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The History Of The Labor Movement In The United States

The label of The American Federation of Labor

Though many people state that the United States is a backward country when it comes to workers’ rights today, it is undoubtedly in a much better place compared to only a century ago. Paid vacations might not be common today in the States, and stories of unpaid overtime also circulate frequently, but even this was achieved after years upon years of strikes and demands for better working conditions.

Almost each facet of life today evolved in a fascinating way, influenced by multiple people and backed by hundreds of thousands. And it’s no different when it comes to labor laws today and the rights that workers hold. Let’s just hope it continues to improve instead of receding.

Before 1776

Even before the United States officially existed, the colonial era of the region saw some strife according to records. There are isolated instances of workers going on strike or demanding better conditions for their work. These small disturbances never snowballed into anything major, and most were ignored. Sometimes the workers would even actually be fined for going on strike, and in the end they would have to live with their substandard jobs.

Laborers After The Industrial Revolution

Laborers After The Industrial Revolution

As the Industrial Revolution matured, there were drastic changes in how laborers operated in a city. Largescale migration took place and cities filled up with an influx of workers. The industry that used to be populated by limited workers that mastered their craft in certain fields, was suddenly overrun with average workers. Though not extremely skillful, the availability of so many workers allowed firms to employ cheap labor, helped on by the new technologies being adopted during that time period.

However, these workers weren’t given much thought, and were expected to work long hours for a minimal wage. As these conditions took their toll on the workers, they started to come together and plan for demanding better working conditions. These acts were referred to as criminal conspiracies, and the workers would be convicted instead of their demands being given much thought. The law, adopted from the English, clearly stated that workers coming together to demand better wages would be considered a crime.

Commonwealth v. Hunt

This historical case on the subject of labor unions took place at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. In it, the legality of labor unions was discussed. And for the first time, workers were given some well-deserved rights. Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw ruled that these unions, and any labor combinations, would be considered legal going forward. The catch was that the union or combination would have to be demanding or organizing for a legal purpose and would only resort to legal means to ask for or achieve their goals.

Labor Unions Following Hunt

Much awaited, the ruling in the Commonwealth v. Hunt case breathed new life into workers who demanded better conditions, and thus many labor unions cropped up in the following decades. Some of the more major labor unions were as follows:

The Railroad Brotherhoods

As the railways became interwoven into large and complex networks, they saw multiple unions rise up for the railroad workers. These unions would include the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, the Order of Railway Conductors, and the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen amidst others. By 1901, 17 major railway brotherhoods were operating, and were generally regarded as useful by the management of the railways.

These unions would negotiate multiple factors of their workers’ jobs with management; like medical packages, addressing and acting upon complaints, and rules for the work environment. Though these brotherhoods continued to function and secure differing rights over the following decades, they slowly began to stagnate. Their programs started failing by the 1920’s and they were mostly shafted to the side and forgotten.

The Knights Of Labor

The Knights Of Labor

The Knights of Labor came about in the year 1869. The Knights believed in uniting not just the common laborers, but also anyone that could in any way be labeled a producer. These lax enlistment rules meant the union grew exponentially after its birth. This was the source of the Knights’ power, but also their eventual demise.

The Knights of Labor and the other railroad brotherhoods did not get along well. While the railroad brotherhoods were content with negotiating with the management, the Knights of Labor would strike until their demands were met fully. The Knights were not a violent group by any means, and promoted education and the use of political ventures to further their influence. The Knights and the other railroad brotherhoods would occasionally clash due to the difference in ideologies.

The Knights of Labor, for the time they remained active, were incredibly successful. They scored many important victories, including the one time in 1885 when they won against the entire Southwestern Railway system. Unfortunately, the size of their union had proved too much to handle as the years went on. Already struggling to juggle so many participants and demonstrations across the whole country, the bombing in one of their demonstrations by anarchists left the Knights of Labor in a very bad place. With the death of seven policemen being blamed on the Knights, the group’s reputation plummeted, and most members ended up leaving for other unions.

The American Federation Of Labor

The American Federation Of Labor

Originally named The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, the American Federation of Labor was founded in 1881. Like the name suggests, it wasn’t exactly its own labor union, but a federation of multiple other unions. It tried to unify the unions so that they would stand together have a better chance of getting their voices heard. The AFL initially faced difficulty uniting the unions under one banner, and eventually started to push for popular causes of demonstrations. The AFL also backed the idea of a national holiday that recognized laborers, and also supported the long sought-after 8-hour workday.

