Last modified on May 8, 2020, at 05:20

American labor unions

The History of Labor unions in the United States begins before the Civil War, but mostly comprised the last 120 years when the AFL (now AFL-CIO) and the railroad brotherhoods built strong permanent unions.

The first local unions in the United States formed in the late 18th century, but the movement came into its own after the Civil War, when the short-lived "National Labor Union" (NLU) became the first federation of U.S. unions, followed by the slightly longer-lived Knights of Labor (a broadly-based federation that collapsed in the late 1880s in the wake of the Haymarket Riot), then by the American Federation of Labor (AFL), founded in 1886 by Samuel Gompers as a national federation of skilled workers' unions. Union growth was rapid in the 1900-1918 period, thanks to support from the national government and working arrangements with business.

In contrast to the craft unionism of the AFL affiliates, which enrolled mostly skilled workers and craftsmen, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or "the Wobblies"), founded in 1905, used violence to promote the cause of unskilled workers. The IWW's opposition to the nation's wartime commitment led to their suppression in World War I, and the IWW virtually disappeared. The Socialist Party in Europe was closely affiliated with labor unions, but not in the United States. Indeed, most union leaders and rank and file ignored the Socialists.

In the 1930s the strategy of industrial unionism was pushed by John L. Lewis within the AFL. His group left the AFL in 1938 and formed the rival Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Both the AFL and CIO grew rapidly during World War II, and kept their strength after the war. The CIO expelled its many Communist leaders and even some unions; both federations became actively hostile to Soviet Communism. The AFL and CIO merged in 1955 as the AFL-CIO. Membership (as a proportion of non-farmer workers) peaked at about 32% in 1955, and entered a long, steady decline, counterbalanced in part by a growth of unions in the public sector (including hospital workers, police, corrections guards, firemen, municipal workers and postal employees.)

In the 21st century American union membership in the private sector has in recent years fallen under 8%--levels not seen since 1932. Workers seem uninterested in joining, and strike activity has almost faded away. The labor force in unionized automobile and steel plants, for example, has fallen dramatically. Construction trades in cities have suddenly shifted from over 75% unionized to under 25%. Only the commercial sector of construction has retained 50% or greater union representation. The inability to prevent non-union companies from taking significant market share has undercut union membership. Meanwhile, the forces of economic liberalization (neoliberalism), capital mobility, and globalization have affected measurably the material standard of living enjoyed by workers in the United States; and mass immigration from Mexico has continued to restructure the domestic labor force.[1]

An important component of union ideology has been "industrial democracy", whereby the worker, through the unions, gets a say in the shaping not only of government policy, but of the policies of the companies as well. Business strongly resisted industrial unionism, and (apart from the garment trades), unions played very little role in shaping business policies. "Democracy" did not mean a voice for the worker in the internal affairs of the union. With one small exception,[2] all the unions were run by small groups of leaders who fully controlled national union policy, and usually shaped local policy as well. Conservatives took the lead in demanding the unions reform, especially after Senate investigations in the 1950s showed high levels of internal corruption. Federal laws now require democractic elections in unions.

Since the 1940s unions have admitted Blacks, Hispanics and women.

Early Unions

During the first half of the 19th century wage scales in the United States for both skilled and unskilled labor were generally from one-third to one-half higher than those for similar workers in western Europe. The unskilled factory worker received from 90 cents to $1.00 a day, which was approximately half the amount received by a skilled worker.[3] The high wages attracted a steady flow of skilled workers from Britain, Gemmany and elesewhere; that is, human capital was trained in Europe but moved to America. These Europeans brought along forms and ideologies of British and German labor unions.

Knights of St. Crispin

The Knights of St. Crispin was founded in 1867 and claimed 50,000 members by 1870, by far the largest union in the country. But it was poorly organized and soon declined. They fought encroachments of machinery and unskilled labor on autonomy of skilled shoeworkers. One provision in the Crispin constitution explicitly sought to limit the entry of "green hands" into the trade. But that failed because the new machines could be operated by semi-skilled workers and produce more shoes than hand sewing. The first local unions in the United States formed in the late 18th century, but the movement came into its own after the Civil War, when the short-lived National Labor Union (NLU) became the first federation of American unions.

Knights of Labor

The first effective labor organization that was more than regional in membership and influence was the Knights of Labor, organized in 1869. The Knights believed in the unity of the interests of all producing groups and sought to enlist in their ranks not only all laborers but everyone who could be truly classified as a producer. The acceptance of all producers led to explosive growth after 1880. Under the leadership of Terence Powderly they championed a variety of causes, sometimes through political or cooperative ventures. Powderly hoped to achieve their ends through politics and education rather than through economic coercion. Their big strikes failed and they collapsed in the wake of the Haymarket Riot of 1886, when their message was confused with that of bomb-making anarchists.

Violence, 1886-1894

See Haymarket Riot and Pullman Strike.

