Trade Unions in the USA

Trade Unions

Trade Unions in the United States remained weak throughout the 19th century. Only 2 per cent of the total labor force and less than 10 per cent of all industrial workers, were members of unions. In 1881 the Federation of Trades and Labor Unions was founded. Five years later the organisation changed its name to the American Federation of Labor. Based on the Trade Union Congress in Britain, the AFL's first president was Samuel Gompers. He held fairly conservative political views and believed that trade unionists should accept the capitalist economic system.

In 1894 the Pullman Palace Car Company reduced the wages of its workers. When the company refused arbitration, the American Railway Union called a strike. Starting in Chicago it spread to 27 states. The attorney-general, Richard Olney, sought an injunction under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. As a result, of Olney's action, Eugene Debs, president of the American Railway Union, was arrested and despite being defended by Clarence Darrow, was imprisoned.

The case came before the Supreme Court in 1895. David Brewer spoke for the court on 27th May, explaining why he refused the American Railway Union's appeal. This decision was a great set-back for the trade union movement. This decision made some workers question the AFL's moderate approach. One of those imprisoned during the Pullman Strike, Eugene Debs, was converted to socialism and now argued that capitalism should be replaced by a new cooperative system.

In 1905 representatives of 43 groups, who opposed the policies of American Federation of Labour, formed the radical labour organisation, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Important leaders of this organization included William Haywood, Daniel De Leon, Eugene V. Debs, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Mary 'Mother' Jones, Carlo Tresca, Joseph Ettor, Arturo Giovannitti, William Z. Foster, Joe Hill, Frank Little and Ralph Chaplin.

After the war leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World were harassed by the police and suffered legal prosecutions. Two important members, Frank Little and Walter Everett, were lynched. This approach was highly effective and by 1925 membership had declined dramatically.

In 1921 John L. Lewis, leader of the United Mine Workers of America, failed in his attempt to challenge Samuel Gompers for the presidency of the American Federation of Labour. Gompers finally left in 1924 and was replaced by William Green.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1932 with the support of most trade unionists. He appointed Frances Perkins as US Secretary of Labor and Robert Wagner, chairman of the National Recovery Administration. Both Perkins and Wagner were known for their sympathy for the trade union movement.

In 1933 Wagner introduced a bill to Congress to help protect trade unionists from their employers. With the support of Perkins, Wagner's proposals became the National Labour Relations Act. It created a three man National Labor Relations Board empowered to administer the regulation of labour relations in industries engaged in or affecting interstate commerce. The act also established the rights of workers to join trade unions and to bargain collectively with their employers through representatives of their own choosing. Workers were now protected from their employers and as a result union membership grew rapidly.

In 1935 John L. Lewis joined with the heads of seven other unions to form the Congress for Industrial Organisation(CIO). Lewis became president of this new organization and over the next few years attempted to organize workers in the new mass production industries. This strategy was successful and by 1937 the CIO had more members than the American Federation of Labour.

In June, 1938 Frances Perkins managed to persuade Congress to pass the Fair Labor Standards Act. The main objective of the act was to eliminate "labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standards of living necessary for health, efficiency and well-being of workers".

The act established maximum working hours of 44 a week for the first year, 42 for the second, and 40 thereafter. Minimum wages of 25 cents an hour were established for the first year, 30 cents for the second, and 40 cents over a period of the next six years. The Fair Labor Standards Act also prohibited child labour in all industries engaged in producing goods in inter-state commerce and placed a limitation of the labor of boys and girls between 16 and 18 years of age in hazardous occupations.

Another important act initiated by Frances Perkins and the vice-president, Harry S. Truman, was the Fair Employment Act. This act, passed in 1942, required that all federal agencies include in their contracts with private employers a provision obligating such employers not to "discriminate against persons of any race, color, creed, or nationality in matters of employment." The act set up theCommittee on Fair Employment Practice (FEPC), a body that was empowered to investigate all complaints of discrimination, take appropriate steps to eliminate such discrimination, and make recommendations to Franklin D. Roosevelt concerning discrimination in war industry.

The Republican Party and right-wing elements in the Democratic Party objected to what they believed was the pro-trade union legislation of the Roosevelt administration. On 23rd June, 1947, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, over the veto of Harry S. Truman, who denounced it as a "slave-labor bill".