In 1886, as tensions between other unions and the Knights of Labor were worsening, a convention was held at Columbus, Ohio. It was here that the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions merged with the newly founded organization at that convention and became the American Federation of Labor. The AFL openly distinguished itself from the Knights of Labor. Unlike the Knights, the AFL only accepted wage workers. The AFL also kept each union within it autonomous, instead of acting like a giant cog in which each union was just a gear.

The Western Federation Of Miners

Formed in 1893, much later than the other unions, the WFM was often found competing with the AFL. The Knights of Labor had been disbanded by this point in time, and were not present in the game. The Western Federation of Miners’ president and secretary treasurer were accused of the planned assassination of Idaho’s former governor. Both were found innocent but the trials changed the federation’s outlook to a more conservative one. By 1916, the WFM was known as the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers. It was later absorbed by the United Steelworks of America.

Strikes During The Union Era

Strikes During The Union Era

Understandably, after the legalization of unions and unions federations, strikes by workers went up to 11. Dozens of thousands of strikes were held all across the country in the following decades, with millions of laborers attending the demonstrations and protests. Strikes were generally peaceful, though the tendency to turn violent at the drop of a hat was always a very real possibility. The success rate of strikes depended on the economic conditions of that time. If the economy had been falling for some time, companies would outright ignore strikes or even layoff thousands of workers as they were already in a loss. However, if companies had been pulling in profits when a strike would take place, they would hasten to get the situation resolved so that their workers could get back to work.

One of the biggest strikes from that era, held in the 1890’s, was by workers of the Pullman Palace Car Company. After the company cut the wages of its workers, they joined up with the American Railway Union and started campaigning for the boycott of Pullman cars on the railroads. This boycott took off like fire and resulted in workers all across the country refusing to switch Pullman cars on to the trains.

These workers were disciplined, which turned out to be a bad move on management’s part. Within only four days, 125,000 workers over 29 railroads were out in protest. People quit jobs and stated they would not work again if they had to switch Pullman cars. These protests were also a source of rioting and even sabotage from the workers. Unfortunately, the strikes went nowhere. The Federal Court passed an injunction that stopped union leaders from supporting the boycott. The protests were broken up by army troops and the leader of the American Railway Union went to prison for six months. After this fiasco, the ARU met the same fate as the Knights of Labor and fell apart.

The Influx Of British Workers

After careful examination, it was revealed that the standard of living was higher in the United States when compares to Britain. The difference could be so big in some places that skilled workers were found to have double the standard of living compared to their British counterparts. However, American workers also worked longer hours and were more liable to injury. The difference in the standard of living prompted many British workers, especially skilled ones, to make their way to the United States for a chance at a more glamorous life. Amidst the migration from rural to urban areas, and the influx of British workers, the United States wasn’t short of workers in any sense.

The Women’s Trade Union League

The Women’s Trade Union League

Women had mostly been ignored by most unions. Even the American Federation of Labor steered clear of trying to champion women workers’ rights. Women were not allowed entry into labor unions for a multitude of reasons, one important one being that they were seen as a threat to the male workers’ jobs as they were willing to work for less.

The Women’s Trade Union League was formed in 1903 as the first labor organization that would dedicate itself to helping women workers. Instead of separating itself from the other unions, the WTUL focused on supporting other unions, including the AFL. The union encouraged women to join labor unions and demanded fair wages, shorter hours, and paid leave for child labor. It also provided working women with moral support, training in certain fields of work, and financial support when needed. The union also succeeded in passing legislation for establishing new safety regulations.

The Clayton Act Of 1914

Workers’ rights continued to be infringed and labor unions were continually subjected to injunctions that made forced them to pay hefty fines out of the workers’ own pockets. It took until 1914 for something to be done about this; in the form of the Clayton Act. The Clayton Act stated that the “labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce”.

Expected to have helped workers, the Clayton Act was simply loosely interpreted and the abuse continued. It was not until the year of 1932, when the Norris-La Guardia Act passed, that it was clearly and firmly stated that no injunctions would be imposed by courts upon non-violent labor disputes.