Krause (1992) argues the "Battle for Homestead" in Pittsburgh in 1892 represented a struggle between two competing, contradictory, and irreconcilable versions of American Republicanism. One was Andrew Carnegie's belief in the inalianable right to private property and the right to accumulate capital and manage enterprise. Individual entrepreneurship was the republican way to wealth for the individual and for society as a whole. In opposition was the version personified by labour reformer Thomas 'Beeswax' Taylor, which saw in the ideology of republicanism the guarantee of the workers' right to dignity and security as a group. The strikers' republicanism viewed labor as the inalienable property of the individual worker, rejected the "law" of supply and demand and sought the group action by uinions to assert the rights. They were not socialists and did not want government ownership, but they did want to control the work patterns on the factory floor regardless of the owner and his foremen. The unions were still thinking in terms of iron, when their expertise was decisive. In the age of steel the white collar engineer made the critical decisions, not blue collar workers. The union defeat in 1892 did not simply mark the end of the steelworkers' union's power, it more importantly destroyed the hopes of realizing the aims of radical republicanism. After 1900 Samuel Gompers and the AFL unions worked inside the owners' model of republicanism and sought higher wages, while the rejected republicanism vision was incorporated into the Socialism of Eugene Debs, who argued the workers should have full control by nationalizing industry and having a labor party run the government.[4]

Rise of AFL

The American Federation of Labor (AFL), founded in 1886 by Samuel Gompers was a national federation of skilled workers' unions that set the organizational model that has lasted to the 21st century. Workers belong to specific unions which in turn voluntarily affiliate with the AFL. The AFL affiliates made steady progress. Total membership rose from 200,000 in 1886 to 1,750,000 in 1904. Gompers, as president, vigorously acted as organizer, conciliator, and peace-maker within labor's ranks. Jurisdictional conflicts between member unions were resolved, and in the 1890s the electrical workers, teamsters, musicians, and building laborers were formed into national unions. With rapid industrialization utilizing unskilled immigrant labor, the AFL ignored most factories and concentrated its attention on the skilled crafts. The United Mine Workers (UMW) formed in 1890 from AFL and Knights locals. It was organized along industrial lines, and it succeeded in winning over Slavic and Italian miners in the bituminous fields after a successful strike in 1897.

Labor History 1900-1932

From 1890 to 1914 the unionized wages in manufacturing rose from $17.63 a week to $21.37, and the average work week fell from 54.4 to 48.8 hours a week. The pay for all factory workers was $11.94 and $15.84 because unions reached only the more skilled factory workers.[5]

Coal Strikes 1900-1902

The United Mine Workers was successful in its strike against soft coal (bituminous) mines in the Midwest in 1900, but its strike against the hard coal (anthracite) mines of Pennsylvania turned into a national political crisis in 1902. President Theodore Roosevelt brokered a compromise solution that kept the flow of coal going, and higher wages and shorter hours, but did not include recognition of the union as a bargaining agent.

Socialists, IWW

In Europe the Socialist parties are closely affiliated with labor unions. For example, the British Labour party was largely controlled by trade unions until their power was broken by Tony Blair in the 1980s and the Labour Party officially renounced socialism. By contrast the Socialist Party of America was a complex coalition of recent immigrants who learned their socialism in Europe. It had only a small union base, chiefly among German brewery workers in Milwaukee and Chicago, and Jewish garment workers in New York City. It played a minor role in American labor history.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), whose members became known as "Wobblies", was founded in 1905; its most prominent leader was William “Big Bill” Haywood. The IWW organized aunskilled workers and dreamed of the goal pursuing the goal of "One Big Union" and the abolition of the wage system. It rejected capitalism in favor of "anarcho-syndicalis". Most of the IWW's organizing took place in the West, and most of its members were miners, lumbermen and cannery and dock workers. It opposed the national war effort in World War I and was shut down by the government. A tiny fragment still exists, but it remains an important inspiration to the far left haters of capitalism in America.

Government and Labor

See National Civic Federation Injunction Norris-LaGuardia Act

In 1908, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the "Danbury Hatters’ Case". In 1902, the hatters’ union instituted a nationwide boycott of the hats made by a nonunion company in Connecticut. The owner Dietrich Loewe brought suit against the union for unlawful combinations to restrain trade in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The Court ruled the union was subject to an injunction and liable for the payment of triple damages. In 1915, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, speaking for the Court, again decided in favor of Loewe upholding a lower federal court ruling ordering the union to pay him damages of $252,130. (The cost of lawyers had already exceeded $100,000, paid by the AFL). This was not a typical case where a few union leaders were punished with short terms in jail, but that the life savings of several hundreds of the members were attached. It was a major precedent for lower court ruling and a grievance for the unions. The Clayton Act of 1914 presumably exempted unions from the antitrust prohibition and established for the first time the Congressional principle that, "the labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce." However, judicial interpretation so weakened it that prosecutions of labor under the antitrust acts continued until the enactment of the Norris-LaGuardia Act in 1932.

