Labor Movement

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Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2015
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 2,350 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1400L

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Labor Movement

The labor movement is a broad and ongoing effort to organize workers into unions in order to gain collective strength in negotiations with employers about wages and working conditions. In the United States the labor movement began in the late nineteenth century. As the country entered a long period of industrialization after the Civil War (1861–65), the growth of the national economy required the efforts of a growing pool of both skilled and unskilled workers to increase and maintain production. In this climate the labor movement gathered strength and used strikes to gain concessions from employers. Despite hostility from business and its allies in government, workers became more politically engaged, which led to pro-labor legislative reforms. The strength of unions began to decline after World War II (1939–45), however, as automation of industrial production increased, public sentiment about the labor movement soured over fears of radicalization, and government protections of labor rights eroded. Despite this shift in the fortunes of organized labor, the labor movement succeeded in obtaining higher wages and better conditions for countless workers in the United States.

The labor movement emerged in the nineteenth century in direct response to the rise of industrialization. As manufacturing increased in the historically rural and agrarian United States, people began to move to urban areas, where factories and mills were flourishing and the nature of labor was dramatically different. Whereas farm work fluctuated with the seasons, occurred in expansive outdoor spaces, and relied upon rudimentary technology, industrial work was highly repetitious and in many industries involved the use of powerful and often dangerous new machinery in factories. Because there were large numbers of potential workers available in cities, wages in factories were low, hours were long, and job security was uncertain. In order to improve working conditions, workers began to form unions that would increase their clout with employers. Any single worker could be fired for demanding higher wages or better conditions, but a united workforce could shut down a factory's production by choosing not to show up for work. This threat of work stoppage—or striking—gave workers a collective power to compel concessions from business owners.

The first attempts to unite and unionize labor in the United States occurred in the mid-nineteenth century, and the labor movement grew as industrialization accelerated after the Civil War. In 1869 the Knights of Labor was founded in Philadelphia and helped lay the groundwork for the U.S. labor movement. When the idealistic machinist and activist Terence V. Powderly (1849–1924) took over the organization in 1879, he pushed the Knights to pursue a radically open membership policy that allowed any wage earner to join, including women and African Americans. The inclusive policy helped the Knights grow rapidly and become stronger during the early 1880s, but it was difficult for workers to achieve gains because the union did not concentrate on a specific industry or within certain factories. Despite this lack of focus, the Knights organized a railroad strike in 1885 that gained concessions for workers and helped the labor movement grow.

In May 1886 violence erupted between police and workers at a labor protest meeting in Chicago's Haymarket Square. The labor movement was unfairly blamed for the

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Samuel Gompers (1850–1924), who served as the first president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), was considered the most influential U.S. labor leader of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Unlike some in the labor movement who thought work stoppages would undermine public support for unions and others who believed only revolution could liberate workers, Gompers acted on the principle that unions should employ strikes, boycotts, and other nonviolent strategies to achieve their goals. Ever a pragmatist, Gompers rejected ideological extremes and eschewed reliance on government assistance as he led the AFL to great strength and brought U.S. labor improved wages and working conditions over his long career at the organization's helm.

Gompers was born to a working-class family in London on January 27, 1850. In 1863 his family emigrated to New York City, where the 13-year-old Gompers pursued work as a cigar maker. A year later, Samuel joined the Cigar Makers' Union. In the 1870s, he became involved in the reorganization of the largely ineffective union. Upon taking leadership of the union, Gompers raised dues to build a strike fund and to support a benefits program that included out-of-work, sickness, and death payments. In 1886 he led the Cigar Makers' Union as it joined with other trade unions to form the American Federation of Labor.

