.. day-to-day welfare of their members and should not become involved in politics. He also was convinced that socialism would not succeed in the United States but that practical demands for higher wages and fewer working hours could achieve the goal of a better life for working people. This was known as “bread and butter” unionism. There was one outstanding exception to the pragmatic “bread and butter” approach to unionism which characterized most of American labor.
This was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a revolutionary labor union launched in Chicago in 1905 under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs. The IWW the overthrow of capitalism through strikes, boycotts and sabotage. Particularly strong among textile workers, dock workers, migratory farmers and lumberjacks, the union reached its peak membership of 100,000 in 1912. The IWW had practically disappeared by 1918, because of federal prosecutions and a national sentiment against radicalism which began in 1917.
In the early years of the 20th century, a powerful reform movement called Progressivism swept the country. Its leaders were college professors, ministers, journalists, physicians and social workers. Their goal was to improve conditions for all Americans. They wanted to make the political system more egalitarian. They also wanted to make the nation’s economic system more democratic. Those who owned the nation’s resources, they said, should share some of their wealth with the less fortunate. The movement appealed to farmers, small businessmen, women and laborers.
It cut across political party and regional lines. The Progressive Movement had the support of three United States presidents: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson. The Progressives were concerned about labor’s problems. They were alarmed by the growing use of court rulings to halt strikes. In 1890, for example, Congress passed the Sherman Anti-trust Act.
Its purpose was to punish big business corporations that combined to prevent competition. Yet more and more it was being used as a weapon against unions. The Progressives were unhappy about the use of federal troops and state militia against strikers. They were outraged by inhuman conditions in factories and mines. The Progressives and the AFL pressured state governments for laws to protect wage earners. Almost all states passed laws forbidding the employment of children under 14 years old. Thirty-seven states forbade children under 16 years old to work between 7p.m.
and 6a.m. Nineteen states established the eight-hour day for children under 16 in factories and stores. The Progressives were also concerned with the hours worked by women in industry. Forty-one states wrote new or improved laws to protect women workers. Most limited the work day to nine hours, or the work week to 54 hours.
One of the greatest concerns of the Progressives was the problem of industrial accidents. They wanted workers to be paid for accidents regardless of cause. The cost of insurance to cover accidents, they said, should be paid by employers. By 1917, 13 states had passed workers’ compensation laws. Many states passed laws to improve safety regulations.
The alliance of Progressives and the AFL also campaigned for federal laws to aid labor. In response, Congress passed laws to protect children, railroad workers and seamen. It established a Department of Labor in the president’s Cabinet. Most important of all, Congress passed the Clayton Act of 1914. Its purpose was to halt the use of antitrust laws and court injunctions against unions.
During World War I, organized labor made great advances. The federal government created the War Labor Board to settle disputes by arbitration. Generally the Board was favorable to wage increases, the eight-hour day and collective bargaining. This led to a big increase in union membership. In January 1917, the AFL had 2,370,000 members.
By January 1919, it had 3,260,000 members. As the 1920s began, organized labor seemed stronger than ever. It was successful in getting Congress to pass laws that restricted immigration to the United States. Unions believed that a scarcity of labor would keep wages high. But events that took place in Europe were already threatening labor’s gains. In 1917, a communist revolution overthrew the government of Russia. Communists also attempted revolutions in Germany, Hungary and Finland. Immigrants entering the United States at this time were primarily from southern and eastern Europe. Many of them, in response to the economic hardship and social inequality which they found in America’s industrial cities, were attracted to the utopian promises of socialist, communist and other radical political groups which advocated a drastic change in American society.
There was widespread fear–almost hysteria–among more established Americans that a revolution might break out in the United States. In response to this fear, the federal government launched a series of raids which resulted in the arrest and sometimes the deportation of aliens who were members of socialist, anarchist or communist organizations. About 500 aliens, including Russian-born anarchist “Red Emma” Goldman, were deported during this period. A number of them, like Goldman, rejected Bolshevism as they experienced it in the Soviet Union and later returned to the United States. Meanwhile, workers were striking for higher wages all over the United States. Many Americans believed that these strikes were led by communists and anarchists. During the Progressive era, the public had sympathized with labor.
Now the public became hostile to it. Employers encouraged anti-union movements, or created company unions that they sought to control. Courts found legal openings in the Clayton Act and issued rulings against union activity. The courts also found ways to use the Sherman Anti-trust Act against unions. Opposed by public opinion, business and the courts, union membership fell. The number of AFL members dropped to 2,770,000 by 1929.
This decline took place even though the number of workers in industry rose by almost seven million. For most Americans, the 1920s were prosperous years. But in October 1929, the New York stock market “crashed,” and the value of stocks went way down. The crash, part of a worldwide economic decline, led to the worst economic depression in the nation’s history. People lost their jobs, their farms and their businesses. By 1932, 13 million men and women were unemployed.
This was one out of every four in the work force. Many more workers had only part-time jobs. In the cities, jobless men stood on long lines for a handout of bread and soup. Many of them lived in shanties near garbage dumps. Men and boys roamed the country, hoping to find work.
In the past, depressions had usually hurt unions. Unemployment meant a sharp drop in workers’ dues. Then unions became almost powerless to prevent decreases in wages or long working hours. But in the Great Depression of the 1930s, unions actually benefited. In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, promised Americans a “New Deal.” He pledged to help the “forgotten man”–the worker who had lost his job, or the farmer who had lost his land. Under Roosevelt, Congress passed laws to revive business and create jobs.