The act declared the closed shop illegal and permitted the union shop only after a vote of a majority of the employees. It also forbade jurisdictional strikes and secondary boycotts. Other aspects of the legislation included the right of employers to be exempted from bargaining with unions unless they wished to.

The act forbade unions from contributing to political campaigns and required union leaders to affirm they were not supporters of the Communist Party. This aspect of the act was upheld by the Supreme Court on 8th May, 1950.

The Taft-Hartley Act also established the National Labor Relations Board, a body that had the power to determine the issuance or prosecution of a complaint. Under the terms of the act the United States Attorney General had the power to obtain an 80 day injunction when a threatened or actual strike that he/she believed "imperiled the national health or safety".

William Green remained president of the American Federation of Labour until 1952 when he was replaced by George Meany. In 1955 the CIO merged with the AFL. Walter Reuther, the president of the CIO became vice-president of the AFL-CIO. Meany became president of this new organisation that now had a membership of 15,000,000.

Arthur Szyk, Labor Day (1942)
Arthur Szyk, Labor Day (1942)
© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Samuel Gompers began involved in the National Union of Cigarmakers soon after arriving in the United States in 1863.

There was a vast difference between those early unions, and the unions of today. Then there was no law or order. a union was a more or less definite group of people employed in the same trade who might help each other out in special difficulties with the employer. There was no sustained effort to secure fair wages through collective bargaining. The employer fixed wages until he shoved them down to the point where human endurance revolted. It was late in the fall of 1879 my attention was called to a Cooper Union meeting at which two Englishmen, A.J. Mundella and Thomas Hughes, M.P., were to speak on the scope and influence of trade unions. Mundella was a manufacturer of Nottingham who established the first voluntary board of conciliation and arbitration for the hosiery and glove trades of that locality. My sense of injustice was stirring and I began going to more labour meetings, seeking the way out.

The cigarmakers employed in New York were practically all Germans - men of keener mentality and wider thought than any I had met before. They talked and read in German, but there was enough English spoken to enable me to understand that the trade union movement meant to those men something vastly bigger than anything I had ever conceived. Many of them were men who had learned the labor movement in Europe and who were refugees because they were active for the struggle for political as well as economic freedom.

(2) John Mitchell, Organized Labor (1903)

No one can understand the true nature of trade unionism without understanding the industrial revolution and what it is accomplished. The history of mankind has been more virtually affected by changes in its machines and its methods of doing business than by any action or counsel of statesmen or philosophers. What we call the modern world, with its huge populations, its giant cities, its political democracy, its growing intensity of life, its contrasts of wealth and poverty - this great, whirling, restless civilization, with all its vexing problems, is the offspring merely of changed methods of producing wealth.

The condition of workmen in the textile and other factories was incredibly bad. The day's work was constantly lengthened, in some cases to fourteen, sixteen, and more hours, and while not difficult, the labor was confining and nerve-wearing. There was little provision for the safety of the workman, and terrible accidents were a matter of daily occurrence in the crowded mills and factories. Periods of feverish activity, during which men were worked beyond the limit of human endurance, were succeeded by still more harassing periods of depression, when thousands of men were thrown into the street.

The labor organization as it exists today is the product of a long evolution. The constitution of the trade union, its by-laws, its customs and traditions, its practices and policies have all been the result of a gradual working out of particular remedies for particular problems. The constitution of the trade union, moreover, has been evolved by and through the efforts of workingmen. The trade union is a government of workingmen, by workingmen, for workingmen, and the framers of its constitution have been workingmen.

(3) Charles Darrow, comments on Trade Unions during the trial of Charles Moyer, William Hayward and George Pettibone for the murder of Frank R. Steunenberg in 1907.

Let me tell you, gentlemen, if you destroy the labor unions in this country, you destroy liberty when you strike the blow, and you would leave the poor bound and shackled and helpless to do the bidding of the rich. It would take this country back to the time when there were masters and slaves.

