Study Guide

History of Labor Unions Analysis

  • Law

    Law As an Employer's Weapon

    The government has long served as a referee in the ring where labor and management have fought for power. 

    Court rulings and legislation have shaped how the contest was fought and who had the advantage at any given moment. The major labor laws that Congress has passed have provided a kind of scorecard to show which group was predominant at a particular moment in history. 

    In the earliest days of the labor movement, there were few laws that addressed the new phenomenon of national unions. Employers labeled union activity, particularly strikes, as illegal conspiracies. At first, judges agreed. 

    In a case as early as 1806, a Massachusetts court said that it was illegal for employees to band together to raise wages. The courts based their view on the idea that the purpose of a union was coercion. Individual liberty had been the ideal of the American Revolution, and the courts held tightly to that concept. They were protecting not only the property rights of the business owner, but the freedom of the worker as well. 

    In an 1871 Massachusetts case, the court ruled that every worker had the freedom to enter into a contract with his employer and the right to be free from interference by a union. Freedom of contract, a principle that undermined a union's collective purpose, would remain an impediment to labor organizing well into the 20th century and remains a point of contention today. 

    The first major piece of legislation that affected labor unions was the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. The law forbade any "restraint of commerce" across state lines, and courts ruled that union strikes and boycotts were covered by the law. This was ironic since the Sherman Act had been passed by liberal reformers hoping to curb the abuses of business cartels and monopolies, not to crack down on unions. 

    In 1894, members of the American Railway Union, led by Eugene V. Debs, walked off their jobs at the Pullman Palace Car Company. Owner George Pullman manufactured his railroad sleeping cars in a company town near Chicago. Because of the depression that had hit a year earlier, Pullman cut wages 25 to 40%. The union called for a nationwide strike and boycott, and sympathetic workers across the country refused to handle Pullman cars, slowing the entire national rail system to a crawl. In response, alarmed businessmen obtained an injunction based on the Sherman Act, and federal troops were sent out to enforce the injunction. 

    Of course, violent confrontations ensued. But the tactic worked. Debs and 700 Pullman workers were arrested and the strike was crushed. Judges began to issue injunctions that threatened serious penalties if union members didn't immediately stop a strike, boycott, or some other action. Injunctions became the bane of unions' existence, kneecapping unions' ability to organize successfully in the late nineteenth century.

    Labor Gets a Boost

    As part of his New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt introduced a series of laws that gave unions a leg up in their perennial struggle with management. 

    The most important of these was the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, known as the Wagner Act. Its sponsor, New York Senator Robert F. Wagner, a strong supporter of unions, explained his views by asserting, "Industrial tyranny is incompatible with a republican form of government."

    Free choice? Workers' rights? Sound familiar? 

    The same terms have been used for more than a century. The fact is, this is simply the next round in an old power struggle, with both sides rolling out the rhetorical flourishes as they try to tilt the contest in their direction. But the contest is sure to have profound effects. If EFCA passes, it seems quite likely that the United States will see its first surge in unionization in more than half a century. If it doesn't pass, it seems almost certain that unions will continue to occupy only a marginal place in 21st-century America. 

    If you're for unions or if you're against them, it might be a good idea for you to put in a call to your congressman or congresswoman today. The future of the American labor movement may well depend on their vote.

  • Race

    Racism in the Labor Movement

    Because the idea of a labor union's based on solidarity among workers, you might expect the labor movement to be at the forefront in America's long struggle toward racial harmony, right? Well, it's not so simple as that. 

    Unions have been on both sides of the racial question, sometimes enforcing discrimination, other times welcoming minorities into their ranks. Partly out of necessity, unions have generally proven to be somewhat more accommodating to Blacks than the society as a whole. Though African Americans often had to fight to join unions, they also found that the labor movement could help them to win advances in their condition and status.

    The early Knights of Labor actively accepted and organized Black workers at a time when racism in America was intense. The AFL also started out in the 1880s with a nondiscrimination policy, but founder Samuel Gompers later came to see Blacks as a "convenient whip placed in the hands of the employers to cow the white man." 

    Fear that Black workers would take whites' jobs haunted the labor movement for generations, so employers capitalized on racial divisions by recruiting Black workers as strikebreakers. In a 1917 incident, employers in East St. Louis, Illinois, recruited Southern Blacks to take jobs for low pay to drive wages down. White workers organized a whites-only union in response. Racial tensions mounted and in July, an attempt to drive Blacks from their neighborhoods led to a riot in which 40 Blacks and 9 whites were killed. 