To help labor, Congress passed the Wagner Act. It guaranteed workers the right to join unions and bargain collectively. The law created a powerful National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The Board could order elections in which workers voted for the union they wanted to represent them. (Workers could vote against joining any union, if they wished.) The NLRB could also order a stop to unfair practices used by employers against unions. Union leaders hailed the Wagner Act.
It provided a great opportunity to increase union membership. But the drive was delayed at first by a dispute within the American Federation of Labor. The AFL was made up mainly of skilled workers organized into craft unions. But millions of unskilled workers were in giant industries like steel, autos, rubber and textiles. Some labor leaders believed that a single union should represent all the workers, skilled and unskilled. One big industrial union would be much stronger than a dozen different craft unions, they said.
Most leaders of the AFL were opposed to the idea of industrial unions. They made no effort to organize them. Finally Lewis and other union leaders broke away from the AFL. They formed a new labor organization that became the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). One of the first targets of the CIO was the auto industry.
Workers at the General Motors factories in Flint, Michigan, eagerly joined the CIO’s United Automobile Workers (UAW) union. They demanded that the company recognize the UAW. But officers of General Motors refused to meet with union representatives. This was a violation of the Wagner Act. In January 1937, the UAW called a strike against the company.
The tactics used by the auto workers took the company by surprise. The workers refused to leave the factories. Instead, they put away their tools and sat down. They did this to prevent strikebreakers from taking their jobs. At night the men slept on the seats of new cars.
Food was passed to them through windows by their families. General Motors tried to force the workers out. The company shut off the heat in the factories. It was winter, but the workers stayed. Police tried to break into one of the factories. The strikers drove them back by throwing soda bottles, coffee mugs and iron bolts. Then the police charged with tear gas bombs.
This time the workers drove them back by turning fire hoses on them. Finally General Motors went to court and got a ruling against the strikers. The workers were ordered to leave the GM factories by February 3. The National Guard (militiamen) was alerted to enforce the order. Everyone expected a big battle on February 3, but it didn’t happen. Governor Frank Murphy refused to order an attack on the strikers.
Instead, he ordered General Motors officers to hold peace talks with the UAW. President Roosevelt also asked for a peaceful end to the strike. A week later General Motors recognized the union and agreed to bargain with it. The UAW and the CIO had won a major victory. Within two years, the CIO organized 3,750,000 industrial workers. The AFL met the challenge of the CIO with an organizing drive of its own. By the end of 1937, the AFL had 3,400,000 members. During the 1930s, Congress enacted other reforms that benefited labor: The Social Security Act of 1935 created a system of government-sponsored unemployment insurance and old-age pensions.
The Fair Labor Standards Act regulated wages and hours. Minimum wages were established to help workers maintain a decent standard of living. Hours were shortened to give them more time for leisure. The law also forbade the labor of children under 16 in most occupations. Unemployment in the United States remained high until the United States entered World War II in 1941. Then, defense industries boomed, and millions of men entered the armed forces. By 1943, unemployment ended and industry was faced with a shortage of labor.
During the Great Depression, women were urged not to take jobs. Now they were encouraged to go to work. Before long, one out of four workers in defense industries was a woman. During World War II, labor cooperated with government and industry. Its spirit was expressed by John L. Lewis, president of the CIO.
“When the nation is attacked,” he said, “every American must rally to its defense.” When peace came, a wave of strikes for higher wages swept the nation. Employers became alarmed. They said that the Wagner Act had given labor too much power. A majority in the United States Congress agreed with them. In 1947, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act. It contained a number of provisions to limit organized labor.
One of them outlawed the “closed shop” agreement which required employers to hire only union members. It also permitted the states to pass “right to work” laws. These laws forbade agreements that required workers to join a union after they were hired. Labor leaders bitterly denounced the Taft-Hartley Act. They said it was meant to destroy unions.
Despite their fears, membership in unions continued to grow. By 1952, it had increased to 17 million. Leaders of the AFL and the CIO merged their organizations in 1955. The combined organization became the AFL-CIO. In recent years there has been a steady decline in the percentage of workers who belong to labor unions. In 1945, 35 percent of the work force were union members.
In 1988, less than 17 percent of the labor force–or 17 million workers–were unionized. There are several reasons for this, including: The decline of heavy industry (once a stronghold of unionism) and the increase of advanced-technology industries. Automation and other technological changes that have displaced many blue-collar workers. Foreign competition, which has depressed some United States industries and increased unemployment. The transition to a “post-industrial” economy in the United States. Ever increasing numbers of workers are employed in service-providing businesses, such as hotels, restaurants and retail stores.
Despite the decline in members, organized labor in the United States remains strong and conditions of America’s labor force have steadily improved. The length of the work day has been shortened. Many agreements between employers and wage earners now call for less than 40 hours of work a week. Most agreements have generous “fringe” benefits. These include insurance, pensions and health care plans.
As the number of union members has decreased as a percentage of the total work force, unions have responded by broadening their organizing efforts to include employees of federal, state and local governments as well as other professionals. Organizers have also waged long campaigns to unionize and win better conditions for such diverse groups as public school teachers and seasonal farm workers. By the early 1990s, the work force was changing. First. the pool of workers was no longer expanding as rapidly as in the past. And, second, the composition of the labor force was different, consisting of a larger percentage of minorities and women than before. Employers are adapting to this work force diversity in several ways.
Some sponsor education and training programs for potential recruits. Many, in an attempt to attract and accommodate women workers, provide on-site child care, and flexible hours. Others make special arrangements so they can hire more handicapped workers. Overall, there is growing sentiment that the government should help create jobs through public works programs, job training programs, and other options.