The Labor Movement

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7: The Labor Movement

Throughout the history of industry in America, workers and employers have often found themselves in conflict over issues such as wages, workplace safety, the length of the workday, and job security. Dating back to the late 1700s, workers began forming unions, banding together to negotiate with employers. From those small early unions to the large national organizations of the twenty-first century, the basic principle of the labor movement has been the same: one employee is powerless to achieve change in the workplace, but when workers join together they become a significant transformative force.

For that reason, employers have generally been wary of unions, fearing that a well-organized workforce would make costly demands that would cut into profits. Many of the battles between workers and employers have hinged less on specific demands for wages or benefits than on the basic right of workers to belong to a union and to have that union represent them in negotiations with management.

Although numerous disputes have been resolved through discussion, many of the major gains for the labor movement have come about as a result of strikes, when employees refuse to work until an agreement has been reached. Some strikes last just a few hours, while others stretch on for years. Some have been resolved peacefully while others have erupted into bloody, violent conflicts. Some strikes have concluded in victory for the workers while others have ended in utter defeat.

As a whole, strikes have been an effective tool for the labor movement to achieve lasting gains for all workers. Strikes have not been the only tool used by unions, however. The most effective labor organizations have appealed to the sympathies of the general public, spreading the word about employer abuses through mass demonstrations, parades, and literature. Such demonstrations, for example, led to laws against the use of child labor.


A list of employees involved in union activity that was sent to employers to warn them against hiring those people; to effectively prevent those workers fired for unionism from getting another job.
A refusal to do business with a certain company as a form of protest; often takes the form of employees refusing to work or encouraging consumers to stop buying the company's products.
An economic system in which the companies that produce goods or provide services are owned privately by individuals or groups of people. Owners have invested funds, or capital, in a business and earn profits when the business succeeds.
collective bargaining:
The process of negotiating a contract between an employer and the union that represents the employees.
general strike:
A work stoppage by all organized workers in various industries in a city, region, or entire country; usually a form of protest designed to halt or greatly disrupt the normal functioning of the area (city, region, or country) in question.
A court order that either prohibits an action (such as a strike) or forces action to be taken (such as striking workers returning to work).
minimum wage:
The lowest rate of pay that an employer is allowed to pay employees, as decided either by law or by a negotiated contract.
picket line:
A group of striking workers marching at the entrance of their workplace to inform fellow employees and the general public of a labor dispute and to influence others not to enter the workplace.
An economic system in which the means of producing goods and providing services are owned by the community rather than by private individuals or corporations; all members of the community share in the work and wealth is distributed equally.
A refusal by employees to work in an attempt to gain concessions from their employer, including increased wages, safer working conditions, better job security, and the recognition of the employees' union.
Workers hired to replace striking employees; strikebreakers allow business to be continued without interruption, thereby defeating the purpose of the strike. Also referred to as replacement workers or, in a derogatory sense, as scabs.
An organization of workers designed to negotiate with employers for workers' rights and to secure improvements in such areas as wages, working hours, benefits, and workplace safety.

At many points in history, the support of citizens has been crucial to labor efforts. Unions have also urged lawmakers to respond to widespread problems affecting worker health and safety. Although the courts and legislators were historically on the side of business owners, many laws were enacted during the twentieth century to aid employees. Throughout its long and bloody history, the labor movement, as with any social reform movement, has balanced significant victories with numerous setbacks. And though union membership was historically low at the start of the twenty-first century, millions of workers have the labor movement to thank for many positive aspects of their jobs.

The industrialization of America

During much of the 1700s, the nation's economy was dominated by agriculture, and most workers were farmers living in rural areas. Some Americans lived in cities or towns, working as tradespeople—carpenters, printers, tailors, shoemakers, metalworkers (known as smiths)—and in other jobs. A tradesperson spent many years perfecting his craft, starting out as an apprentice, then working as a paid employee, known as a journeyman, and finally becoming a master of the craft, perhaps owning his own shop. Tradespeople studied every element of their craft, creating an entire product from start to finish. Their products included shoes, cabinets, clothing, and so on. Such items were generally customized to the needs of the individual buyer. With the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, the United States experienced a dramatic cultural and economic shift, and the lives of workers were never the same.

The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain in the mid-1700s and spread to the United States by the late 1700s. The earliest innovations of the Industrial Revolution came in the field of textiles, the manufacture of cloth. Prior to industrialization, wool or cotton cloth was made by spinning fibers into thread or yarn using a spinning wheel. The threads were then woven into cloth on a hand loom. These tasks were performed mainly in the workers' homes.

A number of eighteenth-century inventions dramatically altered the production of cloth. British inventor John Kay (1704–1764; some sources say c. 1780) created the flying shuttle in 1733. It was a device that accelerated the process of weaving. As a result, the demand for thread increased, and subsequent inventions in the 1760s vastly sped up thread production. Textile production moved from workers' homes to factories, in part because the new machines were too large to fit in homes.

In 1790 the first completely mechanized textile mill operated by water-powered machines was established by British industrialist Samuel Slater (1768–1835) in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Initially mills and factories had to be located near a major body of water because they relied on water power to operate the machinery. With improvements made to the steam engine during the late 1700s and early 1800s, however, factories were driven by steam power and could be built anywhere.

A number of other innovations allowed for rapid industrial expansion in the United States. The 1793 invention of the cotton gin, credited to Eli Whitney (1765–1825), allowed for rapid processing of cotton fibers. It was a job that was extremely time-consuming when performed by hand. The cotton gin transformed cotton into a highly profitable crop that soon dominated the landscape of the American South, making the United States the leading supplier of the world's raw cotton. The rise of cotton as the South's main crop also led to a greater demand for slave labor. Many southern farmers believed the growing and harvesting of cotton would not be profitable enough if fieldhands had to be paid.

In 1798, a few years after the cotton gin was patented, Whitney implemented another innovation that contributed significantly to the nation's changing economy. He developed a way of making weapons using standardized, interchangeable parts, giving rise to the assembly-line method of production. With this method, employees worked on one specific part, performing the same function repeatedly for the entire workday. For company owners, the assembly line meant that items could be mass-produced, made quickly and in large quantities. For the workers, assembly lines made for a tedious and boring workday.

In 1814 businessman Francis Cabot Lowell (1775–1817) opened a textile factory in Waltham, Massachusetts, that became a model for the American factory system. Lowell's factory incorporated the entire process of textile production, including every step in the conversion of raw cotton to finished cloth. Lowell hired a number of young unmarried women, many of whom had formerly lived and worked on farms in nearby rural areas, to work in his factory. They earned far less than the male employees. To compensate, however, Lowell offered boardinghouses in which his female workers lived, providing meals, religious instruction, and educational opportunities. The women were bound by a strict set of rules, including curfews and mandatory church attendance. Over the next few decades, Lowell's type of factory and his approach to hiring female workers were imitated by industrialists throughout the northeastern United States.

At first, many of the women hired to work in mills and factories were delighted to have jobs. Many were earning money of their own for the first time in their lives, and they were pleased to send money home to their families, to buy something for themselves occasionally, or to save money for their education. Those who came from farms experienced the excitement of city living and the thrill of being away from their parents. But for many of the "mill girls," as they were commonly called, the pleasure of earning money was soon overshadowed by the exhaustion of working twelve hours or more a day, six days a week. Many of the young women objected to the many rules they had to follow as well. For example, they resented being told what time to go to bed or that they had to attend church services.

Early union actions

The earliest types of labor unions were known as mutual aid societies, or benevolent societies. Groups of workers in a particular trade pooled their resources to help fellow workers who were injured or ill. They also aided the widows of workers who had died. Mutual aid societies often sought a standard wage from the owner, refusing to accept less than that wage and protesting the hiring of any worker for less than the standard pay.

Even before the factory system came to dominate the industrial landscape, significant changes had taken place in American manufacturing. As the population grew in the American colonies, competition among craftsmen became stiffer. To keep costs of production down and therefore offer goods at lower prices than those of competitors, craftsmen had to hire larger numbers of journeymen and apprentices than ever before. These employees had to work longer hours for less pay than in the past. In response, they organized into unions to register their complaints.

Among the first of these journeymen to form unions were shoemakers in Philadelphia, and printers and cabinetmakers in New York City. These craftsmen banded together during the 1790s to protect their wages and establish standard working hours. Union members also sought to prevent shop owners from hiring nonunion members. These early unions usually had to meet secretly. If their activities were discovered, the unionists were taken to court and convicted of conspiracy. The justice system in the newly formed United States was based on British law. In England, the rights of property were considered more important than the rights of people. The laws basically held that the nation's growth depended on the ability of business to operate without obstacles. When workers unionized for better wages, that was considered a significant obstacle.