When Gompers became the new organization's first president, he gave the growing U.S. labor movement a moral gravity and a conservative approach. He supported craft as the basis for the organization of workers and argued that labor should first organize skilled workers. Suspicious of easy solutions and ideological answers, he held the union back from radical actions and irresponsible strikes that he believed would tarnish the unionism movement overall. Gompers was tireless in keeping the national union together through good times and bad and building it into an effective organization. By 1894 the AFL had more than 250,000 members. Gompers led the AFL until his death in 1924.

violence, and public sentiment turned against the Knights. The organization began to come apart. In December 1886 skilled workers who had belonged to the Knights but had become frustrated with its lack of focus founded a new organization, the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Unlike the radically open and idealistic Knights of Labor, the AFL took a more pragmatic approach to improving the condition and the wages of skilled laborers. Composed of autonomous unions that were organized by craft, the AFL sought to legitimize organized labor as a necessary force within a well-functioning democratic capitalist society. The AFL pushed for political changes that would increase protections and rights for unions. It also aimed to avoid strikes and other disruptive tactics in favor of pursuing nonviolent negotiation and cooperation with employers. However, the AFL quickly came to recognize the need to use work stoppages to compel reluctant employers to negotiate with workers. To ensure that workers could survive such interruptions in work and pay, the AFL collected dues from members and created funds to provide for striking workers. Led by Samuel Gompers (1850–1924), the AFL helped members achieve various incremental gains. By 1897 the AFL represented some 265,000 members and was at the forefront of the American labor movement.

The AFL's pragmatism was vital to its early success, but it also alienated more extreme elements within labor. In 1904 a radical new organization, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), was formed in Chicago. Like the Knights of Labor, the IWW sought to organize all workers in “One Big Union.” Commonly known as the “Wobblies,” the IWW's roots included the unskilled and unruly lumber workers of the Northwest, the migrant agricultural workers of the Great Plains, the Western Federation of Miners, and the textile workers of Lawrence, Massachusetts. Instead of seeking incremental gains within the capitalist system, the Wobblies sought to overthrow that system and replace it with a socialist government and economy. The Wobblies believed that there could only be warfare between labor and capitalism and that either capitalism or socialism would emerge from the battle. They refused to negotiate or sign labor contracts with management, seeking instead to foment conflict between workers and employers in order to bring out revolutionary change. Although the IWW grew in prominence as a result of its controversial tactics and aims, its failure to gain tangible improvements for workers led to declining membership and activity in the early twentieth century.

Even as the IWW faded, however, it helped create the impression that the labor movement was inherently anticapitalist and unpatriotic. Business owners encouraged this idea in order to undermine public sympathy for unions, but the AFL and other pragmatic labor organizations sought to demonstrate their good-faith desire to work with—rather than against—the business community to promote general economic prosperity. As a result, the AFL was able to make some gains in the early twentieth

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Members from various musicians' unions march in the 2013 Labor Day Parade in Detroit, Michigan. The U.S. labor movement began in the late nineteenth century. Members from various musicians' unions march in the 2013 Labor Day Parade in Detroit, Michigan. The U.S. labor movement began in the late nineteenth century. PAUL WARNER/CONTRIBUT/GETTY IMAGES

century, even though it was hindered by a lack of legal protections for their rights to organize and strike. The situation began to change in World War I (1914–18), when the United States mobilized its industrial capacity to meet increased war demand. To achieve this purpose, the nation needed the cooperation of labor—organized labor, in particular. In exchange for agreeing not to strike during the war, President Woodrow Wilson (1914–21) and his administration used the government's power to protect organized labor. In 1914 Congress passed the Clayton Antitrust Act, which protected labors' right to strike peacefully and bargain collectively. Union membership doubled during the war years, and the labor movement attained unprecedented strength.

During the 1920s employers sought to undermine labor's growing power, using such hard-nosed tactics as hiring armed company guards, strikebreakers, and agents provocateurs (hired infiltrators who instigated violence to trigger repression by the police and the courts), as well as the tactic of founding noncontroversial and ineffective “company unions.” Capitalizing on antilabor sentiments in the population at large, employers drew upon local and state authorities to deploy mounted police and militia to harass and arrest union organizers and disrupt picket lines. Yellow-dog contracts, which threatened workers with dismissal should they join a union, became commonplace.

