A Short History of the American Labor Movement

The SMART Transportation Division, formerly United Transportation Union (UTU), as did its predecessor organizations – The Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, The Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, The Order of Railway Conductors and Brakemen, and the Switchman’s Union of North America – firmly believes in the principles upon which organized labor was founded and will expend every ounce of energy in a continued fight for the rights of its membership.

This article only serves to show how far the labor movement has come, and illustrates the many hard-fought battles waged by laborites so that all workers can enjoy the fringe benefits (i.e., paid holidays, paid vacations, health and welfare benefits, pensions) that are now taken for granted.

It is equally important that workers today realize that the current industrialists and capitalists are still using the same tactics as in the early days of the labor movement to defeat organizing efforts so they can continue to line their pockets with the fruits of your labor. These business tycoons see their employees as nothing more than a disposable commodity and a means by which to obtain a financial bonanza.

As we progress through the 21st century, we must be reminded of the events of the 20th century. In this way we can clearly see that the need for collective bargaining and representation is just as essential today.

This brief history of more than 100 years of the modern trade union movement in the United States can only touch the high spots of activity and identify the principal trends of a “century of achievement.” In such a condensation of history, episodes of importance and of great human drama must necessarily be discussed far too briefly, or in some cases relegated to a mere mention.

What is clearly evident, however, is that the working people of America have had to unite in struggle to achieve the gains that they have accumulated during this century. Improvements did not come easily. Organizing unions, winning the right to representation, using the collective bargaining process as the core of their activities, struggling against bias and discrimination, the working men and women of America have built a trade union movement of formidable proportions.

Labor in America has correctly been described as a stabilizing force in the national economy and bulwark of our democratic society. Furthermore, the gains that unions have been able to achieve have brought benefits, direct and indirect, to the public as a whole. It was labor, for example, that spearheaded the drive for public education for every child. The labor movement, indeed, has served as a force for American progress.

In this past century, American labor has played a central role in the elevation of the American standard of living. The benefits which unions have negotiated for their members are, in most cases, widespread in the economy and enjoyed by millions of our fellow citizens outside the labor movement. It is often hard to remember that what we take for granted – vacations with pay, pensions, health and welfare protection, grievance and arbitration procedures, holidays – never existed on any meaningful scale until unions fought and won them for working people.

A new kind of “growth industry” – consultants to management skilled in the use of every legal loophole that can frustrate union organizing, the winning of representation elections, or the negotiation of a fair and equitable collective bargaining agreement – has mushroomed in recent years, and threatens the stability of labor-management relationships.

Yet through this dizzying process of change, one need remains constant – the need for individual employees to enjoy their human rights and dignity, and to have the power to band together to achieve equal collective status in dealing with multi-million and multi-billion dollar corporations. In other words, there is no substitute for the labor union.

American labor’s responsibility in its second century is to adjust to the new conditions, so that it may achieve optimum ability to represent its members and contribute to the evolutionary progress of the American democratic society.

Federation of Organized Trades & Labor Unions

The first practical step in response to the need for a united labor movement was a meeting of workers’ representatives from a few trades and industries at Pittsburgh on Nov. 15, 1881. The delegates came from the carpenters, the cigar makers, the printers, merchant seamen, and the steel workers, as well as from a few city labor bodies and a sprinkling of delegates from local units of the Knights of Labor.

The new Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions which they created had a constitution inspired by that of the British Trades Union Congress – which then was about a dozen years old. Its principal activity was legislative, its most important committee was concerned with legislation. The chairman of that committee was 31-year-old Samuel Gompers of the Cigar Makers Union, serving in the earliest phase of a career that was to make him the principal leader and spokesman for labor in America for the next four decades.

The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions was a good deal less than a strongly effective organization. In its third year, it collected just $508 in dues, and its 1884 convention brought together merely 18 delegates. Yet its fingers were clearly on the pulse of America’s working class; it passed a resolution decreeing that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1986.” It recommended to its affiliated unions that they “so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution by the time named.” In the words of a much later cliche, the federation’s call for the 8-hour day was clearly “an idea whose time had come.” It touched off, or accelerated, a strong and vociferous national clamor for the shorter work week.

Despite the popularity of that call for action, Gompers and a number of his associates – among them, particularly, Peter J. McGuire of the Brotherhood of Carpenters – felt the time had come for reorganizing the Federation to make it a more effective center for the trade unions of the country. So, on Dec. 8, 1886, they and a few other delegates met in Columbus, Ohio, to create a renovated organization.