I don't mean to tell this jury that labor organizations do no wrong. I know them too well for that. They do wrong often, and sometimes brutally; they are sometimes cruel; they are often unjust; they are frequently corrupt. But I am here to say that in a great cause these labor organizations, despised and weak and outlawed as they generally are, have stood for the poor, they have stood for the weak, they have stood for every human law that was ever placed upon the statute books. They stood for human life, they stood for the father who was bound down by his task, they stood for the wife, threatened to be taken from the home to work by his side, and they have stood for the little child who was also taken to work in their places - that the rich could grow richer still, and they have fought for the right of the little one, to give him a little of life, a little comfort while he is young. I don't care how many wrongs they committed, I don't care how many crimes these weak, rough, rugged, unlettered men who often know no other power but the brute force of their strong right arm, who find themselves bound and confined and impaired whichever way they turn, who look up and worship the god of might as the only god that they know - I don't care how often they fail, how many brutalities they are guilty of. I know their cause is just.

I hope that the trouble and the strife and the contention has been endured. Through brutality and bloodshed and crime has come the progress of the human race. I know they may be wrong in this battle or that, but in the great, long struggle they are right and they are eternally right, and that they are working for the poor and the weak. They are working to give more liberty to the man, and I want to say to you, gentlemen of the jury, you Idaho farmers removed from the trade unions, removed from the men who work in industrial affairs, I want to say that if it had not been for the trade unions of the world, for the trade unions of England, for the trade unions of Europe, the trade unions of America, you today would be serfs of Europe, instead of free men sitting upon a jury to try one of your peers. The cause of these men is right.

(4) Jane Addams, Trade Unions and Public Duty (1899)

Let us put ourselves in the position of the striking men who have fallen upon workmen who have taken their places. The strikers have for years belonged to an organization devoted to securing better wages and a higher standard of living, not only for themselves, but for all men in their trade. They honestly believe, whether they are right or wrong, that their position is exactly the same which a nation, in time of war, takes towards a traitor who has deserted his country's camp for the enemy. We regard the treatment accorded to the deserter with much less horror than the same treatment when it is accorded to the 'scab', largely because in one instance we are citizens are participants, and in the other we allow ourselves to stand aside.

(5) The Supreme Court judge, David Brewer, was one of the country's leading opponents of trade unions. This was reflected in his speech to the New York State Bar Association in January, 1893.

It is the unvarying law that the wealth of a community will be in the hands of a few; and the greater the general wealth, the greater the individual accumulations. The large majority of men are unwilling to endure the long self-denial and saving which makes accumulation possible; they have not the business tact and sagacity which brings about large combinations and great financial results; and hence it always has been, and until human nature is remodeled always will be, true that the wealth of a nation is in the hands of a few, while the many subsist upon the proceeds of their daily toil. But security is the chief end of government; and other things being equal, that government is best which protects to the fullest extent each individual, rich or poor, high or low, in the possession of his property and the pursuit of his business.

It was the boast of our ancestors in the Old Country that they were able to wrest from the power of the king so much security for life, liberty and property. Here, there is no monarch threatening trespass upon the individual. The danger is from the multitudes - the majority, with whom is the power. The common rule as to strikes is this: Not merely do the employees quit the employment, and thus handicap the employer in the use of his property, and perhaps in the discharge of duties which he owes to the public; but they also forcibly prevent others from taking their places.

(6) Hugh Clews, North American Review (June, 1886)

The Knights of Labor have undertaken to test, upon a large scale, the application of compulsion as a means of enforcing their demands. The point to be determined is whether capital or labor shall, in future, determine the terms upon which the invested resources of the nation are to be employed. The labor disease must soon end one way or another. The demands of the Knights of Labor and their sympathizers, whether openly expressed or temporarily concealed, are so utterly revolutionary of the inalienable rights of the citizen and so completely subversive of social order that the whole community has come to a firm conclusion that these pretensions must be resisted to the last extremity of endurance and authority.

The laboring man in this bounteous and hospitable country has no ground for complaint. Elsewhere he is a creature of circumstance, which is that of abject depression. Under the government of this nation, the effort is to elevate the standard of the human race and not to degrade it. In all other nations it is the reverse. What, therefore, has the laborer to complain of in America? By inciting strikes and encouraging discontent, he stands in the way of the elevation of his race and of mankind.

The tide of emigration to this country, to this country, now so large, makes peaceful strikes perfectly harmless in themselves, because the places of those who vacate good situations are easily filled by the newcomers. When disturbances occur under the cloak of strikes, it is a different matter, as law and order are then set in defiance.