    The AFL craft unions became solidly racist. In 1902, W.E.B. Du Bois, the influential Black spokesman and historian, found that 43 national unions had no Black members, and 27 others barred Black apprentices, keeping membership to a minimum. Du Bois spoke against both "the practice among employers of importing ignorant N****-American laborers in emergencies" and "the practice of labor unions of proscribing and boycotting and oppressing thousands of their fellow toilers."blank">Martin Luther King, Jr. to Montgomery, Alabama to support the 1955 bus boycott, the action that became a seminal event of the Civil Rights Movement. 13 years later, King was again linking civil rights to labor organizing. Sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee—most but not all of them African-American—were so poorly paid that 40% of them qualified for welfare even though they worked full time. Health insurance was minimal, as were pensions and vacations. They worked in filthy, unsafe conditions, and were sent home for the least infraction. 

    The city refused to negotiate with the union and in February 1968, the workers went on strike. Their struggle came to symbolize the plight of the working poor and of the African-American community in general. The strike drew the interest of King, who'd begun to emphasize through his Poor People's Campaign the importance of economic issues in the civil rights struggle. King's presence in support of the strike put a national spotlight on the workers' struggle. 

    When he returned in April, intending to lead a massive nonviolent march to support the workers, an assassin shot him dead in a Memphis motel. 

    In the wake of that tragedy, the Memphis sanitation workers won recognition from the city. In Memphis, other public employees joined unions, and jobs previously reserved for whites became available regardless of color. For all its foot-dragging and outright resistance during recent decades, the labor movement has played an important role in the establishments of civil rights for Blacks. Today, the wages of unionized African American are 35% higher than the pay of those who aren't represented by a union.

  • Labor

    Higher Wages or a New Society?

    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 wasn't 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-19th 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

    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.

    Rise of the Industrial Unions

    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.

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

    All in all, 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.

  • Gender

    Women in the Early Labor Movement

    Women were among the first workers to bear the hardships of the Industrial Revolution, and consequently, among the first to unionize. They've participated in the labor movement in both a lead and supportive role through its entire history, but of course, the movement hasn't always been friendly in return.

    When young women were hired to tend the power looms of New England's early factories, they became some of the earliest workers exposed to the rigors of the industrial workplace. As early as the 1830s, women who worked in the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, took action to protest their arduous working conditions and low wages. Mill girls started their days at 5:00AM and finished at 7:00PM, putting in regular 14-hour shifts. The noise and heat were often intolerable. 

    Pay cuts in 1834 prompted the girls to walk out, a strike that gained national attention. More than just wages, the workers were affronted by the "purse-proud insolence" of employers and invoked the spirit of the American Revolution in claiming their rights.

  • Society

    Labor's Public Image

    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 12 or 14 hours every day, with no overtime. Many jobs, from coal mining to steel making, were very dangerous, leading to frequent maimings and deaths. And 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

    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, wasn't a natural way for Americans to think. Other concerns tempered Americans' sympathy for organized labor, too. 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, but 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'd 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

    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.blank">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 didn't 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.

    As labor continues to evolve, will unions, as they did in the 1930s, be seen as providers of job security and decent wages in a sometimes uncertain world? Or will unemployment continue to decimate organized labor's ranks, spelling a continuing decline in unions' image? 

    Right now, the jury's still out.

  • Ideology

    What Is Labor?

    The basic ideological question at the core of labor history is: What is labor? 

    In general terms, business owners have answered. Labor is a commodity. It's something that a worker can sell for whatever the market will bear. The price of labor—that is, wages—will be dictated by supply and demand. The hours and conditions of work will be set by the employer or reached by some agreement between the employer and individual workers. That is the employer's right

    Workers have generally offered a different definition. Labor is an integral part of a person's life. Employees might recognize that supply and demand will influence wages, but they feel that labor has a special moral dimension that makes it different than a simple commodity. After all, a person's labor can't be separated from his or her life. Workers have rights on the job and rights to decent wages. 

    The ideological dispute has also involved individual versus collective rights. Did an individual always have the right to bargain with his employer? Or did an association, a union, have the right to speak for all workers? 

    Employers pushed individual rights. They insisted on their right to deal with any individual worker. Unions pushed for group rights. In collective bargaining, a critical concept in labor history, the union came to an agreement with the employer and that agreement then became binding for all.

    The Industrial Revolution Sets the Scene

    A shop clerk in the early-19th century noted that a printer "often came into our store for a pitcher of ale to cheer up the boys in the printing office nearby." 

    • Is this jump merely a blip, a statistical anomaly, or is it the beginning of a trend?
    • Are new union organizing efforts paying off?
    • Will the battle lines between workers and managers be drawn sharply again, as they were a century ago?
    • Or will the contest take on some entirely new form in the 21st century?

    The future of the American labor movement—if it even has one—depends on the answers to these questions.