Labor, Department of

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LABOR, DEPARTMENT OF, established as the tenth executive department by departing President William Howard Taft on 4 March 1913. Demands for a department of labor originated with a conference of labor representatives held in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1865 to deal with post–Civil War labor problems, and the National Labor Union took up the demands. Following the example of Massachusetts in 1869, thirteen other states established bureaus of labor by 1883. In 1884, the Bureau of Labor was established by statute in the Department of the Interior "to collect information upon the subject of labor." The Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor continued the pressure for a department. In partial response, the Bureau of Labor was elevated to independent, but noncabinet, status as the Department of Labor in 1888. Legislation in 1903 established the Department of Commerce and Labor with cabinet status, with the Bureau of Labor continuing to study labor conditions. Renamed the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the bureau was installed in the new Department of Labor in 1913.

The mission of the new department was to "foster, promote and develop the welfare of wage-earners, to improve their working conditions, and to advance their opportunities for profitable employment." Besides the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the department included the Children's Bureau and the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, with the addition of the Conciliation Service in 1918 and the Women's Bureau by statute in 1920. With labor legislation directed at the problems of economic depression in the 1930s, the department acquired significant administrative responsibilities for the first time. The Wagner-Peyser Act established the U.S. Employment Service in the department in 1933. Administration of working conditions for construction workers was assigned under the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931 and for other workers under the Public Contracts Act of 1936. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 assigned administration of national minimum-wage levels.

From 1958 to 1970, the Labor Department developed to address new post-war problems. Congress passed the Welfare and Pension Plans Disclosure Act and the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act in 1958–1959. Under the Manpower Development and Training Act of 1962, the department developed national policies to deal with the impact of technology on the growing labor force. Activism by liberal doctors and labor advocates prompted Congress to pass the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1970, which set and enforced national standards of workplace safety and health. The Department of Labor has grown steadily, as has its functional organization, with assistant secretaries bearing line responsibility for such individual organizations as the Manpower Administration, the Labor-Management Services Administration, the Employment Standards Administration, and the Occupational and Safety Administration. The Bureau of Labor Statistics remains a separate administrative entity.

The role of the Department of Labor as the representative of a specific interest—namely, workers—has been a matter for periodic discussion. Responding to the broad class mandate inherent in its creation in 1913, the U.S. Department of Labor initially—and periodically since—sought to defend workers' rights and mediate labor-management relations. As a result, the department has been one of the federal government's more controversial agencies. Given the volatile combination of class interests and partisan political conflict that it embodies, the department has seen its mission continuously modified by succeeding presidential administrations and each new secretary of labor. Although the first three secretaries of labor—from 1913 to 1933—had been officials of labor unions, since 1933 the backgrounds of the secretaries have been more diverse, including social work; government administration; and legal, academic, and management specialization in labor-management relations.

In the early Cold War period, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, over President Harry S. Truman's veto; the act attacked the National Labor Relations Board and sought to reconfigure U.S. labor relations in ways more favorable to employers. Taft-Hartley emphasized workers' right not to unionize by outlawing closed shops; authorized the president to intervene in labor disputes with a "national emergency" injunction; required the National Labor Relations Board to seek injunctions against unions involved in secondary boycotts or jurisdictional strikes; and required union officials to sign affidavits swearing they were not and never had been members of the Communist Party. It was viewed by both its advocates and its opponents as a means to limit labor's ability to organize, and it curtailed the Labor Department's ability to protect workers.