(7) Arturo Giovannitti, speech to jury during his trial in November, 1912.

If there was any violence in Lawrence it was not Joe Ettor's fault. It was not my fault. If you must go back to the origin of all the trouble, gentleman of the jury, you will find that the origin and reason was the wage system. It was the infamous rule of domination of one man by another man. It was the same reason that fifty years ago impelled your great martyred President, Abraham Lincoln, by an illegal act, to issue the Proclamation of Emancipation - a thing which was beyond his powers as the Constitution of the United States expressed before that time.

They say you are free in this great and wonderful country. I say that politically you are, and my best compliments and congratulations for it. But I say you cannot be half free and half slave, and economically all the working class in the United States are as much slaves now as the negroes were forty and fifty years ago.

(8) Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, speech about the Paterson Strike at the New York Civic Club Forum (31st January, 1914)

What is a labour victory? I maintain that it is a twofold thing. Workers must gain economic advantage, but they must also gain revolutionary spirit, in order to achieve a complete victory. For workers to gain a few cents more a day, a few minutes less a day, and go back to work with the same psychology, the same attitude toward society is to achieve a temporary gain and not a lasting victory. For workers to go back with a class-conscious spirit, with an organized and determined attitude toward society means that even if they have made no economic gain they have the possibility of gaining in the future.

(9) Louis Brandeis, Business - A Profession (1914)

The next generation must witness a continuing and every increasing contest between those who have and those who have not. The industrial world is in a state of ferment. The ferment is in the main peaceful, and, to a silent; but there is felt today very widely the inconsistency in this condition of political democracy and industrial absolutism. The people are beginning to doubt whether in the long run democracy and absolutism can coexist in the same community; beginning to doubt whether there is a justification for the great inequalities in the distribution of wealth, for the rapid creation of fortunes, more mysterious than the deeds of Aladdin's lamp. The people have begun; and they show evidences on all sides of a tendency to act.

Many workingmen, otherwise uneducated, talk about the relation of employer and employee far more intelligently than most of the best-educated men in the community. The labor question involves for them the whole of life; and they most, in the course of a comparatively short time, realize the power which lies in them. Often their leaders are men of signal ability, men who can hold their own in discussion or in action with the ablest and best-educated men in the community.

(10) Rexford Tugwell, The Democratic Roosevelt (1957)

Senator Wagner had been chairman of the National Labor Board during the first half of NRA. During that service he had seen how little could be accomplished without powers to enforce the principles that were supposed to be those of all New Dealers. Such intractable employer corporations as Weirton Steel, Budd Manufacturing, and Ford Motor were either refusing compliance or were making use of company unions to evade collective bargaining.

In February 1934, Senator Wagner induced Franklin to issue two executive orders authorizing the Board to hold elections for determining bargaining agents and to prevent violations to the Department of Justice for prosecution. But Wagner was convinced that more was necessary and on 1st March he introduced a Labor Disputes Bill.

Senator Wagner's bill enumerated several "unfair practices" to be prohibited, such as the sponsoring by employers of company unions, interfering with employees' choice of bargaining representatives, and refusal to bargain with elected agents. Under the bill a new labor board would be set up, fully equipped with staff to investigate and powers to enforce the provisions of the act.

(11) Frances Perkins was secretary for labour in Franklin D. Roosevelt's first cabinet. She wrote about the National Labor Relations Board in her book, The Roosevelt I Knew (1946)

The National Labor Relations Board became extremely important in the labor history of the United States. Undoubtedly big-scale unionization of labor was made possible under its protection. In 1933 there were about 2,225,000 union members in the country. In 1945 there were about 14,000,000. In some industries and localities the unions have won strength not only equal but sometimes superior to that of employers. In some places excesses have been practiced by labor unions. Such practices were not anticipated by those who drew or passed the act.

(12) Bob Stinson was interviewed by Studs Terkel in Hard Times (1970)

Until 1933, no unions, no rules: you were at the mercy of your foreman. I could go to work at seven o'clock in the morning, and at seven fifteen the boss would come around and say: you could come back at three o'clock. If he preferred somebody else over you, that person would be called back earlier, though you were there longer. It was lousy. Degraded. You might call yourself a man if you were on the street, but as soon as you went through the door and punched your card, you was nothing more than a robot.