unionize Starbucks employees. "Baristas Go Union," their flyers read.20

Trade Unions vs. Industrial Organizations

  • Craft unionism tradition dates back to before Industrial Revolution
  • AFL emphasized craft unionism, but struggled to adapt to world of huge industrial corporations
The question of whether a union should consist of groups of artisans who practiced a specific craft, or whether it should include all the workers in a company or industry regardless of what job they did, had troubled the labor movement since the days of Gompers and Powderly. The earliest labor organizations were built by tradesmen—shoemakers, carpenters, machinists—who saw themselves as the elite of the working class.

Samuel Gompers continued this tradition in part because he felt that skilled workers had clout with employers, while easily replaceable unskilled laborers had none. Trade unionists considered unskilled machine tenders a threat to their livelihood.

The problem: as industry became more mechanized, artisan skills became less important and craft workers played a smaller role. When employees were working on an assembly line, it made little sense to separate them into individual trades and assign them to different unions. In addition, if unions were to step into the ring with heavyweight corporations—U.S. Steel became the first billion-dollar company in 1901—they needed to beef up by taking on more members. While Gompers was pragmatic enough to include some industrial unions in the AFL, he continued to look down on the unskilled and his group lagged in organizing them.

John Lewis, the dynamic leader of the United Mine Workers, stated labor's dilemma bluntly: "Great combinations of capital have assembled to themselves tremendous power and influence. If you go in there with your craft unions they will mow you down."21

Rise of the Industrial Unions

  • Industrial unions rose rapidly in 1930s
  • CIO industrial unions split from AFL, grew quickly despite rivalry with AFL unions
  • CIO tended to be more militant, radical, and inclusive
Organizing workers across an entire industry is a difficult task, but when unions' right to organize was enshrined in law in the New Deal era, industrial unions' membership quickly swelled. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America had 60,000 members in 1932; a decade later they had 300,000. They United Electrical and Radio Workers of America grew from 33,000 to 120,000 members in 1937 alone.22

Though Gompers was gone, AFL leaders continued to drag their feet on organizing the unskilled. They saw the industrial unions as a problem. Industrial unionists wanted more involvement in politics, and bridled under the complicated fiefdoms of the craft unions. They welcomed socialists and communists, even as the AFL was trying to distance itself from these radicals. The tensions soon blew up into a schism. The industrial unions were expelled from the AFL in the mid-1930s, taking more than four million unionists into the new, rival Congress of Industrial Organizations.

These industrial groups were more militant than traditional craft unions. They were also more inclusive; many welcomed black workers, women, and immigrants into their ranks. They kicked off a period of hyper-growth for American unions. Early in 1937 General Motors agreed to recognize the CIO United Auto Workers. By March the president of U.S. Steel, Myron Taylor, was convinced that the GM concession meant "complete industrial organization was inevitable."23 Rather than fight, he agreed to bargain with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, a CIO union, and to give workers a 10% wage boost, a 40-hour week, and time and a half for overtime.

But business opposition did not just evaporate in the face of labor's new power. Despite U.S. Steel's concessions, smaller steel companies stood firm against unionization. Republic Steel signaled its determination by amassing a 370-man private army equipped with pistols, shotguns and tear gas. The strike against "Little Steel" was one of the bloodiest of the Depression era. On Memorial Day, 1937, Chicago police supporting the company fired into a crowd of demonstrating union men, killing ten and wounding 100. The smaller steel companies held out against the unions for another four years.

The industrial unions of the 1930s revived something of the spirit and the social concerns that had dominated the early labor movement. Leaders like Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, who had come out of the socialist tradition, wanted more than just wage increases. They pushed for health care, pensions, and unemployment insurance.

In 1962, Walter Reuther, the UAW president, declared, "In the next phase . . . the unions will take on the broader function of concern for the quality of our society as a whole. The labor movement will become less of an economic movement and more of a social movement."24

"They Don't Sing"

  • Cold War undermined CIO, which had been relatively tolerant of communists within the labor movement
  • 1955 merger of AFL and CIO reunited craft and industrial unions into one national labor confederation, the AFL-CIO
  • Post-1950s AFL-CIO under leadership of George Meany was bureaucratic and stagnant
After World War II, as the Cold War began and fears of communist subversion became more widespread in American society, the CIO expelled its leaders and affiliates who were tainted as communists or socialists, removing one of the areas of contention with the AFL. Following their successful organization of America's big industries, the leaders of the CIO unions had become more moderate in their outlook. As a result, in 1955 the AFL and the CIO patched up their differences and merged back into a single umbrella organization that included both trade and industrial unions. In its spirit and outlook, the combined AFL-CIO probably resembled the conservative old AFL more than the militant CIO of the 1930s.

In a small but telling incident after the AFL-CIO merger, an enthusiastic staffer from the CIO side suggested a new songbook for the organization. Songs had long inspired workers on picket lines and had been part of the radical labor tradition dating back to the Wobblies' "Little Red Songbook" of 1909. An aide to George Meany, the AFL man who became president of the combined organization, scoffed at the idea. "They don't sing at union meetings," she said. "I've never heard of anything so ridiculous in my life."25

A New Schism in Labor?

  • New split in labor movement occurred in 2005, with several large unions leaving the AFL-CIO to pursue more aggressive organizing strategies
The AFL-CIO remained the principal labor organization in America for the rest of the twentieth century. With a few exceptions—the United Auto Workers left the group from 1968 to 1981—labor was able to settle its differences within this grand umbrella organization. But the differences didn't go away. For example, in the 1960s César Chávez began organizing agricultural workers in California through his United Farm Workers (UFW). The UFW was part of the AFL-CIO but Chávez embraced tactics (such as a national grape boycott to support striking grape pickers) and causes (like education and environmental issues) that brought to mind earlier socially minded labor activism.

In 2005, the United Farm Workers joined six other unions representing some 5.4 million workers to split from the AFL-CIO and form a new confederation called Change to Win (CTW). The breakaway group included the powerful International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union, the nation's largest union. This new group is seeking to form a "movement of working people equipped to meet the challenges of the global economy and restore the American Dream in the 21st century."26

They face a formidable task in organizing non-union workers and getting the labor movement growing again after half a century of decline. They are supporting laws to make organizing easier. Change to Win has made an effort to re-invigorate the labor movement, though recently, the group has held discussions about rejoining the AFL-CIO.

No one approach to building a labor movement has ever won out. The more radical model, from the Knights of Labor to the Wobblies to the CIO, helped inspire workers and bring in new members. The more conservative AFL model provided stability, concrete gains for workers, and an important aura of respectability. Can labor appeal to masses of new workers without appearing too radical? Can the movement find new ways to expand its numbers? Or has the age of organized labor—craft and industrial unions alike—passed altogether, never to return? Only time will tell.

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