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History of Labor Unions

History of Labor Unions

 Table of Contents

Society in History of Labor Unions

Key Points

  • Public opinion of unions has changed over time
  • Public opinion of unions powerfully influences outcomes in labor disputes

Labor's Public Image

  • During Gilded Age, many Americans were sympathetic to workers and critical of big businessmen
  • But Americans were only lukewarm in their attitudes toward unions
One major influence on the balance of labor-management power has been the way the general public perceived the two sides. Public opinion affects how much support workers receive when they conduct strikes and it influences the laws that regulate labor relations. Perhaps most importantly, it plays a role in workers' attitudes toward their own movement. If employees view labor unions with suspicion or antagonism, the unions are unlikely to gain much traction.

The public was, at first, broadly sympathetic to organized labor. During the 1877 rail strike, ordinary citizens blamed the severe depression that had hit the country in 1873 mainly on big business. With businessmen and financiers cast as villains in the popular imagination, most of the public supported the strikers against what they saw as the greed of railroad "robber barons."

The extreme hardships inflicted on workers during those decades at the end of the nineteenth century were enough to evoke sympathy from many citizens, helping spur the Progressive Era reforms that followed. Before those reforms, children were routinely put to work at eight years old or even younger. Workers were forced to be on the job for twelve or fourteen hours every day, with no overtime. Many jobs, from coal mining to steel making, were very dangerous, leading to frequent maimings and deaths. Injured workers were routinely fired.

Meanwhile, prosperous business owners lived the opulent lifestyle that prompted Mark Twain to label the era "The Gilded Age." Men like steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and railroad developer Jay Gould amassed millions while workers often languished in poverty. While many Americans admired these titans of industry for their capitalistic successes, many others resented their wealth and supported the workers' efforts to claw back more of the fruits of their labor.

Looking at Unions with Skepticism

  • Americans have tended to value individualism over solidarity
  • Americans have usually feared worker radicalism
  • Americans have often been suspicious of foreigners within the labor movement
In spite of their general sympathy for the downtrodden, Americans' natural inclination toward individualism made them suspicious of unions. Americans had long seen themselves as independent and self-sufficient people. The industrial revolution rendered this image hollow for many, but the idea lingered. Each person could or should make it on his own. Solidarity with one's fellows, the core of the union ethic, was not a natural way for Americans to think.

Other concerns tempered Americans' sympathy for organized labor. One was a distaste for radicalism. Citizens wanted order and security in their lives. The strikes and violence that accompanied labor organizing, no matter who was responsible, made people nervous.

Though the nation had been born in revolution, the idea of revolutionaries overturning the status quo and introducing a collective or socialist society, which some of the early labor radicals openly campaigned for, put the fear of God into many citizens. To some, groups like the Wobblies offered dreams of a better world; to many more, their vision represented the worst kind of nightmare.

Add to this the fact that many of the radical unionists were immigrants who had learned about labor organizing in Europe. Americans' suspicion of and contempt for foreigners reinforced their anti-labor sentiments.

All these fears were ramped up by the 1919 Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Many Americans began to see every strike as the opening act of a violent overthrow of the established order, the first shot of a Communist revolution. As a result, especially in the 1920s, the labor movement often found itself swimming upstream against the current of public opinion.

Business Plays the Villain

  • The Great Depression turned the public against businessmen and in favor of workers
  • Franklin Roosevelt's support improved unions' image
Like the Panic of 1873, the 1929 stock market crash and ensuing hard times soured many Americans on big business. Widespread corporate layoffs, bank failures, and mortgage foreclosures shocked middle-class citizens across the country.

The watchword of the Great Depression was security, and many now came to see unions as offering security against the arbitrary power of employers. Unions were also fighting for the kinds of social changes—health insurance, compensation for on-the-job injuries, old-age pensions—that had become vitally important to a very rattled nation.

During the 1930s, President Roosevelt helped to shift labor's image. He referred to business owners as "economic royalists" and spoke of "industrial dictatorship," a potent label at a time when fascist dictators had risen to power in Germany, Italy, and Spain.31 Unionism became Americanism during the New Deal, losing in the public mind much of its association with immigrants and radicalism. The president was on the side of the worker. One millworker in the South noted that Roosevelt was "the first man in the White House to understand that my boss is a son of a b---h."32


"Unions," wrote labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, "would never again enjoy a political environment as favorable as that which transformed American work life during the years between 1934 and 1937."33

"Are You Now or Have You Ever Been…?"

  • Cold War anticommunism made many Americans fear unions
  • 1949 purge of "Red" unions from CIO led to that organization's decline
After World War II, the image of organized labor took a series of hits that left unions with a decidedly bad odor. The first was their association with communism. "Reds" had long been feared by Americans, but in the opening years of the Cold War, anticommunism became a national mania.

To some, the unions' demands for a bigger share of the economic pie and better social programs smacked of socialism—or communism itself. The unions' red taint was not helped by the fact that some important labor leaders had, in fact, been socialists or communists in previous decades.