Under the auspices of the National Association of Manufacturers, antilabor propaganda circulated widely to argue for open shops, which allowed nonunion workers to be employed even though a union may have organized the workplace.

With the onset of the Great Depression (1929–39), unemployment skyrocketed, and the power of organized labor eroded further as the supply of workers vastly outweighed the demand. Seeking to provide some relief for labor, Congress in 1932 passed the Norris-LaGuardia Act. It banned yellow-dog contracts, prevented federal courts from issuing injunctions against nonviolent labor disputes, and prohibited employers from interfering with workers trying to join unions. A year later, Franklin D. Roosevelt (in office 1933–45) was elected president. Under his administration labor protections increased dramatically, and the movement's power grew. In 1933 Roosevelt pushed passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which gave labor unions the legal right to bargain collectively. In 1935, after the U.S. Supreme Court deemed the NIRA unconstitutional, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act, which upheld labors' rights to organize, bargain collectively, and strike. The act also established the National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency tasked with protecting workers rights (such as the right to form unions) and Page 704  |  Top of Articlemediating disputes between management and labor. In 1938 Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which mandated a 44-hour workweek, created a minimum wage, and prohibited most forms of child labor.

The AFL's reluctance to admit unskilled laborers during the 1930s led to the formation of a new labor organization in 1938 called the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In the early 1940s the AFL and the CIO used the newly established federal protections to achieve increased pay, benefits, and conditions. When the United States entered World War II in 1941 and labor was again called upon to cooperate in the effort to increase industrial production, the emboldened labor movement proved less conciliatory. After strikes disrupted the war effort, public sentiment turned against labor. Amid calls for reform to retract labor's seemingly outsized power, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. Among its various antiunion provisions, the law permitted states to pass right-to-work laws, making it illegal for employees to be required to join a union as a precondition of employment.

The labor movement struggled after passage of the Taft-Hartley Act and the subsequent enactment of right-to-work laws in numerous states. To increase solidarity within organized labor, the AFL and CIO merged in 1955, forming the AFL-CIO. Hostility toward organized labor grew during this period, in large part because of the widespread public perception that many unions were infiltrated and dominated by Communists or that they were run by corrupt officials in collaboration with organized crime. Although much of the labor movement was pragmatic and honest, congressional investigations in the mid-1950s uncovered substantial corruption, much of rooted in the AFL-CIO's largest constituent union, the Teamsters. In 1959 Congress passed the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, which was designed to root out corruption within unions. Labor leaders also attempted to cleanse unions from within, pushing out Communist elements as well as dishonest union officials and mobsters.

As the labor movement focused increasingly on internal issues, it became a less-effective mechanism for promoting the rights of its members. The declining power of the labor movement was not merely a consequence of corruption and anti-Communist fervor. Much of labor's struggles in the late twentieth century arose from radically changing economic and technological conditions. Increased competition from foreign manufacturers led to persistent struggles for U.S. manufacturers, who had difficulty competing with foreign firms that had nonunion workforces and thus substantially lower labor costs. As U.S. manufacturing weakened, labor's ability to demand better pay and benefits was undermined. In fact, during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, some unions agreed to wage cuts and benefit reductions in order prevent massive layoffs.


Boyle, Kevin, ed. Organized Labor and American Politics, 1894–1994: The Labor-Liberal Alliance. Albany: State U of New York P, 1998. Print.

Brody, David. Workers in Industrial America: Essays on the Twentieth Century Struggle. New York: Oxford UP, 1980.

Brooks, Thomas R. Toil and Trouble: A History of American Labor. 2nd ed. New York: Delacorte, 1971. Print.

Goldfield, Michael. The Decline of Organized Labor in the United States. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987. Print.

Lichtenstein, Nelson, and Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, eds. The Right and Labor in America: Politics, Ideology, and Imagination. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2012. Print.

Pelling, Henry. American Labor. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1960. Print.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3611000481