See: Loewe v. Lawlor, 208 U.S. 274 (1908), 235 U.S. 522 (1915)

State legislation 1912-1918: 36 states adopted the principle of workmen's compensation for all industrial accidents. Also: prohibition of the use of an industrial poison, several states require one day's rest in seven, the beginning of effective prohibition of night work, of maximum limits upon the length of the working day, and of minimum wage laws for women.

AFL and Gompers

The AFL was founded in 1886 by Samuel Gompers as a successor to the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU, 1881–1886); like the NLU the AFL was a federation of unions. The AFL was a union of skilled workers only (except for the unskilled coal miners.) There was no role for unskilled workers, women or African Americans. From 1890 to 1917 the unionized wages rose steadily and the average work week fell. Gompers hired organizers like John L. Lewis to talk up unions and start new locals, while negotiating among affiliated unions to head off jurisdictional disputes. Most of the strikes sponsored by AFL unions were to gain jurisdiction and bargaining rights from employers, rather than raise wages or install safety equipment.[6]

Railroad Brotherhoods

One of the earliest Railroad Strikes was also one of the most successful. In 1885, the Knights of Labor led railroad workers to victory against Jay Gould and his entire Southwestern Railway system. The Great Railroad Strike of 1922, a nationwide railroad shop workers strike began on July 1. The immediate cause of the strike was the Railroad Labor Board's announcement that hourly wages would be cut by seven cents on July 1, which prompted a shop workers vote on whether or not to strike. The operators' union did not join in the strike, and the railroads employed strikebreakers to fill three-fourths of the roughly 400,000 vacated positions, increasing hostilities between the railroads and the striking workers. On September 1 a federal judge issued a sweeping injunction against striking, assembling, picketing, etc. colloquially known as the "Daugherty Injunction."

Unions bitterly resented the injunction; a few sympathy strikes shut down some railroads completely. The strike eventually died out as many shopmen made deals with the railroads on the local level. The often unpalatable concessions — coupled with memories of the violence and tension during the strike — soured relations between the railroads and the shopmen for years.

World War I

During World War I (1917-1918) the number of organized workers increased from 2.75 million in 1917 to 4.25 million in 1919. The Wilson administration strongly encouraged union growth as a way to energize the working class behind the war effort. Since the AFL enthusiastically supported the war effort, officers of the federation were appointed to most of the war boards organized by the government. Gompers was appointed to the Council of National Defense and the Advisory Committee on National Defense. The Mediation Commission and the War Labor Board were created in 1917 and 1918, respectively, to settle disputes and maintain continuous production. The War Labor Board, cochaired by labort lawyer Frank Walsh and former president William Howard Taft worked to reduce strikes. The new Railroad Wage Commission and adjustment boards ensured labor peace after the federal government took over operation of all the railroads. Through these means strikes were kept to a minimum and the trade unions grew in importance and size. The unions thought they had a major gain when the government temporarily took over all the railroads during the war; however they were returned to private ownership in 1920.

In recognition of labor's role in winning the war, an international conference in Washington in 1919 set up under the auspices of the League of Nations the International Labor Organization.

The standard workday declined on average to the desired eight-hour norm during the war and money wages rose appreciably. However inflation was a factor so real hourly wages declined from 1913 levels by 1919. By 1920, however, real wages had risen some 12% above the 1913 levels. Overtime and full employment of all family members made weekly take-home pay very high during the war for blue collar families. (White collar families did not keep pace.)

In 1919 the unions tried to make their wartime gains permanent by a series of major strikes, especially in steel and meatpacking. They failed in every major test.


The 1920s saw systematic declines among all sectors of the union movement, and bitter internal fights in the mine workers. After the failed national Railroad Strike of 1922, the railway brotherhoods took a political rioles in 1924. They joined the AFL to support Robert LaFollette, running on the third party "Progressive Party" ticket. LaFollette ran third, but did well in union strongholds.

Restricting Immigration

Unions continued their battle against immigration, and played a major role in passing restrictive legislation in the 1920s that sharply reduced the immigration of able bodies workers. Large industrial corporations, especially in steel, wanted more immigration, but were defeated. The restrictions were changed in 1965.

Labor History 1932-1955

New Deal Labor Policy

see NRA, National Labor Relations Board, Frances Perkins

Union membership grew by 4.3 million members between 1934 and 1940, jumping from 12% ro 22% of non-farm workers.[7] Half the gains came in manufacturing, especially steel, autos and rubber; these gains were marked by violent strikes, the emergence of the leftwing CIO, and the use of illegal sit-down seizures of plants. Half the union growth came in much less dramatic fashion in non-manufacturing sectors, such as transportation, construction, trade and services; violent strikes were much less common, and the militant CIO made little headway against the AFL. New Deal policies in 1933-35 strongly favored higher wages and shorter hours, which helped the AFL. After 1935 the Wagner Act allowed for federal intervention to prevent companies from blocking union growth.[8]

John L. Lewis and CIO

John L. Lewis (1880-1969) was the autocratic president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) from 1920 to 1960, and the driving force behind the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Using UMW organizers the new CIO established the United Steel Workers of America (USWA) and organized millions of other industrial workers in the 1930s. A powerful speaker and strategist, Lewis did not hesitate to shut down coal production—the nation's main energy and heating source—to get his demands.