Business owners played the "red" card effectively against unions. "Whoever stirs up needless strikes in American trade unions advances the cause of Communism," declared the magazine Nation's Business in 1946.34 The Cold War caused dissension within the labor movement as well. In 1949 the CIO threw out nine unions and almost a million members for refusing to purge leaders with ties to communism, as called for in the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. By the mid-1950s many unions barred communists as officers and in some cases as members.

Radicalism had always been a two-edged sword for labor. Socialists and communists had been active in the labor movement from the late nineteenth century onward. Sometimes they added the commitment and energy that the movement desperately needed. Sometimes they made the citizens shrink back in horror. Employers had often used them as an excuse to rile public opinion against labor in general. Now their role was over. Historian Ronald Felippelli notes, "For the first time in history the radical voice was gone from the mainstream of organized labor."35

Corruption in the Unions

  • Many unions became deeply corrupt
  • Widespread corruption scandals, especially involving Teamsters Union, undermined labor's reputation
The anticommunist frenzy was just beginning to cool when organized labor faced a new stain on its public image. Criminals had begun to infiltrate some labor unions as early as the 1930s, when the end of Prohibition cut mob revenues. Mobsters used unions to extort money from employers or helped themselves to the workers' pension funds. They also sold out members by agreeing to "sweetheart deals" favorable to businesses.

One example, which sounds like an episode from The Sopranos, involved John Dioguardi. In the early 1950s, Johnny Dio gained control of several local unions in New York. He went to garment industry employers and offered them contracts that gave workers the minimum wage in exchange for bribes paid directly to Johnny. The companies were protected from organizing efforts of other unions, but workers were locked into lousy wages by their own union.

By the late 1950s, this corruption was impossible to ignore. One of the worst offenders was the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the union representing the nation's truck drivers and deliverymen. In 1957 Senator John L. McClellan began a series of hearings that would last into the 1960s. Along with his aide Robert F. Kennedy, McClellan came to focus on Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa, a tough labor organizer who had become entangled with racketeers. Hoffa became the most famous labor "boss" in the country before finally being forced from his job and going to prison for jury tampering and fraud (he was pardoned by President Nixon after five years in the slammer).

Corruption hurt union members directly and dragged the image of organized labor into the gutter. "Graft and corruption," said conservative Senator Barry Goldwater, "are symptoms of the illness that besets the labor movement, not the cause of it."36 Goldwater felt that Big Labor, hopelessly corrupt, needed to be stripped of its power, and many agreed.

1960s Decline

  • Unions failed to adapt to new conditions by 1960s
  • Union "hard-hat" workers beat up anti-Vietnam protesters in New York
You might have thought that the 1960s, a period when a very vocal portion of the population began to actively campaign for social change, might have been a good time for unions, which had benefitted from similar conditions in the 1930s. Young people in the sixties tended to view corporations as exploitive, greedy and soulless. They did not, however, inject any new burst of energy into the labor movement. The reason was clear: unions had themselves become part of the "establishment." As liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith put it in 1967, labor's leadership was "aged, contented, and deeply somnambulant."37

Long focused on bread and butter issues, labor leaders were not about to embrace social change. For example, unions overwhelmingly supported the war in Vietnam, even as many Americans had begun to see it as a mistake. Construction union "hard-hats" even beat up anti-war demonstrators in on the streets of New York. As a result, young activists and intellectuals looked for other areas in which to effect change.

Unions Become Irrelevant

  • Rapid decline of unions after 1970s made many Americans think labor had become irrelevant
  • Rise of free-market ideology challenged unions' value
  • Unionization of public employees was unpopular with much of the public
The general reputation of unions has slid as union membership has declined in the years since the 1970s. The reasons for this are complicated. In essence, a new economy grew up in which service jobs outpaced manufacturing jobs and global competition changed the playing field. The labor movement simply did not adapt and began to seem increasingly irrelevant.

For example, beginning in the 1980s many unions had to accept "givebacks," cuts rather than raises in pay and benefits. These concessions demoralized members and made the unions look weak to the general public. Deregulation, which began under President Carter and accelerated under President Reagan, put many unionized companies at a disadvantage. They either went out of business or tossed out their unions.

Many citizens became cheerleaders for American free enterprise, believing that one of the things it should be free of was the interference of organized labor. The high wages that unions won for their workers had once been seen as a sign of the country's prosperity. But in the face of fierce global competition, demands for more pay could seem vaguely unpatriotic.

Beginning in the 1960s, unionization moved into the public sector. This gave the labor movement an influx of new members, but did not necessarily boost labor's image with the American people. Teachers, social workers, and hospital employees all organized to push for higher wages and better conditions. By 2004 they represented 40% of all union members. But while a strike at a private firm might have little impact on the general public, a strike by teachers or garbage collectors inconvenienced the citizens who paid the workers' wages through their taxes.

The current economic downturn will provide a critical test for unions. Will they, as they did in the 1930s, be seen as providers of job security and decent wages in an uncertain world? Or will high unemployment decimate organized labor's ranks still further, spelling a continuing decline in unions' image? Right now the jury's still out.
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