By the 1820s and 1830s, urban laborers could see that the factory system would be permanent, and that this system held disadvantages for the worker. The gulf between the interests of the owners and of the workers was widening. Profits soared because of the workers' long hours, low pay, and increasing productivity. Many workers felt that they were little more than slaves. During this period, labor organizations became more focused on negotiating with employers for better wages and conditions rather than simply acting as mutual aid societies.

Beginning in the late 1820s with the Workingmen's Party, workers established political parties to support the interests of laborers. These parties nominated candidates for political office who would try to implement laws to benefit working people. The Workingmen's Party advocated such policies as a standard ten-hour workday and free education for all children. The party opposed child labor and the practice of imprisoning people for falling into debt. The rise of labor-oriented parties came as a direct result of changes in voting laws in the United States. Prior to 1820, only white men who owned property could vote. By 1820, all white men could vote, though many were prevented from doing so by such obstacles as the poll tax (a fee required in order to vote) or literacy tests (an exam to determine if the would-be voter could read and write). These restrictions were designed to keep poor and uneducated men from having a voice in the political process. All such taxes and tests were outlawed for white male voters by 1840, a change that gave the ordinary working man a greater voice in government issues.

The earliest unions were organized by trade, with shoemakers in one union, for example, and cabinetmakers in another. In 1827 a number of craft unions in Philadelphia formed the first American labor organization that included workers from a variety of trades: the Mechanics' Union of Trade Associations. Similar associations followed throughout the 1830s in cities such as New York, Boston, and Pittsburgh. In 1834 these city-wide associations came under the leadership of a nationwide organization, the National Trades Union (NTU). The citywide unions launched pro-labor newspapers, assisted striking workers, and offered support for political candidates who championed the rights of the worker. Their primary goal was to reduce the workday from the current standard of twelve hours to ten. The NTU lobbied the federal government while the workers conducted strikes.

In 1835 the Philadelphia Trades Union launched a general strike, the first in U.S. history. A general strike involves a work stoppage by a large number of workers, usually from several different fields, in an attempt to greatly disrupt the normal functioning of a city or region. The Philadelphia general strike of 1835 organized workers from seventeen different fields to stop working. After three weeks, the workers won the battle. Philadelphia's City Council agreed to institute a ten-hour day for city workers, and private employers soon announced that they would also implement the shorter workday. Similar strikes followed in other cities, with the workers winning more often than not. In 1840 President Martin Van Buren (1782–1862; served 1837–41) issued an order limiting the workday to ten hours for all federal government employees.

Union ups and downs in the mid-1800s

Numerous unions were formed throughout the 1830s, and membership in those unions rose steadily, primarily among skilled laborers. Unskilled laborers, being more easily replaced, wielded very little power and did not generally unionize at that time. Skilled workers continually sought improvements in their working conditions, resorting to strikes when all other methods of negotiation failed. Some of the strikes staged at this time met with success, though many failed, in part because the law was on the side of employers. A number of state courts convicted unionists of conspiracy, declaring that strikes and even the unions themselves were illegal.

Unions were dealt an additional blow with the onset of a severe economic depression beginning in 1837. Throughout the history of the United States, economic downturns have led to difficulties for organized labor. During the depression of the 1830s, employers struggled to stay in business, laying off large numbers of workers to reduce their costs. The workers who were employed worried more about holding onto a job than about improving the conditions of that job. Engaging in union activity meant risking their jobs. With large numbers of workers unemployed and desperate to earn a living in any way possible, it would have been easy for a factory owner to fire striking workers and find plentiful replacements among the ranks of the unemployed. During the years of the depression, unions were considerably weakened or dissolved entirely. This situation repeated itself many times throughout the history of the labor movement.

By the early 1840s, the economic conditions in the United States had begun to improve and many businesses were booming. The population grew at a rapid rate, in part because of a steady flow of immigrants coming primarily from Germany and Ireland. The railways grew dramatically, with hundreds of miles of track laid down each year. The improvements in the economy meant that workers were in a better position to negotiate with employers. Employees felt more secure in their jobs, and employers wanted to keep the workforce productive to ensure continued success.

As cross-country transportation became a possibility in the United States in the mid-1800s, labor leaders began organizing unions that went beyond local borders. Although unions reached out to workers across state and regional lines, other lines were rarely, if ever, crossed. For example, nearly all unions barred black members and many limited the participation of women. Also, a strong anti-immigrant prejudice kept Irish, German, Chinese, and other laborers out of unions. Resentment toward women and other minority workers was fueled in part by fears that they would take jobs away from white men because employers could, and did, pay them less. But many workers also were motivated simply by sexism, racism, and a fear of foreigners.

On some occasions male and female workers did band together. For example, in 1860 thousands of shoemakers, men and women, went on strike in Lynn, Massachusetts. Marching through the streets despite snowstorms, the workers attracted the attention of the press and the support of shoemakers throughout New England. In all, some 20,000 workers went on strike in the region in what came to be known as the Great Shoemakers Strike. The workers were attempting to secure an increase in their wages, as well as demanding that the employers recognize their unions as legitimate organizations. The employers hired replacement workers, but the striking shoemakers continued their campaign, striking for two months. Finally the employers agreed to a wage increase, but they refused to recognize the union. Many thousands of striking shoemakers returned to work, celebrating their increase in pay.

The American Civil War

The American Civil War (1861–65) began after several southern states seceded, or withdrew, from the United States in order to establish an independent nation in the spring of 1861. The secession was motivated in large part by the conviction in the South that the rights of individual states should have more weight than the rights of the nation. The issue of states' rights was closely connected with the issue of slavery. The southern economy relied heavily on slave labor, and southern lawmakers felt that the legality of slavery should be decided by each state. Slavery had been abolished in the North and in some western and midwestern states as well. Many people in those regions believed passionately that slavery should be outlawed nationwide. Tension between the North and South had been building for decades and reached a boiling point in 1861 when the war began.

The Civil War devastated the nation. The fighting left a path of destruction throughout much of the South, which lost the war. In the end, more than 600,000 people had died from battles and disease. For many northern businesses, however, the war did not result in destruction but rather in rapid growth, fueling their transition from modest-sized companies to giant corporations. As with any conflict, the Civil War created a massive demand for a number of products, sparking tremendous growth among many businesses. Other factors contributed to the growth of businesses at this time, including technological innovations that made workers more productive and the further expansion of the railways, which enabled manufacturers to ship their products to distant locations.

The postwar years marked the rise of big business and a dramatic increase in the number of millionaire business owners in the United States. Those businessmen who made a fortune during the war devoted themselves to increasing that fortune afterward. Determined to minimize competition, the "captains of industry," as they came to be known, opted to buy up competing firms, forming monopolies in their particular fields. A monopoly meant that the business owner could determine pricing and wages without having to worry about competition from other companies.

Another significant development to arise from the Civil War was the abolition of slavery. With the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, slavery became illegal throughout the United States. Freedom from slavery held great promise for African Americans, but in reality freedom proved elusive. The newly freed slaves who stayed in the South continued to work in slave-like conditions due to the Black Codes created in many southern states. These laws and policies severely restricted the lives of blacks, limiting the jobs they could obtain, the areas in which they could live, and the public places they could frequent. Those African Americans who moved North faced racism and resentment, with many white workers fearing that black laborers would drive them out of their jobs. Black workers were attractive to some employers because they would accept lower wages than whites.

Labor after the Civil War

With the growth of businesses and the booming postwar economy came an increase in union membership and labor disputes. As companies grew in size, workers felt increasingly distanced from the ownership, making it more necessary to unite with other workers to form a powerful group to negotiate for workers' rights. The National Labor Union (NLU), founded in 1866, became the first large-scale national union in the United States. The NLU attempted to unite workers from a variety of trades in a federation, or network, of several local and national unions. Its goals included establishing an eight-hour workday nationwide, reforming banking and tax laws to benefit working people, and founding a National Labor Party to represent the rights of workers. William Sylvis (1828–1869), who had earlier founded the iron workers' National Molders' Union, played a key role in founding the NLU. He served as the union president from 1868 until his death one year later.

The NLU's stated policy was to include women and nonwhite workers. In practice the NLU did permit some women unionists to join but generally excluded black workers and Chinese immigrant laborers. Black unionists formed a separate organization, the Colored National Labor Union (CNLU), in 1869. Chinese immigrants were the objects of widespread discrimination in the labor movement and in the larger society, due primarily to racism and a general prejudice against foreigners, especially people of color. The Chinese immigrants, unable to secure decent jobs, took low-paying work that white workers didn't want. Many white laborers then feared that Chinese workers would take good jobs from them by agreeing to lower wages.

