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Home : American History : 20th Century 
AMERICAN HISTORY : 20th Century

 

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Labor In America

The Industrial Revolution was dawning in the United States. At Lowell, Massachusetts, the construction of a big cotton mill began in 1821. It was the first of several that would be built there in the next 10 years. The machinery to spin and weave cotton into cloth would be driven by water power. All that the factory owners needed was a dependable supply of labor to tend the machines. As most jobs in cotton factories required neither great strength nor special skills, the owners thought women could do the work as well as or better than men. In addition, they were more compliant. The New England region was home to many young, single farm girls who might be recruited. But would stern New England farmers allow their daughters to work in factories? The great majority of them would not. They believed that sooner or later factory workers would be exploited and would sink into hopeless poverty. Economic "laws" would force them to work harder and harder for less and less pay.

THE LOWELL EXPERIMENT

How, then, were the factory owners able to recruit farm girls as laborers? They did it by building decent houses in which the girls could live. These houses were supervised by older women who made sure that the girls lived by strict moral standards. The girls were encouraged to go to church, to read, to write and to attend lectures. They saved part of their earnings to help their families at home or to use when they got married. The young factory workers did not earn high wages; the average pay was about $3.50 a week. But in those times, a half-dozen eggs cost five cents and a whole chicken cost 15 cents. The hours worked in the factories were long. Generally, the girls worked 11 to 13 hours a day, six days a week. But most people in the 1830s worked from dawn until dusk, and farm girls were used to getting up early and working until bedtime at nine o'clock.

The factory owners at Lowell believed that machines would bring progress as well as profit. Workers and capitalists would both benefit from the wealth created by mass production. For a while, the factory system at Lowell worked very well. The population of the town grew from 200 in 1820 to 30,000 in 1845. But conditions in Lowell's factories had already started to change. Faced with growing competition, factory owners began to decrease wages in order to lower the cost--and the price--of finished products. They increased the number of machines that each girl had to operate. In addition, they began to overcrowd the houses in which the girls lived. Sometimes eight girls had to share one room. In 1836, 1,500 factory girls went on strike to protest wage cuts. (The girls called their action a "turn out.") But it was useless. Desperately poor immigrants were beginning to arrive in the United States from Europe. To earn a living, they were willing to accept low wages and poor working conditions. Before long, immigrant women replaced the "Yankee" (American) farm girls. To many people, it was apparent that justice for wage earners would not come easily. Labor in America faced a long, uphill struggle to win fair treatment. In that struggle, more and more workers would turn to labor unions to help their cause. They would endure violence, cruelty and bitter defeats. But eventually they would achieve a standard of living unknown to workers at any other time in history.

GROWTH OF THE FACTORY

In colonial America, most manufacturing was done by hand in the home. Some was done in workshops attached to the home. As towns grew into cities, the demand for manufactured goods increased. Some workshop owners began hiring helpers to increase production. Relations between the employer and helper were generally harmonious. They worked side by side, had the same interests and held similar political views. The factory system that began around 1800 brought great changes. The employer no longer worked beside his employees. He became an executive and a merchant who rarely saw his workers. He was concerned less with their welfare than with the cost of their labor. Many workers were angry about the changes brought by the factory system. In the past, they had taken great pride in their handicraft skills; now machines did practically all the work, and they were reduced to the status of common laborers. In bad times they could lose their jobs. Then they might be replaced by workers who would accept lower wages. To skilled craft workers, the Industrial Revolution meant degradation rather than progress.

As the factory system grew, many workers began to form labor unions to protect their interests. The first union to hold regular meetings and collect dues was organized by Philadelphia shoemakers in 1792. Soon after, carpenters and leather workers in Boston and printers in New York also organized unions. Labor's tactics in those early times were simple. Members of a union would agree on the wages they thought were fair. They pledged to stop working for employers who would not pay that amount. They also sought to compel employers to hire only union members.