The Colorado Coalfield War

The pages of the history of the labor movement are splattered with the blood of innocents, and nothing makes it clearer than the Colorado Coalfield War. In the year 1913, the United Mine Workers of America held a strike against Colorado Fuel and Iron. This resulted in a lot of violence, to the point of multiple murders being carried out on both sides, until the 20th of April, 1914; when the Colorado National Guard attacked a striker encampment in Ludlow. Over a dozen women and children were killed in what is now known as the Ludlow Massacre.

Labor Unions During World War I

Labor Unions During World War I

Labor unions were mostly in strong support of the war, as their wages soared and unemployment fell down to zero. The National War Labor Board forced managements to negotiate with labor unions, and in return the labor unions encouraged their workers to enlist in the military.

Due to more jobs having been created due to the war, and also because of the vacuum left behind by men who went to serve their country on the front lines, women suddenly saw an exponential uptick in recruitment. Hesitant at first, the war and the resulting shortage of male workers forced corporations’ hands. Women, for the first time in America’s history, were being employed in jobs typically reserved for men. From cafeteria workers and factory grunts, to police officers and firefighters, women were suddenly everywhere.

Wanting to make the most of this situation, recruitment drives suddenly began heavily promoting female employment. Posters and other forms of advertisement were pictured with women on them alongside patriotic quotes about helping Uncle Sam in the war effort. This one even singlehandedly flipped the perception of female workers on its head, and the United States’ labor industry was changed forever.

The Failures And Successes Of 1919

The Failures And Successes Of 1919

With the first World War still fresh in everyone’s minds, the AFL conspired to make its wartime gains permanent by holding major strikes in large industries. These strikes failed spectacularly because of propaganda from managements where the strikers were labelled as communists attempting to destroy capitalism. This resulted in not only failure to achieve their newly demanded rights, but also in pushing the unions back in time to the conditions they were in in the year 1910.

The United Mine Workers also held a massive strike, aiming to make their agreed upon war wages permanent. A wartime measure was invoked to that stated it was illegal to tamper with the production and transportation of necessities. The measure was largely ignored by the coal workers, and a staggering 400,000 workers quit. The leader of the UMW, now facing criminal charges, tried to withdraw the strike. He was also ignored by the workers. When the supplies started running low and desperate action was needed, an agreement was made for a 14% raise for the workers. This was not even close to what they had demanded, but it was what they had to accept.

The same year, women operators in New England went on strike. The president of the Boston Telephone Operator’s Union demanded higher wages. Most of the telephone service was shut down and after failing to break apart the strike, the New England Telephone company was forced to accept their demands.

Labor Unions And Their Decline In The 1920’s

The 1920’s, after decades of successful unionization and strikes, saw a sharp decline in labor union activities. Membership in the multiple labor unions fell, and the number of workers participating in strikes dwindled down to less than a fraction of what it was before. This was due to a number of factors that had taken hold by the 1920’s.

For starters, the 20’s saw a period of economic prosperity. Prices of various essentials and goods stabilized while unemployment fell drastically. With people living more comfortable lives and not in any immediate danger of poverty or unemployment, interest in labor unions decreased a lot. The fact that the American Federation of Labor’s president passed away, only to be replaced with someone that didn’t possess as much vigor, did not help matters either.

Corporations, employers, and the government itself saw the falling interest in labor unions as a golden opportunity to demoralize said unions and their members. Not only were employers free to discriminate against union members, they also spent good money on advertising labor unions as a bad thing for the American people.

The iconic era of using Communism to strike fear into the public’s hearts coincided with these years, and was used to great effect. People came to view labor unions as unpatriotic, anti-nationalist, and straight up evil. The “Red” labor unions were seen as a threat to democracy and the American way of life, and were hated everywhere. Employers also started making their employees sign contracts giving their word that they would not join any labor unions. Employees refusing to sign were threatened with job termination.

As if that wasn’t enough, the courts saw this all happening and threw their hat in too. Years of progress were ignored and injunctions against labor unions were thrown out liberally. Cases taken to court had almost no chance of favoring the unions, and members began to leave in earnest before they had to pay out of their own pockets. Leadership suffered in the labor unions, and without any concrete goal or plan in mind, began to fall apart.

Labor Unions During The Great Depression

Labor Unions During The Great Depression

When the stock market crashed in 1929, it ushered in an era of extreme worldwide economic depression. This infamous time period is also known as The Great Depression. During this time, unemployment skyrocketed and remaining employed workers saw drastic wage cuts. With the situation turning so dire, many workers ended up leaving the labor unions, unable to pay their dues.

