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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
(1986; revised 1991) in the About the United States series.
For more
information, contact your local USIS cultural office


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