It was at this meeting that the American Federation of Labor evolved from the earlier Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. The action was a giant step forward toward the development of a modern trade union movement in America.

A statement by the founders of the AFL expressed their belief in the need for more effective union organization. “The various trades have been affected by the introduction of machinery, the subdivision of labor, the use of women’s and children’s labor and the lack of an apprentice system – so that the skilled trades were rapidly sinking to the level of pauper labor,” the AFL declared. “To protect the skilled labor of America from being reduced to beggary and to sustain the standard of American workmanship and skill, the trades unions of America have been established.”

The new AFL, with its 300,000 members in 25 unions, came on the national scene in a time of discord and struggle. Earlier in 1886, railroad workers in the Southwest had been involved in a losing strike against the properties of Jay Gould, one of the more flamboyant of the so-called “robber barons” of the post-Civil War period. On May 1, 1886, some 200,000 workers had struck in support of the effort to achieve the eight-hour day.

While the national eight-hour-day strike movement was generally peaceful, and frequently successful, it led to an episode of violence in Chicago that resulted in a setback for the new labor movement. The McCormick Harvester Company in Chicago, learning in advance of the planned strike, locked out all its employees who held union cards. Fights erupted and the police opened fire on the union members, killing four of them. A public rally at Haymarket Square to protest the killings drew a large and peaceful throng. As the meeting drew to a close, a bomb exploded near the lines of police guards, and seven of the uniformed force were killed, with some 50 persons wounded. Thepolice began to fire into the crowd; several more people were killed and about 200 were wounded.

Eight anarchists were arrested and charged with a capital crime. Four were executed; four others were eventually freed by Gov. John P. Altgeld of Illinois after he concluded that the trial had been unfairly conducted. No one knows for certain who planted the bomb. But as Gompers ruefully commented some time later: “The bomb not only killed the policemen, but it killed our eight-hour movement for a few years after.”

The new AFL, breaking with the cloudy organizational structure that had hampered the Knights of Labor and other previous attempts at federation, placed emphasis on the autonomy of each affiliated union in its jurisdiction, and encouraged the development of practical collective bargaining to gain improvements for the membership. But it takes two to make collective bargaining work – employers and. workers – and as American industry moved into a period of immense growth and power in the latter part of the 19th century, the lords of industry were little inclined to negotiate with the unions of their employees. The Sherman Antitrust Act, designed to break up the power of monopoly corporations, was used very strongly against small unions, contrary to its intent. And so, the companies grew in strength while their lawyers fought successful rearguard actions to make the law inoperative.

Thus the decade of the 1890s and the early years of the 20th century witnessed many intense struggles between essentially weak unions seeking to liberate their members from back-breaking toil under often unsafe and unhealthy working conditions for very low wages, and powerful corporations with heavy financial resources, the active or passive support of the government and its police forces, and the backing of much of the press and the general public. It was a perfect climate for union-busting and violence.

In 1891 steel boss Henry C. Frick broke a Pennsylvania strike of coke oven workers seeking the eight-hour day. But that was just a warmup event for Frick, who as head of the Carnegie Steel Company in 1892 ordered a pay cut ranging from 18 to 26 percent. The Amalgamated Association of Iron & Steel Workers – one of the stronger unions of the period – called a strike at the Carnegie plant at Homestead, Pa., to seek a rescinding of the cut in wages. Pitched battles followed between the strikers and a boatload of 300 armed Pinkerton detectives. The strikers won the battle and the Pinkertons retreated, with a death toll of seven workers, three strikebreakers and scores of wounded. The state militia then took over the town. Indictments poured out, but no one was convicted; and Frick had succeeded in breaking the strike.

The next big confrontation, in 1894, was at the Pullman plant near Chicago. The American Railroad Union – not affiliated with the AFL and led by Eugene V. Debs, a leading American socialist – struck the company’s manufacturing plant, and called for a boycott of the handling of Pullman’s sleeping and parlor cars on the nation’s railroads. Within a week, 125,000 railroad workers were engaged in a sympathy protest strike. The government swore in 3,400 special deputies; later, at the request of the railroad association, President Cleveland moved in federal troops to break the strike – despite a plea by Gov. Altgeld of Illinois that their presence was unnecessary. Finally a sweeping federal court injunction forced an end to the sympathy strike, and many railroad workers were blacklisted. The Pullman strikers were essentially starved into submissive defeat.