Radical parties pushing for Communism and Socialism propped up, with their members leading large and often violent marches to protest their unemployment and the current Capitalist system. Fighting between rioters and the police force broke out often.

The Norris-La Guardia Act

Passed in 1932 by President Herbert Hoover, the Norris-La Guardia Act (also known as The Anti-Injunction Act), finally put an end to the power that courts had been abusing for so long. Injunctions against labor unions were modified and protections were offered to the unions so they wouldn’t have to fight against impossible odds. Other states soon followed suit and passed the act as well, so that it could be applied outside of federal courts as well.

The act also banned the contracts employers would make their workers sign; pledging to not join a labor union. With both of those problems taken care of, the union movements could resume their work unhindered. Labor unions started to gain momentum again, and ex-members began to return to the unions in droves.

The National Industrial Recovery Act

The National Industrial Recovery Act came as a much-needed blessing for labor unions. Passed by president Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, the act clearly stated that workers had the right to form and join unions. Even better; it stated that it was the right of workers to come together and bargain for better working conditions and wages. What this meant was that, for the first time, employers were actually forced to listen to their employees, and could not simply handwave them away. The act also made progress in other fields; like maximum working hours and minimum wage.

The act was deemed unconstitutional and abolished two years later to be replaced with a very similar act that was ever so slightly tweaked. The National Industrial Recovery Act had already achieved its purpose by then, and labor unions had come back in full force. All across the country, millions of workers were amassing to form unions and bargain for better benefits.

Labor Unions During World War II

Labor Unions During World War II

As World War II raged on during the 1940’s, labor unions saw a massive increase in their numbers. This was mostly in part due to the large number of women that were now being employed. Though the labor unions mostly supported the war effort, 1943 saw a strike by the Congress of Industrial Organizations, hoping for a quick resolution in their favor as the war effort meant the country could not afford delays in resources.

The government was not pleased, especially as most labor unions had sworn to not go on strikes during the war. This move by the union backfired as Congress swiftly introduced and passed anti-union legislation.

Labor Unions Immediately After World War II

As soon as the war came to an end, over half a million workers went immediately on strike. As with the end of World War I, the unions tried to keep the current deal going. This was, however, impossible. The end of the war meant that production went back down, women were unemployed again, and overall not many resources were required anymore.

Because of the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ recent acts, legislations against labor unions continued to be passed. The CIO was blocked from making introducing itself to the South, and the Republic Party won in 1946 with a crushing defeat of the Democrats. This was also thanks largely in part to the general public’s anger at the labor unions for their betrayal during the war and their Socialist and Communist tendencies. As the Republican Party took office, the CIO took measures to oust Communist leaders from its organized unions. Those that resisted this expulsion were banished from the CIO altogether.

The Taft-Hartley Act

The Taft-Hartley Act was passed in 1947. Also known as the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, this act revised current procedures for dealing with labor unions. It imposed strict restrictions on labor unions, and rode a wave of popularity by the public into being passed. Even president Harry S. Truman’s veto and the collective opposition by the labor unions was not enough to stop it. The public had spoken, and the sabotage by the unions during the war meant that this act was going to be passed one way or another. The Taft-Hartley Act remains in effect to date.

Decline Of Labor Unions, And Unions Today

Decline Of Labor Unions, And Unions Today

Since World War II, and indeed the anti-union acts that passed post-war, labor unions kept falling in popularity and effectiveness. By the 1970’s, strikes began to fail to achieve anything of significance; as companies would simply move their operations to states with weak unionization or even abroad to poorer countries, leaving everyone behind unemployed.

Recently, in the last few years, unionization has seen the largest growth in three decades. There isn’t a major labor union in effect yet, but millennial workers have been pushing to bring back unionization again. A handful of smaller protests have broken out over years; by teachers, bus drivers, and other low-wage workers, but have mostly been resolved quickly enough. The protestors generally negotiate an acceptable deal and the protests never reach a state where unionization might be considered necessary.

Conclusion

Understandably, as civilization has urbanized and consumerism has grown, employment opportunities have opened up. But, again understandably, corporations do not always have their workers’ best interests at heart. Corporations are driven by profit, and though today we might be in a much better situation compared to the days when construction workers frequently sustained serious injuries and coal miners worked grueling shifts, let us not forget the people, efforts, and movements that have helped us reach this point.

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