Another major national labor organization of that period was the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, formed in Philadelphia in 1869 by garment worker Uriah Stephens (1821–1882). The Knights of Labor began as a secret society but changed that policy in 1881. Open to workers in a number of professions, the Knights of Labor embraced women and African Americans, a membership policy unusual for unions of that period. The Knights did, however, oppose membership for Chinese workers and supported the Chinese Exclusion Act, a law banning Chinese immigration to the United States. The primary goals of the Knights of Labor included establishing an eight-hour workday, putting a stop to child labor and prison labor, and guaranteeing that women would earn the same wages as men. The Knights also advocated the concept of worker-owned businesses.

The union attracted such prominent social reformers as women's rights activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) and Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) and temperance activist Frances Willard (1839–1898). The Knights of Labor approached strikes as a method of last resort, preferring instead to negotiate with employers. The union devoted great effort to public education about the plight of the American worker and to lobbying for laws that would support workers' rights.

Child Labor

The technological innovations that sparked the Industrial Revolution in the United States in the late 1700s led to many advancements in American society. But with the establishment of an industrial economy came a number of social ills, including a dramatic rise in child labor. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, many children worked with their parents on farms or in home workshops. As jobs in factories, mills, and mines became more plentiful, great numbers of children began working in industrial settings. Child workers appealed to employers for several reasons. Children were particularly suited to some jobs because of their smaller size. Tiny hands were effective at keeping machinery parts working properly, for example, and small bodies could fit into tight spots in underground mines. In addition, children complained less than adults and could be manipulated more easily. Furthermore, children accepted lower wages than adults.

For many industrial workers throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, a job in a factory or a mine did not translate into an ability to pay the bills and feed the family. Many in the working class were extremely poor. In a number of families, the only way they could earn enough to survive was if both parents and every able-bodied child worked. Some children worked only during the summer months and others during school vacations, but many worked year-round, six days a week, twelve hours a day. They endured dangerous and unsanitary working conditions. They handled machinery that could maim or kill them. Children workers entered mines where the air was filled with coal dust and explosions and collapses were commonplace. Some worked in fields breathing in deadly pesticides. They spent little or no time in school, and many never learned to read or write.

Although some people made no objection to child labor, others focused on it as one of society's greatest problems. By the early 1900s, when the American workforce included more than two million children under the age of sixteen, a significant movement to ban the hiring of children had begun. The National Child Labor Committee, established in 1904, and numerous state committees worked to persuade the public and lawmakers that child labor placed young people in harm's way and deprived them of both their youth and their future. Some state laws restricting child labor were passed, but enforcement of such laws was minimal. In addition, many employers ignored the restrictions outright. Attempts to pass a federal law and a constitutional amendment failed. It wasn't until the 1930s, amid the many social reforms instituted as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, that national laws were enacted to restrict child labor.

With the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, hiring children under the age of sixteen for mining and manufacturing jobs became illegal. Over the next decade, many new jobs were created that required greater levels of skill and education. Better education for children became a national priority. In 1949 Congress expanded upon the existing law, banning child labor in such additional fields as commercial farming, transportation, and public utilities.

Child labor, though illegal, still exists in the United States, with many children working as migrant farm laborers and in factories. The number of child workers is highest in poor immigrant communities, especially among those living in the United States illegally. Parents who fear being deported and who desperately need the money are unlikely to report to the authorities that their children are being exploited by employers. Such employers are not only breaking the law, they are also violating a basic principle of modern American society: that children have a right to be children.

Despite the growth of labor unions, many American workers were stuck in a cycle of poverty, working for low wages and often under dangerous conditions. As more and more working people struggled to survive, the wealth of the big business owners continued to balloon and was on full display. The very rich built castle-like homes, vacationed on massive yachts and in summer resort towns, and threw fancy parties that were models of excess. In their book From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend: A Short, Illustrated History of Labor in the United States, Priscilla Murolo and A. B. Chitty highlighted the gap between the rich and the poor: "Children of the rich grew up with ponies, private tutors, and grand tours of Europe. In immigrant ghettos like New York City's Lower East Side, children lived in tenement flats with little daylight, less ventilation, and no running water." This era of U.S. history, during the 1870s and into the 1880s, is known as the Gilded Age. The term "gilded" refers to a decorative outer layer of gold, a lavish and luxurious surface that provides a deceptive cover for the darker reality beneath.

Employers strike back, violently

Possessing all of the wealth and most of the power, business owners did everything they could to prevent workers from effectively organizing. Economic downturns, like the depression beginning in 1873, did little to dent the fortunes of the captains of industry but devastated the ability of the workers to negotiate with employers. In addition, the wealthy gave generous gifts to government officials, a policy that helped sway the law in their favor. With law enforcers and politicians under the influence of business owners, numerous strikes and worker demonstrations were brought to a violent end by the police during the late 1800s. During the winter of 1873 to 1874, numerous workers, unemployed because of the depression, organized to demand some form of government assistance. At a rally in New York City's Tompkins Square Park on January 13, 1874, thousands gathered for a peaceful demonstration. They were taken by surprise when the police arrived and began attacking the demonstrators. Hundreds were injured and several were arrested and sent to prison.

The following winter, coal miners in Pennsylvania's Schuylkill County began what came to be known as the Long Strike. Coal miners endured particularly dangerous and miserable working conditions. In addition, many in the industry had lost their jobs to newly arrived and lower-paid European immigrants. Franklin Gowen (1836–1889) was president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. Under his leadership, the company had bought numerous coal mines in the area, and he aimed to destroy the coal miners' union. Part of his plan involved hiring spies from the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency to pose as union members. Pinkerton detectives were often hired by business owners to break up strikes or weaken union strength. When Gowen and other coal-mine operators in Pennsylvania cut the miners' wages by as much as 20 percent, the workers went on strike, as the owners knew they would.

Violent clashes between the striking miners and armed strikebreakers, the people hired by the company to replace the striking workers, followed. After several months, the strikers could not hold out any longer. Out of desperation many opted to return to work, forced to withdraw from the union and to accept the pay cut. The union was essentially destroyed. Then Gowen launched a legal attack on those thought to have led the strike. Relying on the testimony of the undercover Pinkerton men, Gowen claimed that a secret society of Irish American miners, known as the Molly Maguires, was responsible for a series of murders related to the coal-mine strikes in Schuylkill County. A number of miners were tried for the crimes as a result. Due to what many historians describe as the suspicious tactics of the prosecutor, none other than Franklin Gowen himself, as many as nineteen miners were executed by hanging.

Gowen's aggressive actions against the coal miners encouraged owners in other industries to use harsh measures to prevent or repress strikes. Many workers, however, were equally determined not to be bullied by the powerful business owners. A strike by a few dozen railway workers in Baltimore, Maryland, during July 1877 started small, but momentum built throughout the region. When a small group of railroad employees walked off the job in Martinsburg, West Virginia, railroad officials asked the governor to order the state militia to shoot at the strikers. But the militia members were local citizens who sympathized with the workers. They refused to fire on the strikers, and the strike spread.

Over the next several days, railroad workers in numerous communities all across the country went on strike. In several cases, militia members followed the example in Martinsburg and refused to use their weapons to disperse striking crowds. When called upon, federal troops did resort to violence, and bitter fighting broke out in many cities. Huge rallies, attended by workers from many different industries, were held in New York City, Boston, Chicago, and many other cities. Workers in St. Louis staged a five-day general strike.

Despite the widespread support of workers, however, the Great Railroad Strike was soon thwarted. U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893; served 1877–81) declared the strikers to be in rebellion against the government. In spite of heavy resistance from the workers and their supporters, the might of the troops outweighed that of the citizens. Dozens of strikers died, and many more were injured. Owners reversed the wage cuts that had begun the strike in the first place, but the strike leaders were fired and blacklisted (placed on a list of employees involved in union activity that was used to warn other employers against hiring those people).

More than 100,000 railroad workers had participated in the strike, making the Great Railroad Strike the largest up to that point in U.S. history. The strike was notable not just for its size, but also because federal military might was used against American citizens during peacetime. In addition, large numbers of women and African Americans participated in the strike alongside white male workers. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Great Railroad Strike was that, in spite of the fact that the strike was violently crushed, the American labor movement emerged with a new sense of power and unity.

The AFL begins as the century ends

As the 1800s came to a close, the struggle between workers and owners reached epic proportions. Workers in a number of fields continued to stage strikes in the face of intimidating odds. Businesses were large, wealthy, and very powerful. The federal government sided with business, readily calling out federal troops if strikers gathered in large numbers and refused to give up their fight. Strike leaders usually lost their jobs and, in some cases, faced criminal charges and severe punishment, including execution.