The strike illustrated the increasing tendency of the government to offer moral support and military force to break strikes. The injunction, issued usually and almost automatically by compliant judges on the request of government officials or corporations, became a prime legal weapon against union organizing and action.

A testing period and growth

A better method of federal intervention occurred during a 1902 strike of anthracite coal miners, under the banner of the United Mine Workers. More than 100,000 miners in northeastern Pennsylvania called a strike on May 12, and kept the mines closed all that summer. When the mine owners refused a UMW proposal for arbitration, President Theodore Roosevelt intervened on Oct. 3, and on Oct. 16 appointed a commission of mediation and arbitration. Five days later the miners returned to their jobs, and five months later the Presidential Commission awarded them a 10 percent wage increase and shorter work days – but not the formal union recognition they had sought.

The difficulties that unions experienced in fashioning their strategies for bringing workers into membership and fighting low-wage non-union competition could best be observed in a long court fight which became nationally known as the Danbury Hatters case. In 1902, the AFL hatters union instituted a national boycott of a non-union company in Danbury, Conn. The company, charging a conspiracy in restraint of trade, under the provisions of the antitrust law, filed a damage suit in the state court but lost.

The case worked its way through the federal courts over the next few years, and in 1908 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision against the union. It held that the Hatters Union had participated in an illegal secondary boycott, which was subject to federal injunctive restraint. The decision was a clear signal to the federal judiciary and to the corporations that injunctions could be used to stop various kinds of labor strikes and strike-support actions. In addition, the individual strikers were fined a total of nearly $250,000. In 1915, the AFL proclaimed a Hatters’ Day, in which workers voluntarily contributed an hour’s pay to help pay off the fines. The money thus collected kept 184 individual Danbury hat workers from having their homes seized in order to pay the court-ordered levy.

[It is important to differentiate between direct consumer boycotts or “unfair to labor” or “don’t buy” activities, which are recognized as perfectly legal when conducted in connection with or in support of labor union disputes with employers – and, on the other hand, secondary boycotts, which were the issue in the Danbury Hatters case and which were made illegal under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act.

A secondary boycott is one directed at companies or stores to try to force them not to use, or to offer for sale, products which have been made by a company involved in a strike or otherwise deemed “unfair” by the legitimate union. The secondary boycott has all but disappeared since Taft-Hartley was passed. It should be noted, however, that the courts have ruled that the Constitution’s free speech provisions legally permit a union to place “informational pickets” outside a store selling “unfair” goods and calling attention to labor’s “don’t buy” campaign – so long as they do not call the store itself “unfair” or ask the public not to patronize the establishment.]

This was not to be the first or last example of the way in which employers have sought to redirect the thrust of laws designed to regulate corporations and instead aimed them toward labor unions and their members. Indeed, even at the current time, efforts are still being made to include labor under the antitrust and other laws originally aimed at corporations.

Yet not all of the news was of strike and struggle. By 1904, the AFL could claim a membership in its affiliated unions of nearly 1,700,000 members. Ten years later, at the eve of World War 1, it had climbed to about two million.

There were, furthermore, important legislative accomplishments. Congress, at the urging of the AFL, created a separate U.S. Department of Labor with a legislative mandate to protect and extend the rights of wage earners. A Children’s Bureau, with a major concern to protect the victims of job exploitation, was created. The LaFollette Seaman’s Act required urgently needed improvements in the working conditions on ships of the U.S. merchant marine.

Of crucial importance, the Clayton Act of 1914 made explicit the legal concept that “the labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce” and hence not subject to the kind of Sherman Act provisions which had been the issue in the Danbury Hatters case. The act gave a legal basis in the federal jurisdiction to strikes and boycotts and peaceful picketing, and dramatically limited the use of injunctions in labor disputes. Little wonder that AFL President Gompers hailed the Clayton Act as a “magna carta,” probably not foreseeing that future court decisions and interpretations would seriously undermine the power of the language of the law.

The Adamson Act passed by Congress in 1916 concerning work hours on the railroads was an important milestone in the decades-long effort to achieve the eight-hour day, an objective of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in 1884 and of many subsequent strikes. The 10-hour day – an improvement in its era – was introduced for federal government employees in 1840, but it took until the early years of the 20th century before the eight-hour work day became broadly accepted in the private sector, particularly in the printing and building trades. The mass production industries and the railroads continued their refusal to grant it.