Lewis threw his support behind FDR at the outset of the New Deal, but his membership did not grow rapidly until the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935. Lewis then traded on the tremendous appeal that Roosevelt had with workers in those days, sending organizers into the coal fields to tell workers that "The President wants you to join the Union." His UMW was one of FDR's main financial supporters in 1936, contributing over $500,000.

Lewis expanded his base by organizing the so-called "captive mines," those held by the steel producers such as U.S. Steel. That required in turn organizing the steel industry, which had defeated union organizing drives in 1892 and 1919 and which had resisted all organizing efforts since then fiercely. The task of organizing steelworkers, on the other hand, put Lewis at odds with the AFL, which looked down on both industrial workers and the industrial unions that represented all workers in a particular industry, rather than just those in a particular skilled trade or craft.

This dispute came to a head at the AFL's convention in 1935. Lewis called together leaders of seven other unions within the AFL to form a group known as the Committee for Industrial Organizing to push the AFL to change its policy opposing industrial organizing. William Green, now President of the AFL, treated this group as an enemy within the AFL. Anatagonism escalated until the CIO, now calling itself the Congress of Industrial Organizations, formally established itself as a rival union federation in 1938, with Lewis as its first president. Lewis, in fact, was the CIO: his UMWA provided the great bulk of the financial resources that the CIO poured into organizing drives by the United Automobile Workers (UAW), the USWA, the Textile Workers Union and other newly formed or struggling unions. Lewis hired back many of the people he had exiled from the UMWA in the 1920s to lead the CIO and placed his protégé Philip Murray at the head of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. Lewis played the leading role in the negotiations that led to the successful conclusion of the Flint sit-down strike conducted by the UAW in 1936-1937 and in the Chrysler sit-down strike that followed.

The CIO's actual membership (as opposed to publicity figures) was 2,850,000 for February 1942. This included 537,000 members of the UAW, just under 500,000 Steel Workers, almost 300,000 members of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, about 180,000 Electrical Workers, and about 100,000 Rubber Workers. The CIO also included 550,000 members of the United Mine Workers, which did not formally withdraw from the CIO until later in the year. The remaining membership of 700,000 was scattered among thirty-odd smaller unions.[9]

Union corruption

In 1941 newspaper columnist Westbrook Pegler became the first columnist ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for reporting, for his work in exposing racketeering in Hollywood labor unions, focusing on the criminal career of William Morris Bioff.

In 1940, Pegler exposed the criminal past and organized crime connections of George Scalise, the president of the Building Service Employees International Union. Scalise was convicted and sent to prison. This widely reported scandal tarnished the labor movement and served to vindicate conservative critics of organized labor, who cited such corruption to support efforts to rein in union power. Scalise's career demonstrates how organized crime came to control certain unions in the 1930s and the various ways corrupt officials used the labor movement for private gain. This scandal also highlights the biased reporting on union corruption, which depicted employers simply as victims, when many of them played a much more complicit role. The real victims were workers, who found themselves forced to join a union organization that did nothing but levy a tax on their employment. For many of these workers this experience left them deeply disillusioned with the labor movement.[10]

Upsurge in World War II

Both the AFL and CIO supported Roosevelt in 1940, with 75% of more of their votes, millions of dollars, and tens of thousands of precinct workers. However, John L. Lewis opposed Roosevelt on foreign policy grounds. (Communists in the US supported the Soviet Union in its non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, and denounced Roosevelt's efforts to help Britain.) He took the UMWA out of the CIO and rejoined the AFL. All labor unions strongly supported the war effort after June 1941 (when Germany invaded the Soviet Union).
John L. Lewis called illegal coal strikes in 1943 to raise wages; he made fools out of Harold Ickes and FDR and showed the weakness of the government; public opinion became more conservative and more hostile to all unions. Editorial cartoon by Carlisle in the Monrovia News-Post

Left-wing activists crushed wildcat strikes. Nonetheless, Lewis realized that he had enormous leverage. In 1943, the middle of the war, when the rest of labor was observing a policy against strikes, Lewis led the UMWA out on a twelve-day strike for higher wages; the depth of public dismay—even hatred—of Lewis was palpable. In November 1943 the Fortune poll asked, "Are there any prominent individuals in this country who you feel might be harmful to the future of the country unless they are curbed?" 36% spontaneously named Lewis. (Next came 3% who named Roosevelt.) [Cantril and Strunk 561] As a result, the Conservative Coalition in Congress was able to pass anti-union legislation, leading to the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947.