To do battle with these powerful forces, a new national labor organization formed in 1881: the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada. Unlike the Knights of Labor, then the most powerful union in the nation, and one that embraced all types of workers, the federation was composed of trade unions representing mostly skilled workers. Although the Knights promoted lofty ideals, the Federation focused on purely practical issues, namely workers' economic needs. In his Pictorial History of American Labor, William Cahn summarized the differences between the two organizations as represented by their slogans: "An injury to one is the concern of all" for the Knights of Labor, and "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work" for the Federation. In 1886 the Federation reorganized as the American Federation of Labor (AFL), an organization that has exerted considerable influence in the world of industry since that time.

Much of the AFL's philosophy came from its first president, Samuel Gompers (1850–1924), who became one of the most important leaders in the history of the labor movement. Rising as a young man to the helm of the Cigar Makers' International Union, Gompers proved himself a natural leader with a passion for the concerns of the working man. Many other union leaders set idealistic goals: they wanted society to be restructured to balance power between owners and workers. But Gompers had a simpler plan. He felt that unions should avoid theories about society and political systems; instead, they should concentrate simply on basic issues like workers' wages, the length of the workday, and job conditions. One of the first issues championed by the AFL was the eight-hour workday, a notion that was extremely popular among workers but had been abandoned by the Knights of Labor as impractical.

Haymarket Square

The eight-hour-day movement rapidly gained a large following all across the United States. In support of the shorter workday, workers planned strikes and demonstrations to begin on May 1, 1886. The protests were to occur in numerous cities, including Milwaukee, St. Louis, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. The vast majority of workers wanted the strikes to remain peaceful, rejecting the notion of violence. Some radicals, however, announced their desire for social revolution, an overthrow of capitalism through any means necessary. In a capitalistic system, like that found in the United States, most companies that produce goods or provide services are owned privately by individuals or groups of people who profit when the companies succeed. Many of the radicals described themselves as anarchists, people seeking the dissolution of a central government and of an economic system based on private ownership.

Newspapers widely reported on the speeches and writings of such radicals, heightening concern among business owners and police that the May 1 strikes would turn deadly. On that day, more than 350,000 workers in a number of industries went on strike across the nation, participating in parades and marches. These demonstrations were, for the most part, conducted peacefully. In many industries, the protests were successful, resulting in a change to an eight-hour workday.

Tens of thousands of the workers participating in the May 1 strikes were located in Chicago. The strikes and demonstrations began peacefully on that day, but tension remained high in the city. Many residents and police officers expected conflict to erupt. Two days later, workers at the McCormick Harvesting Works were locked out of their jobs, and strikebreakers were brought in with police escorts. Violence erupted, with the police shooting into the crowds of striking workers. Several strikers were killed. Outraged, the city's more militant (or aggressive), anarchist labor leaders called for a mass protest the following night, May 4, at Chicago's Haymarket Square. Toward the end of that protest, with only a few hundred in the crowd, the police arrived to shut down the meeting. Just as the speaker, Samuel Fielden (1847–1922), announced that the meeting was a peaceful one, someone threw a bomb at the police officers. The police responded by shooting into the crowd. Several police officers and workers died, and dozens more were injured.

As a result, panic gripped the city. Police raided homes and union meeting halls, arresting hundreds of union activists. Eventually eight anarchists, including Fielden, were charged with the bombing, though six of the men were not even present at the Haymarket Square protest. The eight men were convicted. Despite widespread pleas for mercy coming from workers around the world, four of the men were executed by hanging in November 1887. The bombing at Haymarket Square and the subsequent trial weakened the union effort because, in the minds of many, union members became associated with violent, radical revolutionaries.

The Homestead strike

After the Haymarket Square affair, relations between workers and business owners became tenser than they had been, with each side feeling at war with the other. Laborers became increasingly determined to reject unfair working conditions, and owners became equally determined to prevent workers from having the power to damage their business. One of the more explosive confrontations of that period took place at the Carnegie Steel Company's plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania. During the summer of 1892, the plant manager announced that, in spite of a contract with union members guaranteeing a certain wage, pay would be cut significantly. Members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers union refused to accept the pay cut. Thus, manager Henry Clay Frick shut down the plant, intending to reopen it with strikebreakers.

The workers, supported by sympathetic townspeople, took over the town in the hopes of preventing Carnegie from sending in the replacement workers. The company sent 300 men from the Pinkerton Detective Agency to defend the company's property and escort replacement workers into the plant. The Pinkerton detectives arrived on barges, landing at the banks of the Monongahela River. In a heated confrontation, shots were exchanged between the Pinkerton men and the striking workers. After hours of gunfire that left seven workers and three armed guards dead, the Pinkerton employees surrendered, giving up their weapons for a guarantee that they could leave town safely.

The Carnegie workers won the battle against the Pinkertons, but they ultimately lost the war with the Carnegie Steel Company. The governor of Pennsylvania ordered militia forces to go to Homestead to provide armed protection for one thousand replacement workers. Then the company took the strike leaders to court, charging them with murder, aggravated riot, and conspiracy. The strikers were not convicted of any charges, but the union, then the largest in the United States, was considerably weakened by the extensive legal costs of the trials. After five months on strike, many of the workers abandoned their union membership so they could return to work, forced to accept the wage cuts they had gone on strike to protest initially.

The Pullman strike

Two years later, another deadly confrontation between workers and law enforcers took place, this time during a strike affecting the railroad industry in Chicago. In the midst of a terrible economic depression that had begun in 1893, workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company—manufacturer of sleeping cars for trains—had endured several wage cuts. The company's owner, George Pullman, also owned the homes that many of the workers rented and the stores where they bought their food. Even after cutting their pay for the fifth time, Pullman refused to give his workers a break on rent or discounts on food, so the Pullman workers went on strike in May 1894. They asked for and received the support of the large American Railway Union (ARU), which was led by Eugene Debs (1855–1926), one of labor's most influential leaders. Together, the thousands of striking workers shut down numerous railway lines.

A U.S. district court judge in Chicago ordered the workers to stop interfering with the operations of the railroads. In turn, U.S. President Grover Cleveland (1837–1908; served 1885–89, 1893–97) sent federal troops to Chicago to enforce the judge's order. When the troops arrived in Chicago on July 4, riots broke out. As the troops struggled to take control over the next few days, some thirty workers were killed, dozens more were wounded, and several hundred were arrested, including Debs and other labor leaders. The Pullman strike was effectively crushed, as was the ARU.

The events surrounding the Pullman strike convinced Debs that the industrial world needed to find an alternative to the system of capitalism in order to eliminate conflict between workers and owners. In a profit-driven system like capitalism, Debs believed, the success of the owners depended on exploiting, or taking advantage of, the workers. After the Pullman strike, Debs turned to the political theories of socialism and became a key player in the 1898 founding of the Social Democratic Party, which became the Socialist Party of America in 1901. In a socialist system, the means of producing goods and providing services are owned by the community rather than by private individuals or corporations. Under socialism, all members of the community share in the work and in the profits. Debs became one of the best-known socialists in the nation, running as the Socialist Party candidate for president in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920.

"One big union"

Some of the bitterest conflicts between laborers and owners occurred in the mining industry. Miners typically worked ten-hour days at the turn of the twentieth century, earning low wages for extremely difficult work. Many suffered from diseases associated with working in underground mines, and miners were always at risk of dying in a mining accident or an underground explosion. Under the militant leadership of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), miners in the western states conducted several strikes during the 1890s and early 1900s. Each time the mining companies retaliated by sending in strikebreakers and armed militia while seeking court orders to forcibly end the strike. One of the leaders of the WFM was William "Big Bill" Haywood (1869–1928), an energetic and radical labor activist who devoted much of his life to the union cause. Another longtime labor activist during that time was Mary "Mother" Jones (c. 1830–1930), who devoted much energy to the plight of miners.

During the winter of 1905, Haywood, Debs, Mother Jones, and other radical labor leaders gathered for a historic meeting in Chicago that yielded a new and powerful national labor organization: the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Represented by the slogan "one big union," the IWW was open to all members of the working class, in all industries. Created in part as an alternative to the American Federation of Labor, and reminiscent of the philosophies of the Knights of Labor, the IWW aimed to completely restructure society rather than simply address issues like wages, working hours, and job conditions. The IWW advocated socialist views, suggesting that there would be an ongoing struggle between the working class and the "employing class" until the workers took control of production. IWW members came to be known as Wobblies. The name may have come from the phrase "wobbling the works," a code for committing sabotage, or destructive acts designed to halt production.

Because of its politically radical ideas and its leaders' passionate language, the IWW was accused of encouraging violence and sabotage among workers. In reality, however, most of the strike activity led by the organization was peaceful. The IWW achieved many gains, leading major strikes among textile workers in Massachusetts and New Jersey. In addition, the IWW organized thousands of workers that had previously been neglected by other large labor groups, including miners, loggers, and farm workers. The gains made by the Wobblies were significant but far from permanent.