The Adamson Act brought the shorter work day to railroad employees. It came in other industries through the impact of strikes, collective bargaining, state laws and two federal statutes: the Public Contracts Act in 1936, requiring contractors on government jobs to observe the eight-hour day, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 which provided a maximum work week for employers in interstate commerce – first a maximum of 44 hours and, after two years, 40 hours a week.

Wartime gains and post-war challenges

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the AFL under President Gompers’ leadership worked in close cooperation with President Wilson to ensure industrial peace and a steady flow of military equipment and armaments for the American Expeditionary Force in Europe. As head of the War Committee on Labor and member of the Council for National Defense, Gompers and the unions he represented played an increasingly important role in national affairs. A wartime disputes board helped avoid strikes and maintain production; it had the support and cooperation of the labor movement. With the vast expansion of production for military and civilian needs, unions grew rapidly during the wartime years.

A symbolic recognition of labor’s new status was President Wilson’s visit to Buffalo in 1917 to address the annual AFL convention – the first time a President had made such an appearance. In succeeding Administrations most Presidents, Republican and Democratic alike, spoke to the labor conventions.

During the years following World War I, however, the labor movement suffered setbacks and difficulties.

While AFL membership had reached almost four million by 1919, the postwar reaction from employers and their allies was swift and predictable. Elbert Gary, head of U.S. Steel (the company bestowed his name on the Indiana city), refused to meet with striking workers. The AFL endorsed and supported a strike of steel workers committed to such objectives as the end of the 12-hour day, the dismantlement of company-dominated “unions,” collective bargaining and wage increases. Using massive propaganda which sought to depict the strike as “unpatriotic,” plus such time-tested favorites as strikebreakers, spies, armed guards and cooperative police departments, “Big Steel” finally wore down the strikers, and they were forced to return to work early in 1920 under the old conditions.

The “Roaring Twenties,” nostalgically depicted in some movies and musical comedies as an era of unbounded prosperity and champagne-induced gaiety, fell a good deal short of those marks for most American working people. Throughout the decade, unemployment rose, quietly, almost anonymously. It was a time of considerable hardship for many of the unemployed, long before the days of unemployment insurance or supplementary benefits.

The postwar depression brought wages down sharply and caused major erosion of union membership – a loss of about a million members in the years from 1920 to 1923. The difficulties were multiplied by the decision of the National Association of Manufacturers and other anti-union “open shop” groups to wipe out or seriously diminish the status of American unions.

The fear of “Bolsheviks,” often hysterical, that was nurtured by the Russian communist revolution was used gleefully by the anti-union forces. As early as 1913, President John Kirby of the NAM had decided the trade union movement was “an un-American, illegal and infamous conspiracy.” As the Senate Civil Liberties Committee, headed by Sen. Robert LaFollette Jr., reported years later, such demands as “union recognition, shorter hours, higher wages, regulation of child labor and the hours and wages of women and children in industry” came to be seen – under the influence of the NAM-sponsored American Plan – as aspects of the alleged communist revolution from which the anti-labor employers wanted to save the nation. Strikebreaking, blacklisting and vigilantism became, for a time, acceptable aspects of this new and spurious brand of patriotism.

The “yellow dog contract,” which workers had to sign in order to get a job, bound them never to join a union; at the same time, the corporations promoted employee representation plans or company unions – pale and generally useless imitations of the real thing.

In 1924, Samuel Gompers died, leaving a heritage of admiration and respect and a philosophy of trade unionism that still today underlies much of labor’s thinking. His successor was William Green, who guided the destinies of the Federation until his death in 1952. Green, born in Coshocton, Ohio, in 1873, left school to become a coal miner, joined the union, and served as Mine Workers secretary-treasurer for a dozen years before being elected AFL president. An earnest and dedicated trade unionist, Green presided over the AFL with calm dignity during a difficult period – the depression years and the years of the division of the labor movement.

The decade of the 1920s drifted on a downhill course for the labor movement. Virulent anti-unionism, the steady, creeping ascent of unemployment, and the complacent political climate engendered by the Hoover Administration had a decidedly negative effect on the fortunes of the AFL, its unions and America’s working men and women in every part of the country, in every sector of the economy.