Walter Reuther and UAW

The Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936-37 was the decisive event in the formation of the United Auto Workers Union (UAW). During the war Walter Reuther took control of the UAW, and soon led major strikes in 1946. He ousted the Communists from the positions of power, especially at the Ford local. He was one of the most articulate and energetic leaders of the CIO, and of the merged AFL-CIO. Using brilliant negotiatiating tactics he achieved high pay and high benefits for his members, and high profits for the Big Three automakers. The formula was fatal when the Germans and Japanese started exporting cars in the 1970s, and led to a series of crises and shrinkage of the union.

PAC and New Deal Coalition

Both the AFL and CIO supported Roosevelt in 1940, with 75% or more of their votes, millions of dollars, and tens of thousands of precinct workers. However, John L. Lewis opposed Roosevelt on foreign policy grounds. He took the UMWA out of the CIO and rejoined the AFL. Political action committees were new in the 1940s, and bot the AFL and CIO mobilized their members to help FDR win a fourth term in 1944. Corruption and Communism in the unions were growing issues.

World War II

All labor unions strongly supported the war effort after June 1941 (when Germany invaded the Soviet Union). Union membership soared, as workers were automatically enrolled, and now included for the first time large numbers of women factory workers. Left-wing activists crushed wildcat strikes that threatened to slow war supplies to Russia. Nonetheless, Lewis realized that he had enormous leverage. In 1943, the middle of the war, when the rest of labor was observing a policy against strikes, Lewis led the UMWA out on a twelve-day strike for higher wages; the depth of public dismay—even hatred—of Lewis was palpable. In November 1943 the Fortune poll asked, "Are there any prominent individuals in this country who you feel might be harmful to the future of the country unless they are curbed?" 36% spontaneously named Lewis. (Next came 3% who named Roosevelt.) As a result, the Conservative Coalition in Congress was able to pass anti-union legislation, leading to the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947.[11]

Taft-Hartley Act

The Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 revised the Wagner Act to include restrictions on unions as well as management. It was a response to public demands for action after the wartime coal strikes and the postwar strikes in steel, autos and other industries were perceived to have damaged the economy, not to mention a threatened 1946 rail strike that would have shut down the national economy. It was bitterly fought by unions, vetoed by President Harry S. Truman, and passed over his veto. Repeated union efforts to repeal or modify it always failed.

The Act, officially known as the Labor-Management Relations Act, was sponsored by Senator Robert Taft and Representative Fred Hartley. President Truman described the act as a "slave-labor bill" in his veto, but he did use it. Congress overrode the veto on June 23, 1947, establishing the act as a law.

The Taft-Hartley Act amended the Wagner Act, officially known as the National Labor Relations Act, of 1935. The amendments added to the NLRA a list of prohibited actions, or "unfair labor practices", on the part of unions. The NLRA had previously prohibited only unfair labor practices committed by employers. It prohibited jurisdictional strikes, in which a union strikes in order to pressure an employer to assign particular work to the employees that union represents, and secondary boycotts and "common situs" picketing, in which unions picket, strike, or refuse to handle the goods of a business with which they have no primary dispute but which is associated with a targeted business. A later statute, the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, passed in 1959, tightened these restrictions on secondary boycotts still further.

The Act outlawed closed shops, which were contractual agreements that required an employer to hire only union members. Union shops, in which new recruits must join the union within a certain amount of time, are permitted, but only as part of a collective bargaining agreement and only if the contract allows the worker at least thirty days after the date of hire or the effective date of the contract to join the union. The National Labor Relations Board and the courts have added other restrictions on the power of unions to enforce union security clauses and have required them to make extensive financial disclosures to all members as part of their duty of fair representation. On the other hand, a few years after the passage of the Act Congress repealed the provisions requiring a vote by workers to authorize a union shop, when it became apparent that workers were approving them in virtually every case.

The amendments also authorized individual states to outlaw union security clauses entirely in their jurisdictions by passing "right-to-work" laws. Currently all of the states in the Deep South and a number of traditionally Republican states in the Midwest, Plains and Rocky Mountains regions have right-to-work laws.

The amendments required unions and employers to give sixty days' notice before they may undertake strikes or other forms of economic action in pursuit of a new collective bargaining agreement; it did not, on the other hand, impose any "cooling-off period" after a contract expired. Although the Act also authorized the President to intervene in strikes or potential strikes that create a national emergency, a reaction to the national coal miners' strikes called by the United Mine Workers of America in the 1940s, the President has used that power less and less frequently in each succeeding decade.

