History of 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 
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. 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. 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. 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. 
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. Overall, there is growing 
sentiment that the government should help create jobs through public
works programs, job training programs, and other options.


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