Depression, war and a labor schism healed

December 1931 – the 50th anniversary of the creation of the modern labor movement – found America and much of the world sliding down the much steeper slope of a cataclysmic economic depression. Business enterprises failed by the thousands, production plummeted, unemployment went through the roof. By 1932, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President, the American economy was in chaos – and the American trade union movement was but a ghost of its former strength and numbers.

Roosevelt, taking the leadership of the all but paralyzed nation on March 4, 1933, undertook a number of programs designed to recharge the economy, feed the unemployed and restore confidence. At his urging, Congress passed the National Recovery Administration; the NRA’s Section 7a specifically placed on the statute books the right of unions to exist and to negotiate with employers. Although it had no real enforcement powers, Section 7a was seen by millions of workers as a green light – if not a government invitation – to join a union.

The Supreme Court soon declared NRA unconstitutional, and Section 7a was no more. Under the leadership of Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York, Congress in 1936 enacted the National Labor Relations Act – known as the Wagner Act. It went beyond “7a” to establish a legal basis for unions; set collective bargaining as a matter of national policy required by the law; provided for secret ballot elections for the choosing of unions; and protected union members from employer intimidation and coercion. That law, as amended in 1947 by the Taft-Hartley Act and in 1959 by the Landrum Griffin Act, is still in force.

The surge in union membership in the early years of the New Deal, and the potential for organizing the important non-union mass production industries like steel, automobile, rubber, textile and others, led directly to the most serious schism in the history of the modern labor movement. Heads of a number of the industrial unions in the AFL, led by John L. Lewis of the Mine Workers, called upon the AFL to finance and support big organizing campaigns in the nonunion industries on a basis that all the workers in each industry would belong to one industrial, or “vertical,” union. Most of the leaders of the AFL unions presided over craft, or “horizontal” unions, and they maintained that employees of the same skills or crafts in the unorganized industries should sooner or later belong to their organizations.

In November 1935, Lewis announced the creation of the CIO – the Committee for Industrial Organization – composed of about a dozen leaders of AFL unions, to carry on the effort for industrial unionism.

The growth in union strength of both the AFL and CIO throughout the period, coupled with Roosevelt’s domestic program, led to passage of a number of national social programs long advocated by the labor movement: among them, the national social security program, unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation, and a federal minimum wage-hour law (the original minimum hourly pay set by the 1938 statute was 25 cents an hour).

The AFL-CIO years

George Meany’s commitment to “the traditional objectives of the labor movement” was expanded in his role as AFL-CIO president, to include labor’s “full contribution to the welfare of our neighbors, to the communities in which we live, and to the nation as a whole.” In the 25 years after the merger, a number of important issues and trends emerged; they embrace both the tradition or improving working conditions and a new emphasis on issues involved in local, state, national and international affairs.

While labor’s interest in politics was by no means new, the development of COPE – the AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education – brought to labor a more efficient and practical means of achieving these three goals: (1) To make workers aware of the records and promises of the candidates running for public office. (2) To encourage workers to register and to vote. (3) To endorse candidates at local, state and national levels.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, strongly supported by the AFL-CIO, was a significant forward step toward equal rights for blacks and other minorities, at the workplace and in the community. President Johnson, in signing the act into law, acknowledged that it could not have happened without the affirmative support of the AFL-CIO.

The Civil Rights Act could trace its legislative history back to the days of World War II, when A. Philip Randolph, president of the AFL Sleeping Car Porters, persuaded President Roosevelt to issue an Executive Order establishing a Fair Employment Practices Commission. Randolph, a brilliant union officer and civil rights champion, managed to convince FDR that governmental action to stop discrimination in hiring and promotion was essential to the wartime production effort.

Throughout these years, the AFL-CIO was forced to resist various efforts to limit the rights of unions. The so-called “right-to-work” bills, which in fact were aimed at outlawing contract language providing union security, arose in many states. In Congress there were continued efforts to expand the Hobbs Act to make every picket-line scuffle or act of violence a federal case, even though they are currently covered by state and local laws.

The increasing interest in safety on the job, heightened by the introduction of new and potentially dangerous materials used in a wide variety of industries, gave rise to labor’s intensive support for a federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, which became law in 1970. Specifically, the act authorized the Secretary of Labor to establish health and safety standards, to enforce them, and to listen to employees’ legitimate complaints about conditions at the workplace.

(The foregoing is an adaptation from an AFL-CIO publication entitled “A Short History of American Labor.” It is important that we understand the origin of the American labor movement so that we can continue the pro-active policies designed for the purpose of elevating our social and economic position.)