Labor History 1955-present

AFL and CIO reunite, 1955

The jurisdictional disputes between the AFL and CIO were mostly resolved by 1950, and the Communists had been expelled from the CIO. It was time to reunite, and the two groups joined together in 1955.
George Meany in Time March 21, 1955

George Meany (1894-1980) served as the powerful head of the merged AFL-CIO (1955–79), but Reuther played an important role as well.[12]

The friendly merger of the more conservative AFL and the more radical CIO marked an end not only to the acrimony and jurisdictional conflicts between the coalitions, it also signaled the end of the era of experimentation and expansion that began in the mid 1930s. By now the CIO was as anti-Communist as the AFL, and both supported the Cold War. Merger became politically possible because of the deaths in 1952 of the old bitter rivals Green of the AFL and Murray of the CIO; they were replaced by Meany and Reuther, who could work together. The CIO was no longer the radical dynamo, and was no longer a threat in terms of membership for the AFL had twice as many members. Furthermore, the AFL was doing a better job of expanding into the fast-growing white collar sector, with its organizations of clerks, public employees, teachers, and service workers. Although the AFL building trades maintained all-white policies, the AFL had more black members in all as the CIO. The problem of union corruption was growing in public awareness, and CIO's industrial unions were less vulnerable to penetration by criminal elements than were the AFL's trucking, longshoring, building, and entertainment unions. But Meany had a strong record in fighting corruption in New York unions, and was highly critical of the notoriously corrupt Teamsters. Unification would help the central organization fight corruption, yet would not contaminate the CIO unions. The defeat of the New Deal in the 1952 election further emphasized the need for unity to maximize political effectiveness. From the CIO side the merger was promoted by David McDonald of the Steelworkers and his top aide Arthur J. Goldberg. To achieve the successful merger they jettisoned the more liberal policies of the CIO regarding civil rights and membership rights for blacks, jurisdictional disputes, and industrial unionism. Reuther went along with the compromises did not contest the selection of Meany to head the AFL-CIO.[13]

Teamsters and issue of Corruption

The Teamsters union was expelled from the AFL for its notorious corruption under president Dave Beck. Its troubles ganed national attention from highly visible Senate hearings led by Robert Kennedy in the late 1950s. The target was Jimmy Hoffa, (1913–75), who replaced Beck in 1957 and held total power until he was imprisoned in 1964.[14] For Republicans in the 1950s the campaign against labor racketeering offered a chance to peel the working-class vote away from the Democratic Party by politically dividing union members from their leadership. The culmination of this trend came in the late 1950s during the McClellan Committee hearings, which was the largest congressional investigation up to that time. Those hearings transformed Teamsters president Hoffa into a potent symbol of the danger posed by labor racketeering. The committee's revelations and the publicity they received undercut the labor movement. Polls showed growing public skepticism toward unions, and especially union leaders. Such attitudes helped conservatives win a new round of legislative restrictions on organized labor in the form of the Landrum-Griffin Act (1959).[15]
"The Thinker", Pulitzer prize 1957 cartoon by Bruce Shanks

Thanks to crusading journalists and Republican legislators in New York, the corrupt conditions on the New York waterfront were exposed. Made into a famous movie, On the Waterfront (1954), the scandals alarmed the public. The waterfront revelations underscored abusive union power and its impact not just on business, but on the hapless rank-and-file workers. Depictions of the labor movement as riddled with racketeers implied that, shorn of their lofty rhetoric, unions simply amounted to one more form of exploitation of workers. New restrictions on union power, the conservatives argued, were needed in order to protect workers from such exploitation.

Civil Rights Movement

The old CIO unions, especially Reuther and the UAW, played a major role in financing the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. The craft-oriented ex-AFL unions were less enthusiastic, especially after President Richard Nixon imposed affirmative action hiring rules that forced them to admit black members. A white member backlash emerged, with many union members voting for George Wallace in the 1968 election.

Rise of Public Sector Unions

Public sector unions encompassed teachers (in the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in bigger cities, and the National Education Association (NEA) in suburbs and towns), who soon became politically powerful because their votes on election day affected their employers, that is local government. Other increasingly powerful unions covered nurses, firemen, policemen and (especially in California) prison guards, as well as clerical workers in state, local and federal government.

The largest public sector union is the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) headed by Andy Stern. It has about 2 million members.

Reagan and Corporate Pushback

Time Aug 17, 1981. read story

On 3 August 1981, 13,000 air traffic controllers, members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), walked off the job. PATCO had supported Reagan in the 1980 election but now was making exorbitant demands regarding high raises, early retirement, and reduced hours. The Federal Aviation Administration made a generous offer but PATCO said no and called a strike. PATCO assumed it would shut down all air traffic and paralyze the economy, forcing the government to surrender, but they misjudged Ronald Reagan. Under federal law, the strike was illegal. President Reagan ordered the strikers as a group to return to work. Some returned but most did not; he ordered individual strikers to return, and again most refused. Reagan was ready; secretly the Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis had readied military replacements. It was the first time in over 50 years in a major strike that replacements were used. Two days later, the president fired 11,000 strikers, and they never were rehired. The planes were flying and labor unions suffered their worst defeat since the 1920s. Reagan's dramatic action energized corporations to resist union demands, and speeded up the rapid decline in union membership and the political power of union bosses.[16]

Decline of Private Sector Unions

As the unions steadily lost active workers in the private sector, their retired members loomed larger. Issues of pensions and health care became more important after 1990, and the unions geared their political activism accordingly.