In 1977, Democratic President Jimmy Carter installed economist Ray Marshall of the University of Texas as secretary of labor, prompting a change in direction once again. Under Marshall's direction, the Department of Labor became a much more activist agency than it had been in the recent past. A recognized authority on national manpower policy, Marshall devoted much attention to the employment and training problems that accompanied the stagnant economy of the 1970s. He revised and strengthened the JobCorps, created in 1964, and the department's employment and training programs, which had been reorganized in 1973 under the revenue-sharing provisions of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). The Department of Labor also created a substantial array of new programs to provide job training for veterans, retraining for displaced workers, and skills instruction and development to reduce the persistently high rate of youth unemployment. Meanwhile, with some success, business critics urged executive and legislative leaders to limit the mandate of one of the department's most important but controversial agencies—OSHA. Established in 1970 and charged with ensuring safe working conditions for everyone in the United States, OSHA aroused the ire of employers who resented federal intervention in the workplace. With Marshall's encouragement and support, OSHA director Eula Bingham reorganized the agency and streamlined its rules and procedures, leaving it in a stronger position to protect worker health and safety and to withstand the Republican assaults on the department's budget during the 1980s.

However, the department as a whole suffered during the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan's administration cut its budget and prompted charges that it failed to enforce workers' rights. In 1981, President Reagan used lockout techniques against the Professional Air Traffic Controllers' union, which struck for higher wages and better working conditions. After President Reagan replaced the striking air traffic controllers with nonunion workers (retirees and military workers), other companies increased their use of the lockout, and both workers and employers got the signal that the administration would not be supporting workers' right to organize.

Regulatory relief became the predominant theme of the Republican administrations of Presidents Reagan (1981–1989) and George H. W. Bush (1989–1993). Reflecting the changing political agenda to "less government," the Department of Labor devoted increased attention to reforming or eliminating regulations that employers found cumbersome and coercive. It also devoted more time and energy to developing cooperative programs between government and business to address the problems of unemployment, occupational training and retraining, and U.S. industrial competitiveness. Reflecting this new emphasis, Congress passed the Job Training Partnership Act in 1982, which replaced CETA, and encouraged employers to help design new programs to train the unemployed. In similar fashion, where Democratic administrations had supported and encouraged trade unionism and collective bargaining, Republicans considered the adversarial relationship inherent in such negotiations costly and inefficient. The new emphasis on industrial harmony was institutionalized in the department's renamed Bureau of Labor-Management Relations and Cooperative Programs. New appointments to the Office of Secretary of Labor also reflected the department's changing mandate. Rather than people who considered themselves working-class spokespeople, the Republican appointees tended to be either businesspeople (Raymond Donovan, 1981–1985, and Ann Dore McLaughlin, 1987–1989) or professional politicians (William E. Brock, 1985–1987; Elizabeth H. Dole, 1989– 1991; and Lynn Martin, 1991–1993). Democrat Bill Clinton's election in 1992, and his choice in 1993 of Richard Reich to head the Department of Labor, once again produced a significant shift in the agency's policies and procedures. Like Marshall, Reich, an academic economist, embraced the role of working-class advocate in the federal government.

However, the tide turned in the early twenty-first century, when the Labor Department, under President George W. Bush, fell under heavy fire from worker advocates for easing up on workplace enforcement and backing off its commitments. In 2001, a Republican-dominated Congress caused national outcry by overturning the department's ergonomic workplace standards. The decision brought accusations that the Bush administration and Congress cared more about protecting corporations from inconvenient laws than about protecting the nation's workers. A series of forums that the Labor Department called in July 2001 to discuss ergonomic standards drew protesters, and garnered an accusation from Richard L. Trumka, secretary-treasurer of American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), that the Labor Department was holding hearings "designed to lead to no action." Though the forums had more than 100 witnesses, critics pointed to the prevalence of industry participants and the absence of testimony by injured workers as a sign that the department was not committed to worker protection. In the wake of this development, the terrorist bombings of 11 September 2001 led President Bush to redirect funding from numerous domestic programs into the military to fund a "war on terrorism"; one casualty was the Labor Department's funding for such programs as job training and community colleges. The long-term effects of the war on terrorism upon the Labor Department remain to be seen.


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Joseph P.Goldberg/d. b.

See alsoAmerican Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations ; Child Labor ; Clayton Act, Labor Provisions ; Conciliation and Mediation, Labor ; Contract Labor, Foreign ; Lockout ; Medicine, Occupational ; New Deal ; Occupational Safety and Health Act ; Work .

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Labor, Department of

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