The IWW, because of its revolutionary stance, met with strong opposition from many Americans, including a number of more conservative labor leaders. The organization was weakened from within by disagreements over political philosophy, and many of its leaders were imprisoned during World War I (1914–18) for opposing American involvement in the war. By the beginning of the 1920s, the IWW was no longer a powerful force for labor, but its spirit and legacy lived on for many years. In his book The Labor Movement in the United States, John J. Flagler explained that, in later generations, "a large share of the picket line marching music, the folk ballads of the organizing rallies, and the militant hymns which bind together a [union] membership were written with crusading zeal by long-forgotten Wobbly minstrels."

Triumph and tragedy for garment workers

During the early 1900s, immigrants continued to arrive in the United States in large numbers. Employers eagerly hired them, capitalizing on the new residents' poverty and desperation. Immigrants were so anxious to build new lives in America that they accepted any job, putting up with low wages, long hours, and poor conditions. Many immigrants, particularly young women, had jobs in the textile industry. They worked for companies that produced various types of cloth, or in the garment industry, turning cloth into clothing.

The workers in these factories were treated as little better than slaves. They were often required to pay for their supplies, including needles and thread, and rent out storage lockers and even the chairs they used. They worked between sixty-five and seventy-five hours a week for meager wages. Women earned about six dollars a week, less than what the men earned for the same type of work. Children earned less than the women did. They were not allowed to sing or even to speak to each other, and they were scolded if the foreman thought they took too long to use the bathroom.

During the fall of 1909, many of the women workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City had reached the limit of their tolerance of such conditions. ("Shirtwaist" is a term referring to a woman's tailored blouse or dress made in the style of men's shirts.) The women began to explore membership in the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU). When word of union activity reached the employers, they fired those who had joined the union. The fired workers immediately formed a picket line, marching at the entrance to the factory carrying signs and shouting slogans. The ILGWU called for a strike. Several hundred workers went on strike, marching daily in front of the factory. The strikers suffered harassment and violence from hired thugs and police, with as many as twenty workers being arrested on a daily basis. Support for the workers came from the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL), an organization designed to help women join or form unions. The WTUL membership included well-known and highly respected society women, and their support of the striking garment workers attracted considerable attention and sympathy from the public.

On November 22, 1909, several weeks into the strike against the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, a mass meeting was attended by thousands of garment workers from many different companies. At the gathering, leading union activists, including Samuel Gompers, spoke to the frustrated workers, giving inspiring speeches about working together to achieve progress in the workplace. Clara Lemlich (1886–1982), a young Ukrainian garment worker who had been badly beaten during an earlier strike, stood at the podium to express her frustration. Fed up with all the talking, she called upon her fellow workers to take action and vote for a general strike of the entire New York City shirtwaist industry. The crowd cheered with approval.

In what became known as the "Uprising of the 20,000," women from hundreds of shirtwaist manufacturers walked off the job. The general strike lasted until February 15, 1910, with strikers enduring a cold winter without any income. The strike ended when the factory, or "shop," owners agreed to several of the workers' demands. They agreed to shorten the workweek to fifty-two hours and to improve wages and working conditions. Business owners also said they would no longer punish workers for engaging in strikes or other union activities. The shirtwaist workers' massive general strike gave women new power within the labor movement. Female workers—including numerous immigrants, considered to be the most powerless members of society—came to be seen as a force for change. In addition, the women leaders of the shirtwaist strike became significant players in the labor movement.

The triumph of the shirtwaist workers in 1910 was darkened by a tragedy just over a year later. On March 25, 1911, fire broke out on the eighth floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company building. Fueled by the large quantities of fabric on the work floors, the fire spread quickly throughout the eighth floor and up to the ninth. Hundreds of women found themselves trapped inside the building. The fire escapes were inadequate, no sprinkler systems had been installed, and the two elevators could only take a few people down at a time. One of the exits from the work area was unavailable because the doors had been locked from the outside, a practice designed to insure that workers did not steal fabric or take unauthorized breaks during the workday.

Firefighters rushed to the scene, but their ladders and fire hoses did not reach high enough. Several hundred women were able to escape, some by the elevators, some on the stairs, and some by climbing up the stairs to the roof. Others were trapped in the fire. Still others seized the only option they could see, jumping out the windows and plummeting to their deaths on the street below. In all, 146 people, mostly women, died from the fire. The owners of the business went on trial, but they were acquitted of any responsibility in the deaths of their workers. The public reacted with outrage, demanding that improvements be made to protect workers' safety in the factories. Gradually, changes were made in New York and elsewhere to make workplaces safer.

Textile workers strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts

After the strike and the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, workers all across the nation were inspired to rebel against their miserable working conditions. Laborers in Massachusetts had achieved a small victory when a state law had shortened the workweek from fifty-six to fifty-four hours. However, the employers had responded to the new law by cutting wages and increasing the speed of production. More than 25,000 workers, many of whom were new immigrants from various European countries, walked off the job in January 1912. The strikers had no unifying leaders, so organizers from the IWW were called in. Joseph Ettor (1885–1948) and Arturo Giovanitti (1882–1959) arrived, warning the workers to remain peaceful and unified. They organized committees to represent the multiple nationalities of the workers. They set up soup kitchens to feed the hungry strikers, and they conducted numerous parades and marches.

City and state officials responded to the strike by ordering the state militia to report to Lawrence. This sparked numerous heated and violent confrontations with the striking workers. When a riot broke out during one demonstration, a female worker named Anna LoPizzo was shot and killed. Despite the fact that they were miles away during the riot, Ettor and Giovanitti were charged with the crime and placed in jail. Other IWW leaders arrived to help with the strike, including a young woman named Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890–1964). Flynn had joined the Wobblies at the age of sixteen and had quickly proven herself to be a confident and passionate speaker, able to inspire and persuade large crowds of workers.

The strike wore on for weeks. In mid-February, some of the strikers sent their children via train to nearby communities where they could stay with friends or relatives until the strike was over. Knowing that striking workers could hold out much longer if their children were being cared for elsewhere, city officials ordered the police to stop further groups of children from boarding trains. The police surrounded a group of children and parents, using force to restrain the crowd. Children and parents were arrested, and several children were taken away from their families. When news of the police actions reached the public, people were furious, and sympathy for the workers increased. Soon after, the U.S. Congress began investigating the conditions at the American Woolen Company, the main employer in Lawrence. Backed into a corner, the American Woolen Company agreed to meet the workers' demands on March 12, 1912. The workers would receive an increase in wages, overtime pay, and the right to engage in union activity without being punished. The IWW organizers Ettor and Giovanitti were later tried and found not guilty.

Women in the Labor Movement

Throughout much of the history of the labor movement, women were eager participants who were often forced to play a secondary role. Some early unions did not have women members simply because they represented a field in which women did not work. Many unions during the 1800s and well into the 1900s, however, had a policy of excluding women workers, leaving women to organize their own unions. Many male workers felt threatened by their female counterparts because employers could get away with paying women less money for the same work.

In the 1830s working women in several large cities formed societies to demand higher wages for such jobs as sewing, tailoring, and shoemaking. Many people disapproved of women taking part in union activity, considering it inappropriate and unladylike for women to engage in any type of activism. A number of people believed that women were inferior to men in skills and intelligence but superior in moral values. They thought that women needed to be kept out of the workplace and revered for their roles as wives and mothers.

Most often, when women did participate in strikes, they did so alongside male workers. Female mill workers at the Cocheco mill in Dover, New Hampshire, became the first women to strike alone in the United States, without male workers, when they walked off their jobs in 1828. Their discontent stemmed from a new set of rules imposed by the managers. The women were fined for being late or talking on the job; forced to attend church on Sundays; and required to give two weeks' notice before quitting. Hundreds of women marched through the streets carrying signs, a display that shocked the citizens of Dover, who were unaccustomed to seeing women speak out in such ways. When the owners of the mill began to advertise for replacement workers, the striking women, afraid of losing their jobs, returned to work. None of their demands were met by the employers, and the leaders of the strike were fired and blacklisted. But the women of the Cocheco mill paved the way for future generations of women workers.

In 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, the women's rights movement began with its primary goal being women's suffrage, or the right to vote. The quest for suffrage took more than seventy years, but the process gradually raised awareness of the rights of working women. The women's rights movement included among its demands an increase in the wages of all female workers. The Knights of Labor, a major national union established in 1869, welcomed women members beginning in 1881 and attempted to secure wages for women that were equal to those of men.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), active in the early twentieth century, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which rose to prominence in the 1930s, both had open membership policies and actively promoted women's membership in unions. They supported equality in theory, if not always in practice, and opposed discrimination in unions and in the workplace. Most leadership positions were held by men, however.