Change to Win Federation

In 2005 the AFL-CIO underwent a split as several unions quit because of the inability of the old federation to gain new members. Led by Andy Stern of SEIU, they set up a smaller rival called the The Change to Win Federation. They were the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Union of Needle trades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) (later to merge to form UNITE HERE), the United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC) and the Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA). They were soon joined by the Teamsters Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). The Change to Win Federation has had only limited success in organizing workers, and compared to the AFL-CIO it focuses more on younger workers, women, Hispanics and low-wage workers, all of whom are hard to organize.[17] With about 5.4 million members, it represents a major threat to the larger, well-established AFL-CIO. Stern is the spokesman for Change to Win and he challenged AFL-CIO president John Sweeney for national attention.

UNITE HERE merge and split

In the last two decades a great deal of consolidation happened in the union movement. The garment workers union[18] and HERE (Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union), merged in 2004 to create a new union UNITE HERE, with 450,000 members.

Recently Stern's SEIU has been raiding members from UNITE HERE, thus creating a deep division in the Change to Win coalition. In 2008 Bruce Raynor of UNITE, the co-president of UNITE HERE declare the UNITE HERE merger a failure, and tried to take UNITE (and its bank) into SEIU. The other co-president John Wilhelm of HERE protested loudly, and the internecine battle was on. Stern financed and, with Raynor, created a new hotel-restaurant-casino union called Workers United that is part of SEIU and is now openly trying to sign up HERE members. Raynor resigned from UNITE HERE, becoming president of Workers United and executive vice president of SEIU. Workers United has about 100,000 members.

In fall 2009 HERE, with 265,000 members, rejoined the AFL-CIO.

Election 2008

Unions in recent years have increased their activism in the election cycle, especially in terms of funding and get-out-the-vote campaigns.

In 2004 and 2006, unions spent a combined $561 million to help elect their preferred candidates (most of them Democrats). That is nearly a 50% increase over the $381 million spent on the previous two campaigns. However they are still outspent by business; in 2000, companies were responsible for three times as much spending as unions. By the 2006 election, companies and their employees spent $491 million on elections, compared with $264 million for labor unions. Labor spent $32 million on its own mailings and television and radio commercials for the 2004 and 2006 elections, a nearly fivefold jump over the previous four years. Polls show 74% of voters who belong to an AFL-CIO-affiliated union voted for the congressional candidate endorsed by their union in 2006, up from 70% in 2004 and 68% in 2002.[19]

In September 2007 Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards won the endorsement of the carpenters' union, giving him the support of unions representing more than 1.8 million members and retirees, more than any other candidate. Edwards picked up the backing of the United Steelworkers, which calls itself the largest U.S. private-sector industrial union with 1.2 million members and retirees, and the United Mine Workers of America, which represents 105,000 active and retired coal miners. the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, with about 720,000 active and retired members, made its first-ever dual endorsement when it backed Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination and also Mike Huckabee for the GOP nomination. Clinton also won the backing of the United Transportation Union, with 125,000 active and retired members. Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, another Democratic also-ran, won the endorsement of the 280,000-member International Association of Fire Fighters. Clinton and Obama has comparable strength among union members in the Democratic primaries.

Union activists swelled the grass roots organizational strength of Barack Obama in the fall election against John McCain. Polls showed that Obama swept union members by 67%-30% over McCain, while voters who are not members favored Obama by 51%-47%.[20]


The Recession of 2008 hit union members hard in 2009. In the private sector, unions lost 830,000 members in 2009—including 253,000 in manufacturing and 237,000 in construction; they lost their jobs and stopped paying dues. By early 2010, only 7.2% of the workers in the private sector were union members, compared to 20% in 1980. However, the growth of government—which employs most union members, meant that overall 12.3% of American workers were union members in 2010.

In 2009 as General Motors and Chrysler went through bankruptcy, the UAW managed to protect the health benefits and pensions of its retired workers, while agreeing to dramatic declines in the pay scales of active workers, as well as a loosening of rigid work rules that slowed the growth of productivity.