CONSPIRACY LAWS

Employers found the courts to be an effective weapon to protect their interests. In 1806, eight Philadelphia shoemakers were brought to trial after leading an unsuccessful strike. The court ruled that any organizing of workers to raise wages was an illegal act. Unions were "conspiracies" against employers and the community. In later cases, courts ruled that almost any action taken by unions to increase wages might be criminal. These decisions destroyed the effectiveness of the nation's early labor unions. Not until 1842 was the way opened again for workers to organize. That year several union shoemakers in Boston were brought to trial. They were charged with refusing to work with non-union shoemakers. A municipal court judge found the men guilty of conspiracy. But an appeal to a higher court resulted in a victory for labor unions generally. Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw ruled that it was not unlawful for workers to engage peacefully in union activity. It was their right to organize, he said. Shaw's decision was widely accepted. For many years following this decision, unions did not have to fear conspiracy charges.

UNION STRUGGLES

In the next two decades, unions campaigned for a 10-hour working day and against child labor. A number of state legislatures responded favorably. In 1851, for example, New Jersey passed a law calling for a 10-hour working day in all factories. It also forbade the employment of children under 10 years old. Meanwhile trade unions were joining together in cities to form federations. A number of skilled trades organized national unions to try to improve their wages and working conditions. The effort to increase wages brought about hundreds of strikes during the 1850s. None was as extensive, however, as a strike of New England shoemakers in 1860. The strike started in Lynn, Massachusetts, when factory workers were refused a three-dollar increase in their weekly pay. It soon spread to Maine and New Hampshire. Altogether, about 20,000 workers took part in the strike. It ended in a victory for the shoemakers. Similar victories were soon won by other trade unions. These successes led to big increases in union membership. Yet most American workers were generally better off than workers in Europe and had more hope of improving their lives. For this reason, the majority did not join labor unions.

In the years following the Civil War (1861-1865), the United States was transformed by the enormous growth of industry. Once the United States was mainly a nation of small farms. By 1900, it was a nation of growing cities, of coal and steel, of engines and fast communications. Though living standards generally rose, millions of industrial workers lived in crowded, unsanitary slums. Their conditions became desperate in times of business depressions. Then it was not unusual for workers to go on strike and battle their employers. Between 1865 and 1900, industrial violence occurred on numerous occasions. Probably the most violent confrontation between labor and employers was the Great Railway Strike of 1877. The nation had been in the grip of a severe depression for four years. During that time, the railroads had decreased the wages of railway workers by 20 percent. Many trainmen complained that they could not support their families adequately. There was little that the trainmen could do about the wage decreases. At that time, unions were weak and workers feared going on strike; there were too many unemployed men who might take their jobs. Yet some workers secretly formed a Trainmen's Union to oppose the railroads. Then, in 1877, four big railroads announced that they were going to decrease wages another 10 percent. In addition, the Pennsylvania line ordered freight train conductors to handle twice as many cars as before.

On July 16, a strike began on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in West Virginia. The strike quickly spread to other lines. On July 19, Pennsylvania Railroad workers at Pittsburgh refused to let freight trains move. (The strikers let passenger trains move freely because they carried United States mail.) The next day the governor sent statemilitiamen to oust the strikers from the freight yard. But these men were from Pittsburgh. They had many friends and relatives among the strikers. Soon they were mingling with the crowd of men, women and children at the freight yard. The next day 600 militiamen arrived from Philadelphia. They were ordered to clear the tracks at the freight yard. The soldiers advanced toward the crowd and shooting erupted. In the aftermath, 20 people in the crowd lay dead. Many more were wounded. News of the killings triggered rioting and fires in the Pittsburgh railyards. President Rutherford Hayes ordered federal troops to Pittsburgh to end mob violence. When they arrived, the fighting had already ended. In the smoking ruins, they found the wrecks of more than 2,000 railroad cars. Dozens of buildings lay in ashes. Many strikers were sent to jail and others lost their jobs. A large part of the public was shocked by the violence in Pittsburgh and other cities. Some people were convinced that miners, railroad workers and other laborers were common criminals. Legislatures in many states passed new conspiracy laws aimed at suppressing labor. But the Great Railway Strike of 1877 helped the workers in some ways. A few railroads took back the wage cuts they had ordered. More important was the support given to the strike by miners, iron workers and others. It gave labor an awareness of its strength and solidarity.