As unionization expanded during the 1950s and 1960s to include government workers, teachers, hospital staff, and others, the number of women in unions rose significantly. Reflecting the changes in society brought on by the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, women increasingly held positions of leadership in their unions. The presence of female labor leaders marked a shift in union concerns to include issues specific to women workers, including parental leave, or the right of a parent to take time off from a job when a child is born or adopted without having to worry about losing that job. By the late twentieth century, even as the number of overall workers represented by unions had decreased, female membership in unions had risen to historic highs, nearly equal in number to male membership.

The Ludlow massacre

Although the Lawrence strike ended in victory for the workers, another strike the following year in a different part of the country ended in tragedy. In Ludlow, Colorado, coal miners struggled to feed their families and to escape injury in the dangerous mines. In the fall of 1913, about 10,000 miners, under the leadership of the United Mine Workers union, went on strike. John D. Rockefeller Jr. (1874–1960), owner of the coal mines, forced the striking workers to move out of their company-owned homes. In response, the workers set up a tent city on land adjacent to the mine property. At eighty-three years old, the tireless labor activist Mother Jones came to Ludlow to lead the strikers. Mother Jones was thrown out of the state and imprisoned multiple times, but she continued to come back to Ludlow to offer her support.

As the strike stretched on through the winter and into 1914, Rockefeller decided to take action. The militia was called in and armed guards hired to escort strikebreakers into the tent city. The guards attacked the miners, beating and arresting them. Occasionally, the troops would fire their guns randomly into the tents. As a result, the miners dug underground pits inside the tents to protect their families from the gunfire. On April 20, 1914, the troops encircled the tents and began shooting. Some miners shot back as their families took refuge in the underground pits. The troops then poured kerosene on some of the tents and set them on fire. Many people managed to escape the burning tents and the hail of gunfire, running into the nearby hills. But a tour of the wreckage the next day revealed that two women and eleven children had been trapped underground and killed by fire. A number of miners were killed by gunfire.

News of the Ludlow massacre shocked the nation and served to further spread the word about the unfair and dangerous working conditions many workers endured. Rockefeller generated a massive public relations effort, claiming that his workers had been content until union agitators arrived. However, the public became increasingly concerned about the amount of power wielded by big business. A growing number of journalists, sometimes described as muckrakers for their desire to dig up the harmful practices of corporations or governments, focused public attention on the powerlessness of the worker and the misdeeds committed by many large companies. Slowly, changes were made to limit the power of corporations.

World War I and beyond

Labor activism slowed down with the start of World War I (1914–1918) in Europe and amid rising speculation that the United States might enter the war. Many labor activists, particularly the socialists, vigorously opposed U.S. involvement in the war, and a number were jailed for their antiwar stance. They were charged with treason and espionage, accused of betraying and spying on their country. Other labor leaders supported the war effort, in part because the union cause had made some progress in recent years. Such leaders wanted to remain on good terms with lawmakers and other government officials. Recent advancements had included the creation of the U.S. Department of Labor in 1913. The new agency was designed to be an advocate for American workers. In addition, the Clayton Act, passed in 1914, made it more difficult for companies to obtain injunctions, or court orders, to end strikes.

When the United States entered the war in 1917, many young men became soldiers, and the nation's workforce decreased. Wishing to continue manufacturing without interruption, the federal government made some concessions to laborers. This included support for collective bargaining, which is a negotiation between employers and union leaders for workers' wages and other contract terms. During the war years, the government also mandated hiring union workers for government contract work. Membership in the AFL grew significantly at that time, a circumstance that increased the union's negotiating power and boosted its profile in the corporate world.

After the war ended in 1918, the United States endured the difficult transition from a wartime economy to one of peace. The war had sparked a dramatic increase in manufacturing, including production of weapons, ammunition, uniforms, and other necessary items. Many businesses had to find new sources of revenue after the fighting ended. Construction of new homes and other buildings increased, as did production of consumer goods. A high rate of inflation had raised prices for food, clothing, and many other goods, but workers' wages had remained the same. The year following World War I marked a period of intense labor unrest. Some four million workers participated in three thousand strikes, including a general strike in Seattle, Washington, that nearly brought the city to a halt before ending when the National Guard arrived. A lengthy and difficult strike by more than 300,000 steel workers ended with the strikers being forced to return to work without having any of their demands met.

Despite the widespread dissatisfaction among workers and the large number of strikes, labor as a whole made few gains at this time, in part because the movement was divided by differing philosophies and the varied ethnicities and nationalities of union members. In addition, the employers had become increasingly determined to prevent union activity, and they readily resorted to violent tactics to break up strikes. Furthermore, the media and employers exploited a national fear of communism, known as the "Red scare," by labeling union leaders as communist agitators and dangerous radicals. Communism is a political system whereby a dictatorial government controls the economy with the intention of eliminating class distinctions and private property. The Red scare significantly damaged the strength of all unions even though many union leaders had nothing to do with the Communist Party.

Throughout the 1920s, corporate profits soared as businesses became bigger and bigger, merging and consolidating until a small percentage of people controlled the vast majority of the money. New and improved consumer goods, including automobiles, flooded the market, and many newly prosperous consumers purchased them. With the lawmakers, courts, and to some extent public opinion coming down on the side of big business, workers had little chance of winning any gains from their employers. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld decisions that opposed establishing a minimum wage for workers and made it easy for employers to obtain injunctions preventing strikes and other disruptive union activities.

The efforts of big business to protect their profits by keeping workers' wages low eventually had an unforeseen consequence, however. With so many workers earning low wages, more and more of the abundant new consumer goods sat on store shelves, unaffordable to many. Without enough buyers for their goods, many companies had to slow down production, lay off employees, and watch their profits begin to decline. By the end of the decade, the era of prosperity ended with a stunning crash.

The Great Depression

In the autumn of 1929, a number of factors combined to cause the U.S. economy, and that of numerous other nations as well, to collapse. The U.S. stock market crashed on October 29, 1929, precipitating a lengthy period of tremendous national hardship known as the Great Depression (1929–41). A number of people who had invested heavily in the stock market lost everything when it crashed, and millions of others lost their jobs in the months and years after the crash. Within three years of the collapse, factory production was half what it had been before the Depression began, and twelve million people were out of work in the United States. Thousands of banks failed, thereby wiping out the savings of many Americans. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes to foreclosure, a process whereby a bank or other lender takes possession of a home when the homeowners are unable to make loan payments. With so many people struggling to find work and to put food on the table, the labor movement stalled. Most workers fortunate enough to have jobs were extremely reluctant to risk losing their source of income by going on strike.

U.S. President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964; served 1929–33), in office during the first three years of the Great Depression, took some steps to aid banks and other businesses. However, he offered no relief programs to ease the dire poverty that afflicted many citizens. Having promised to deliver aid to the nation and its citizens, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) was elected president in November 1932. Upon taking office in early 1933, Roosevelt immediately began implementing a series of laws and programs, known as the New Deal, designed to help the economy recover and to give relief to citizens. The New Deal included numerous job programs, aid to farmers, and government regulations to stabilize the economy. Although the New Deal did not result in immediate recovery, it did provide jobs for millions of people, helped thousands of families hold on to their farms and homes, and sparked higher levels of factory production. The New Deal also offered a measure of hope and dignity to millions of destitute and desperate citizens.

Some New Deal legislation benefited not just the population in general but the labor movement in particular. Roosevelt's National Industrial Recovery Act, passed in 1933, and the accompanying agency, the National Recovery Administration, both of which were known as the NRA, set standards for fair competition among businesses. Companies were not forced to adhere to the standards, but the positive publicity generated for those that did cooperate ultimately encouraged many to volunteer. Among the changes made by the NRA were the establishment of a maximum number of working hours as well as a minimum wage. The NRA also declared the right of employees to belong to a union and for those unions to engage in collective bargaining. In addition, the NRA called for a minimum working age of sixteen in most industries and eighteen for mining and logging companies. The changes made by the NRA were soon undone by the U.S. Supreme Court, however, which struck down the law in May 1935.

The U.S. Congress issued another victory for the labor movement just a short time later, passing the National Labor Relations Act, also called the Wagner Act, in July 1935. This law reinstated a worker's right to join a union and a union's ability to conduct collective bargaining. Workers could no longer be fired for union activity. The law also established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an agency that would investigate conflicts between workers and employers and would assist workers in holding union elections. The NLRB continued to exist throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. A few years later, in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) restored additional worker protections that had been initiated by the NRA. The FLSA mandated a minimum wage and maximum working hours and imposed limits on child labor. The law did not apply to all child workers, but it did significantly reduce the number of young people in mines and factories.