The main political goal of all unions in 2009 is to have Congress pass the Employee Free Choice Act. It would facilitate efforts to unionize a workforce by counting signed cards, rather than by holding a secret ballot. And it requires that if employers and workers cannot reach a contract within 120 days, a government arbitrator will intervene and set terms. Unions say the first provision is needed because employers now intimidate workers in the run-up to elections, and that the second provision is needed because employers sometimes go years without agreeing to a contract. Business replies the first provision would expose workers to union intimidation and that the second one would allow the government to interfere in how they run their business. If the bill passes, warned Thomas Donahue, the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, "no one is going to add a single job in the United States.... Will I put a job here where it'll get unionized in an illegal way? No, I'll put it somewhere else." Conservatives are strongly opposed, it appears highly unlikely that the Democrats can muster 60 votes in the Senate to stop a Republican filibuster.[21]

Meanwhile, the turmoil involving UNITE HERE and SEIU has given conservatives in Congress another good reason to fight EFCA, because dropping secrecy in union elections will become a tactic used in factional fights. On May 28, 2009, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten warned Raynor and Wilhelm that: "This conflict is causing collateral damage. ... The longer it continues, the less likely we are to enact a strong Employee Free Choice Act."[22]

By November Democrats were looking for a compromise that would keep secret elections, as demanded by conservatives, but help unions in some other fashion.

Further reading

for a much more detailed annotated guide see American Labor Union Bibliography

  • Arnesen, Eric, ed. Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-Class History (2006), 2064pp; 650 articles by experts excerpt and text search
  • Beard, Mary Ritter. A Short History of the American Labor Movement 1920 - 176 pages online edition
  • Beik, Millie, ed. Labor Relations: Major Issues in American History (2005) over 100 annotated primary documents excerpt and text search
  • Boris, Eileen, Nelson Lichtenstein, and Thomas Paterson. Major Problems In The History Of American Workers: Documents and Essays (2002)
  • Dubofsky, Melvyn, and Foster Rhea Dulles. Labor in America: A History (7th edition) (2004) ISBN 0-88295-998-0, a textbook
  • Dubofsky, Melvyn, and Warren Van Tine, eds. Labor Leaders in America (1987) biographies of key leaders, written by scholars excerpt and text search
  • LeBlanc, Paul. A Short History of the U.S. Working Class: From Colonial Times to the Twenty-First Century (1999), 160pp excerpt and text search
  • Lichtenstein, Nelson. State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (2003) excerpt and text search
  • Taylor, Paul F. The ABC-CLIO Companion to the American Labor Movement (1993) 237pp; short encyclopedia
  • Zieger, Robert H., and Gilbert J. Gall, American Workers, American Unions: The Twentieth Century(3rd ed. 2002) excerpt and text search

See also


  1. Melvyn Dubofsky and Foster Rhea Dulles, Labor in America: A History. 7th edition (2004)
  2. The printers' union was internally democratic. Seymour Martin Lipset, Martin Trow and James S. Coleman, Union Democracy: The Internal Politics of the International Typographical Union (1956)
  3. Farm workers in the North received up to $15.00 a month with board and from 50 cents to $1.50 a day without board.
  4. Paul Krause, The Battle for Homestead, 1880-1892: Politics, Culture, and Steel. U. of Pittsburgh Pr., 1992. 548 pp. excerpt and text search
  5. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistcis of the United States (1976) series D591-D592
  6. Robert H. Zieger and Gilbert J. Gall, American Workers, American Unions: The Twentieth Century(3rd ed. 2002) p 20
  7. Union membership declined 1919-32, and grew only slowly in 1933 and 1934. When times are hard strikes fail and members quit.
  8. Nelson (2001)
  9. Galenson, p. 585
  10. David Witwer, "The Scandal of George Scalise: A Case Study in the Rise of Labor Racketeering in the 1930s," Journal of Social History 2003 36(4): 917-940 in EBSCO
  11. Melvyn Dubofsky and Warren Van Tine. John L. Lewis: A Biography (1986) ch 18-19; poll data from Hadley Cantril, Public Opinion (1947) p. 561
  12. See "Labor: head of the House," Time Mar. 21, 1955
  13. Zieger, CIO p. 357-69
  14. Hoffa disappeared in 1975, presumably murdered. His son James P. Hoffa (b. 1941) was elected president of the cleaned-up union in 1999, and twice reelected in fair elections.
  15. David Witwer, "The Racketeer Menace and Antiunionism in the Mid-twentieth Century US," International Labor and Working-class History 2008 (74): 124-147,
  16. "Turbulence in the Tower," Time Aug. 17, 1981; Paul L. Butterworth, et al., "More than a Labor Dispute: The PATCO Strike of 1981," Essays in Economic & Business History 2005 23:125-139
  17. see the CtW website
  18. The successor to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. Its membership is shrinking but it has a large treasury.
  19. Brody Mullins, "Labor Makes Big Comeback In '08 Races; Ramping Up Spending, Unions Get Voters to Polls; The Battle in Nevada; Wall Street Journal Jan. 18, 2008
  20. See poll results online; note these are not exit polls
  21. Alec MacGillis, "The Employee Free Choice Bill Battle Is Joined," Washington Post Mar. 10. 2009 online
  22. Michael Orey et al., "No Solidarity for Labor," Business Week, June 15, 2009