KNIGHTS OF LABOR

The Railway Strike led many workers to join a growing national labor organization. It had a grand name--the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor. It was founded in 1869 by a small group of Philadelphia clothing workers. Their union had been unable to organize effectively. The reason, they believed, was that its members were too well-known. Employers fired them and then put their names on a "blacklist." Other employers would not hire anyone whose name appeared on the list. The garment workers came to two conclusions: Secrecy was needed to protect union members against employer spies. Labor organizations would fail if they were divided into separate craft unions. Instead, labor should be organized in one big union of both skilled and unskilled workers. Membership in the Knights of Labor was open to wage earners over 18 years of age regardless of race, sex or skill. New members had to take an oath of secrecy. They swore that they would never reveal the name of the order or the names of its members. The program of the Knights of Labor called for: an eight-hour working day, laws establishing a minimum weekly wage, the use of arbitration rather than strikes to settle disputes, laws to protect the health and safety of industrial workers, equal pay for equal work, an end to child labor under 14 years of age and government ownership of railroads, telegraphs and telephones. It was impossible for the Knights to operate in complete secrecy. Rumors of their activities reached the press. Newspaper stories usually exaggerated the strength of the order. Under pressure from public opinion, the Knights began to operate openly. But they were still forbidden to reveal the name of any member to an employer. Membership in the Knights increased slowly. By 1884, the order had only 52,000 members. But that year workers led by Knights of Labor organizers went on strike against two big railroad companies.

Both strikes ended in complete victories for the Knights. Now workers everywhere rushed to join the order. Within two years membership in the Knights rose to 150,000. Newspapers warned their readers about the power of the Knights. One of them said, "Their leaders can shut most of the mills and factories, and disable the railroads." Many people associated the order with dangerous radicals. Later railroad strikes by the Knights met with defeat. The order was not nearly as powerful as it had seemed. Workers began to leave it in great numbers. Within 10 years of its greatest victories, the Knights of Labor collapsed.

"BREAD AND BUTTER" UNIONISM

As the Knights declined, a new labor organization began to challenge it for supremacy. This was the American Federation of Labor (AFL). It was formed in 1886 by Samuel Gompers, a leader of the Cigarmakers' Union. Gompers believed that craft unions of skilled workers were the best kind. Unskilled workers were easily replaced when they went on strike. Craft workers could not be replaced easily. Gompers had no use for the Knights of Labor, which combined all workers in one big union. The American Federation of Labor began with a core of six craft unions. They were cigarmakers, carpenters, printers, iron molders, steel molders and glassmakers. The new organization was not an immediate success. For 10 years, the AFL and the Knights battled each other. They invaded each other's territory, encouraged revolts and welcomed each other's members into their own ranks. They even supplied strikebreakers against each other. But the tide was running against the Knights.

The AFL, led by Gompers, grew steadily in size and power. By 1904, it had 1.75 million members and was the nation's dominant labor organization. At this time, many workers in Europe were joining revolutionary labor movements which advocated the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of a new socialist economic system. Most American workers, however, followed the lead of Gompers, with his highly pragmatic approach to problems of labor. They strove to organize strong unions so that they could demand a greater share in the wealth that they helped to produce. They were not interested in destroying the economic structure of the country but in making it work more effectively for their benefit. Gompers believed that unions should be primarily concerned with the 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.

RED SCARES AND DEPRESSION

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.

FROM THE CIO TO TAFT-HARTLEY

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.

LABOR TODAY

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. One hotel chain, for example, uses lighted telephones and vibrating beepers so they can hire more hearing-impaired people. As the work force has changed, so have some--but not all--labor-management issues. Unions now want laws to strengthen their right to strike by prohibiting companies from hiring permanent replacements for striking workers. Employers want the right to test workers for drug use.

There is also growing sentiment that all employers should be required to provide adequate health insurance to their workers--which most, but not all, already do. Many workers are fighting for the right to take unpaid leave when they have babies or when a family member is ill and needs extensive care. And, as the unemployment rate has climbed (over 6 percent in 1990), there is growing sentiment that the government should help create jobs--through public works programs, job training programs and tax credits for employers in areas of high unemployment.

 

Suggestions for Further Reading

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

Fink, Gary M., ed. Biographical Dictionary of American Labor. 2nd ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.

Fink, Gary M., ed. Labor Unions. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977.

Kessler-Harris, Alice. Out to Work: A History of America's Wage-Earning Women. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Morris, Richard B., ed. A History of the American Worker. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.

This document was provided by THE UNITED STATES INFORMATION AGENCY (1986; revised 1991) in the About the United States series. For more information, contact your local USIS cultural office



 

 



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