A strike at General Motors

As Congress and the Roosevelt administration passed laws increasing the rights of American workers, the nation's large employers geared up for a battle. They spent millions of dollars each year to inhibit union activity. Much of this money went to hiring armed guards and building up a stockpile of weapons to use against strikers. Despite such actions, unions grew stronger, increasing their membership to pre-Depression levels. A number of leaders within the American Federation of Labor (AFL) began to focus on organizing unskilled laborers. These leaders formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) in 1935, and the following year they set their sights on the General Motors Corporation (GM).

The largest automaker in the world, GM employed some 250,000 workers at that time. The workers' union, the United Auto Workers (UAW), had met with extreme resistance from GM in the attempt to organize its employees. The workers refused to give up on their goals, however, complaining of low wages and an ever-increasing production pace. After a brief and successful strike at a GM plant in November 1936, the UAW called for another strike on December 30 at two of GM's Fisher Body plants in Flint, Michigan. They opted to use a strategy known as the sit-down strike. Rather than walk off the job, workers remained in the workplace for the duration of the strike, making it far more difficult for employers to bring in strikebreakers. Any attempt to forcibly remove the striking workers would most likely result in considerable damage to company equipment.

Some five thousand workers participated in the sit-down strike, with tens of thousands of others joining picket lines and contributing to the strike in other ways. Volunteers prepared meals for the workers inside the plants. Other supporters, including members of CIO unions as well as a number of women who had husbands, fathers, and brothers inside the plants, helped by walking picket lines, distributing pro-labor literature, conducting demonstrations, and holding mass meetings. Genora Johnson Dollinger (1913–1995), a socialist and labor activist whose husband worked for GM, established the Women's Auxiliary. The organization was designed to enlist the help of women, both employees and supporters, in the strike. The Women's Auxiliary formed a first-aid center as well as a day-care center to free up mothers to walk on picket lines. It also educated women on public speaking and the history of the labor movement, preparing them for full participation in the male-dominated UAW. Dollinger also organized the Women's Emergency Brigade, a military-style group that offered support whenever picketers or other strikers clashed with police or GM-hired armed guards.

GM fought back against the strikers, shutting off the heat in the plant where the workers were striking and preventing supporters from bringing food to the workers. Police officers assaulted crowds of picketers with tear gas and gunfire, attempting to gain control of the plant. The workers inside the plant held the officers back by hurling auto parts out the windows and by spraying the police with the plant's fire hoses. Michigan Governor Frank Murphy called in several thousand National Guard troops, but he ordered them to remain peaceful, stopping short of having them seize the plant.

Meanwhile, the strikers planned to stop production at another plant, one that made Chevrolet engines. They misled the National Guardsmen into thinking they were taking over a different plant and then snuck quietly into the engine-producing plant, successfully gaining control without a battle. At that point, GM agreed that it would acknowledge the UAW as the workers' representative and would negotiate with the union.

The historic GM strike lasted for forty-four days and, although GM did not meet many of the workers' demands, its recognition of the UAW marked a significant change. Numerous other sit-down strikes, including 170 in March 1937 alone, followed at auto companies and other industries. The UAW went on to become a very powerful union, representing many thousands of workers in one of the nation's major industries. At the time of the GM sit-down strike, one of the UAW's officers was Walter Reuther (1907–1970), a labor pioneer who helped steer the autoworkers' union to its position of strength and prominence. Reuther dedicated his life to securing beneficial employment terms for union members, while also pursuing the larger causes of economic reform and social justice.

The buildup and aftermath of World War II

In spite of the CIO's role in the victorious GM strike, the AFL expelled the CIO unions from its organization in 1937. The CIO regrouped in 1938 as the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The new CIO was led by John L. Lewis, a mine worker's son who became a great hero to industrial workers. The CIO took an inclusive approach to union membership, welcoming workers at all skill levels and from all racial, ethnic, political, and national backgrounds. Women workers also played an important role in CIO unions. As a result of its open membership policies, the CIO grew rapidly during the mid-1900s, finally giving unskilled workers a voice in the workplace.

Although the CIO promoted unity among workers of all types, many segments of the American workforce during the mid-twentieth century were marked by conflict and racial turmoil. African Americans in the South lived in a society strictly segregated, or separated, by race. Under a set of laws and policies known as Jim Crow, southern blacks were forced to ride in separate railway cars, to sit in the back of city buses, and to attend all-black schools. They were restricted as to where they could live, where they could work, and even where they could be buried. Many African Americans uprooted their families and headed North, hoping for better opportunities there. They soon realized that, while segregation was not the law in northern states, it still existed in many communities there. Racism was widespread and blacks were extremely limited in their job opportunities.

Even as the buildup to World War II (1939–45) gave a tremendous boost to the defense industry and jobs became plentiful, African American workers were denied jobs in most defense plants. In some cases white workers went on strike to prevent employers from hiring black workers. African American labor leader A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979) attempted to correct this situation. He had organized the first black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, in 1925. In the early years of World War II, Randolph appealed to the U.S. government, asking it to intervene to end discrimination against black workers in the defense plants.

In 1941, shortly before the United States entered the war, Randolph informed the government of a planned march on Washington, D.C., to call attention to and protest discrimination in the defense industry. He promised that tens of thousands of demonstrators would gather in the nation's capital to demand equality in the workplace. Eager to avoid a protest that might further divide the nation on the eve of wartime, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 on June 25, 1941, calling for the desegregation of defense companies that held government contracts. Randolph canceled the march, and numerous defense-related jobs were subsequently available to black workers.

As with World War I, the United States experienced a period of great prosperity after World War II. Many workers went on strike because they felt they were denied their share of the wealth. Ten thousand strikes were called in 1945 and 1946, the largest number in any two-year period in American history. Between the summer of 1945 and the summer of 1946, dozens of major strikes, each involving at least ten thousand employees, took place. The following year, Congress stepped in to limit the power of unions, undercutting the advantages workers had gained during the 1930s.

In 1947 Congress passed the Labor-Management Relations Act, also known as the Taft-Hartley Act, which defined some union actions, including sympathy strikes, as "unfair labor practices." Under this law, union leaders had to promise under oath that they were not members of the Communist Party. In the aftermath of World War II, when the United States became locked in a decades-long struggle with the Soviet Union, communism was seen as one of the greatest threats to American democracy and to the security of U.S. citizens. The Taft-Hartley Act also gave the U.S. president the power to end strikes that were considered harmful to the nation's health and safety.

Power and corruption

In 1955 two of the nation's largest labor organizations decided to join forces. Eighteen years after the AFL had expelled the CIO, the two groups reunited, forming the AFL-CIO. At that time, the unions that made up the AFL-CIO represented more than 85 percent of all union members in the United States. Unions had become large, well organized, and powerful. However, with that power came instances of corruption.

A number of unions—particularly those for the construction, trucking, and longshoremen industries—had been tainted by the presence of organized crime among their leadership. A lengthy congressional investigation revealed that some union leaders had engaged in bribery, intimidation, mishandling of funds, and extortion (obtaining money from a person through threats).

One of Congress's primary targets was the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen, and Helpers of America, usually referred to simply as the Teamsters union. The Teamsters union was the largest in the nation, and the investigation revealed that its president, Dave Beck (1894–1993), had been misusing union funds for his own gain for many years. He and Jimmy Hoffa (1913–1975?), an international vice president of the union, had used threats and intimidation to further their aims both within the union and in dealing with employers and others they considered opponents.

Hoffa, who was associated with several organized-crime figures, was linked to various instances of violence. He allegedly stole millions of dollars from the union. Both Hoffa and Beck served prison terms, and the Teamsters were expelled from the AFL-CIO. In 1959 Congress passed the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, also known as the Landrum-Griffin Act, to protect union members from corruption. The law mandated that union elections be regulated and union finances supervised by officials. Hoffa succeeded Beck as the Teamsters' president and later continued to head the union from prison. He disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1975, and authorities suspect that he was murdered.

A shift in focus

During the 1950s and 1960s, the United States experienced what some historians have called a second industrial revolution. Many companies began to use computers to automate functions that had previously been performed by people. Industrial machinery became automated as well, speeding up production and requiring fewer human operators. A massive machine was developed for mining coal and another for laying telephone cable. In numerous industries, productivity increased dramatically while the number of employees decreased. Corporate profits soared, but many workers faced a difficult transition: as more and more jobs were permanently eliminated, many people had to find jobs in other fields.

During the period of great prosperity that followed World War II, increasing numbers of Americans owned their own homes, parked two cars in their garages, and purchased the latest household appliances, including washers and dryers, refrigerators, and televisions. With this expansion in consumer goods came a necessary expansion in the service industry. As a result, there was a greater need for salespeople, mechanics, and appliance repair technicians, and many other jobs. The increased need for workers in the service sector provided jobs for many of those industrial workers who had been displaced by technological advances.

As the service industry grew, many new unions arose to represent the workers in those fields as well as in other areas. Whereas most union activity in the past had concentrated on skilled and unskilled industrial laborers, during the late 1950s and 1960s the focus shifted to include office workers, teachers, hospital employees, and others. Many in these fields conducted strikes to improve their job security and wages and to protect their right to join a union. Government workers made gains during this period as well. In 1959 New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner (1910–1991; served 1954–65) gave city employees the right to join a union and bargain collectively. In the coming years, many other city and state governments followed suit. In 1962 President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) mandated that employees in the federal government's executive branch had those same rights.

La Causa: Farm Workers Organize

While workers in one industry after another had successfully unionized throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, a large segment of American laborers remained unorganized well into the mid-twentieth century. Farm workers were among the poorest people in the nation. They worked twelve-hour days, earned very low wages, and endured punishing conditions in the fields. They paid to live in metal shacks that had no indoor plumbing, no heat, and no cooking facilities. They worked all day in fields without portable toilets or sanitary drinking water. Repeated attempts by farm workers to unionize and strike had been successfully thwarted by the large and powerful farming industry, known as agribusiness.

A large percentage of farm workers were non-English-speaking immigrants, primarily from Mexico and the Philippines. Most were migrant workers, meaning they traveled from one region to another depending on the season and the type of work that needed to be done. Organizing a group of workers that didn't speak fluent English and didn't have permanent addresses proved very difficult. In addition, a surplus of people seeking farming work meant that workers who did strike could be easily replaced.

In 1962 a Mexican American community leader named César Chávez (1927–1993) began a three-year journey through California, traveling from one farming town to another. He and a group of organizers spoke to as many farm workers as possible, listening to their complaints and asking them to join a new organization, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). Around the same time, an organization called the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) had been organizing farm laborers in California as well.

In early September 1965, as the grapes ripened in the California valleys, AWOC led a group of grape pickers in the town of Delano on a strike for higher wages. AWOC asked for the assistance of the NFWA, which soon joined the strike. Among the leaders of the strike were Chávez and Dolores Huerta (1930–), both of whom became heroes for their devotion to the cause of farm workers. The grape growers agreed early on to a modest wage hike, but the workers remained on strike, fighting for a larger goal: the recognition of their right to unionize. Characterizing their strike as a struggle for fairness and dignity, the striking workers drew the attention of the nation, particularly attracting the help of student activists and church groups.

The workers were devoted to the principles of nonviolence, a belief that echoed the activism of many social reformers during the civil rights movement in the South. The strikers also enlisted the support of other major unions, including the UAW. The strike was known as La Huelga, a Spanish term meaning "the strike." It was also referred to by its leaders as La Causa, or "the cause." Because so many of the migrant workers were from Mexico and other Latin American nations, La Causa represented not just farm workers' rights but those of all Hispanic Americans.

In 1966 NFWA and AWOC merged to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC), which later became known as the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). The following year, the strike leaders asked for the assistance of consumers nationwide, calling for a boycott of all table grapes sold in the United States. More than fourteen million Americans supported the boycott, refusing to buy any grapes at their local stores. The pressure of the ongoing strike and the national boycott eventually persuaded the grape growers of Delano to meet many of the UFWOC's demands. In 1969 Delano growers signed contracts with the workers guaranteeing fair hiring practices, increased wages, protection from the dangerous pesticides used on the crops, and medical benefits. The growers would also provide fresh drinking water and toilets in the fields.

The contracts for the grape pickers represented a significant victory for the UFWOC and for agricultural workers in general. Resistance to unions in the farming industry remained strong, however, and the UFW faced numerous challenges throughout the 1970s and beyond. Farm laborers, particularly migrant workers, continue to struggle for basic workers' rights.

A downward trend

Union activity during the 1970s entered a long period of decline that continued through the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Due in part to energy crises and a resulting economic downturn in the 1970s, the number of strikes lessened. More and more labor conflicts were resolved not with strikes but through mediators, a neutral person who helps employers and employees reach agreements.

Some significant strikes did occur during this period, however, including those of professional athletes, police officers, air traffic controllers, and teachers. One of the best-known strikes of this period was that of coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky, the site of many previous bloody conflicts between miners and mine owners. Miners working for the Eastover Mining Company, owned by the large and powerful Duke Power Company, voted to join the United Mine Workers (UMW) union. Yet Duke refused to recognize or negotiate with the union. More than 150 miners went on strike protesting their low wages and dangerous working conditions. In response, the company immediately tried to bring in replacement workers, also sometimes called scabs. The striking miners fought hard to prevent the scabs from entering the mines, but they were no match for the police officers called in to protect the replacement workers. Duke earned a victory through the court system, getting a court order allowing only two picketing workers at each mine entrance, a number insufficient to stop the scab workers. A number of women in the community—wives, sisters, friends, and mothers of the striking miners—joined forces to support the workers. They tried physically to prevent the replacement workers from entering the mines, resulting in attacks and arrests by the police.

The strikers and their supporters suffered many setbacks during the long strike, including a number of violent assaults, but they continued to fight. After thirteen months, the Duke Power Company gave in and agreed to negotiate a contract through the UMW. Throughout the strike, the struggle was documented by a film crew led by Barbara Kopple. The resulting documentary, Harlan County, U.S.A., won an Academy Award and brought the plight of mine workers to a broad national audience.

Modern labor issues

Workers confronted a new set of issues as the twentieth century came to a close and the twenty-first century began. In many fields, further technological innovations enabled machines to do work that had been done by people, allowing companies to employ ever fewer workers. A number of companies began relying more on temporary, part-time, or contract workers. Such employees generally do not receive health insurance, vacation time, or other benefits. The implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and similar laws gave companies greater freedom to locate plants and factories in other countries, primarily Latin American and Asian nations, where the workers earn lower wages and have less power. In an increasingly popular practice known as outsourcing, companies kept their main operations in the United States but contracted with people, often low-wage workers in other countries, to perform certain functions. Such developments combined to significantly reduce the number of desirable full-time jobs available to workers in the United States, making existing jobs less secure.

As the twentieth century concluded, many large corporations remained determined to limit the power of unions or to prevent their employees from unionizing. The vast majority of workers were not represented by unions. Those who were represented continued the struggle to protect the same basic rights that workers had sought for hundreds of years: acceptable wages, safe job conditions, job security, and the right of unions to negotiate with employers.

A significant number of workers, primarily immigrants, remain vulnerable to unethical corporations that exploit them. Immigrants without proper legal documentation to work in the United States accept low wages and dangerous working conditions. They do this out of a sense of desperation and a fear of being exposed to the authorities and deported out of the country. Such workers are often prevented from organizing into unions because their employers threaten them with firing and deportation. In several large cities in the United States, factories still exist that resemble those of the nineteenth century. Known as sweatshops, these factories fail to adhere to modern-day standards for worker safety and a sanitary environment. Sweatshop employees, most of whom are immigrant women, work ten hours a day, six days a week, earning far less than their American-born counterparts at other factories. Child labor continues as well, with some underage workers in sweatshops and many others working as farm laborers.

A nationwide immigrants' rights movement emerged during the winter and spring of 2006 in response to controversial proposed legislation regarding immigration. In a series of well-attended protests in cities across the country, activists for immigrants' rights called attention to the important role that the immigrant population plays in the U.S. economy. Protesters urged the government to give undocumented immigrants more protection under the law.

The history of the labor movement has been cyclical, with periods of great union strength and victory alternating with periods of weakness and loss. For the most part, American workers in the twenty-first century, union or nonunion, work under safer conditions and have far more benefits than their counterparts a century ago. The battles fought by labor unionists have assured many workers such things as medical benefits, paid holidays, a measure of job security, and a safe working environment. Taken together, the victorious moments for unions have added up to significant, positive changes for American workers.

For More Information


Cahn, William. A Pictorial History of American Labor. New York: Crown Publishers, 1972.

Colman, Penny. Strike! The Bitter Struggle of American Workers from Colonial Times to the Present. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1995.

Flagler, John J. The Labor Movement in the United States. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications, 1990.

Freedman, Russell. Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade against Child Labor. New York: Clarion Books, 1994.

Murolo, Priscilla, and A. B. Chitty. From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend: A Short, Illustrated History of Labor in the United States. New York: New Press, 2001.

Reef, Catherine. Working in America. New York: Facts on File, 2000.


AFSCME LaborLinks: Women's Labor History. (accessed on May 31, 2006).

Tejada-Flores, Rick. "The United Farmworkers Union." The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers' Struggle. (accessed on May 31, 2006).

U.S. Department of Labor: Wirtz Labor Library. (accessed on May 31, 2006).

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