Labor history of the United States

The labor history of the United States describes the history of organized labor, US labor law, and more general history of working people, in the United States. Beginning in the 1930s, unions became important components of the Democratic Party. However, some historians have not understood why no Labor Party emerged in the United States, in contrast to Western Europe.[1]

The nature and power of organized labor is the outcome of historical tensions among counter-acting forces involving workplace rights, wages, working hours, political expression, labor laws, and other working conditions. Organized unions and their umbrella labor federations such as the AFL–CIO and citywide federations have competed, evolved, merged, and split against a backdrop of changing values and priorities, and periodic federal government intervention.

As commentator E. J. Dionne has noted, the union movement has traditionally espoused a set of values—solidarity being the most important, the sense that each should look out for the interests of all. From this followed commitments to mutual assistance, to a rough-and-ready sense of equality, to a disdain for elitism, and to a belief that democracy and individual rights did not stop at the plant gate or the office reception room. Dionne notes that these values are "increasingly foreign to American culture".[2] In most industrial nations the labor movement sponsored its own political parties, with the U.S. as a conspicuous exception. Both major American parties vied for union votes, with the Democrats usually much more successful. Labor unions became a central element of the New Deal Coalition that dominated national politics from the 1930s into the mid-1960s during the Fifth Party System.[3] Liberal Republicans who supported unions in the Northeast lost power after 1964.[4][5]

The history of organized labor has been a specialty of scholars since the 1890s, and has produced a large amount of scholarly literature focused on the structure of organized unions. In the 1960s, as social history gained popularity, a new emphasis emerged on the history of workers, including unorganized workers, and with special regard to gender and race. This is called "the new labor history". Much scholarship has attempted to bring the social history perspectives into the study of organized labor.[6]

Organized labor prior to 1900

The history of labor disputes in America substantially precedes the Revolutionary period. In 1636, for instance, there was a fishermen's strike on an island off the coast of Maine and in 1677 twelve carmen were fined for going on strike in New York City.[7] However, most instances of labor unrest during the colonial period were temporary and isolated, and rarely resulted in the formation of permanent groups of laborers for negotiation purposes. Little legal recourse was available to those injured by the unrest, because strikes were not typically considered illegal. The only known case of criminal prosecution of workers in the colonial era occurred as a result of a carpenters' strike in Savannah, Georgia, in 1746.[7]

Legality and Hunt (1842)

By the beginning of the 19th century, after the revolution, little had changed. The career path for most artisans still involved apprenticeship under a master, followed by moving into independent production.[8] However, over the course of the Industrial Revolution, this model rapidly changed, particularly in the major metropolitan areas. For instance, in Boston in 1790, the vast majority of the 1,300 artisans in the city described themselves as "master workman". By 1815, journeymen workers without independent means of production had displaced these "masters" as the majority. By that time journeymen also outnumbered masters in New York City and Philadelphia.[9] This shift occurred as a result of large-scale transatlantic and rural-urban migration. Migration into the coastal cities created a larger population of potential laborers, which in turn allowed controllers of capital to invest in labor-intensive enterprises on a larger scale. Craft workers found that these changes launched them into competition with each other to a degree that they had not experienced previously, which limited their opportunities and created substantial risks of downward mobility that had not existed prior to that time.[8]

These conditions led to the first labor combination cases in America. Over the first half of the 19th century, there are twenty-three known cases of indictment and prosecution for criminal conspiracy, taking place in six states: Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Virginia.[10] The central question in these cases was invariably whether workmen in combination would be permitted to use their collective bargaining power to obtain benefits—increased wages, decreased hours, or improved conditions—which were beyond their ability to obtain as individuals. The cases overwhelmingly resulted in convictions. However, in most instances the plaintiffs' desire was to establish favorable precedent, not to impose harsh penalties, and the fines were typically modest.[11]

One of the central themes of the cases prior to the landmark decision in Commonwealth v. Hunt, which settled the legality of unions, was the applicability of the English common law in post-revolutionary America. Whether the English common law applied—and in particular whether the common law notion that a conspiracy to raise wages was illegal applied—was frequently the subject of debate between the defense and the prosecution.[12] For instance, in Commonwealth v. Pullis, a case in 1806 against a combination of journeymen cordwainers in Philadelphia for conspiracy to raise their wages, the defense attorneys referred to the common law as arbitrary and unknowable and instead praised the legislature as the embodiment of the democratic promise of the revolution.[13] In ruling that a combination to raise wages was per se illegal, Recorder Moses Levy strongly disagreed, writing that "[t]he acts of the legislature form but a small part of that code from which the citizen is to learn his duties . . . [i]t is in the volumes of the common law we are to seek for information in the far greater number, as well as the most important causes that come before our tribunals."[13]

As a result of the spate of convictions against combinations of laborers, the typical narrative of early American labor law states that, prior to Hunt in Massachusetts in 1842, peaceable combinations of workingmen to raise wages, shorten hours or ensure employment, were illegal in the United States, as they had been under English common law.[12] In England, criminal conspiracy laws were first held to include combinations in restraint of trade in the Court of Star Chamber early in the 17th century.[14] The precedent was solidified in 1721 by R v Journeymen Tailors of Cambridge, which found tailors guilty of a conspiracy to raise wages.[15] Leonard Levy went so far as to refer to Hunt as the "Magna Carta of American trade-unionism",[16] illustrating its perceived standing as the major point of divergence in the American and English legal treatment of unions which, "removed the stigma of criminality from labor organizations".[16]

However, case law in America prior to Hunt was mixed. Pullis was actually unusual in strictly following the English common law and holding that a combination to raise wages was by itself illegal. More often combination cases prior to Hunt did not hold that unions were illegal per se, but rather found some other justification for a conviction.[17] After Pullis in 1806, eighteen other prosecutions of laborers for conspiracies followed within the next three decades. However, only one such case, People v. Fisher, also held that a combination for the purpose of raising wages was illegal. Several other cases held that the methods used by the unions, rather than the unions themselves, were illegal.[17] For instance, in People v. Melvin, cordwainers were again convicted of a conspiracy to raise wages. Unlike in Pullis, however, the court held that the combination's existence itself was not unlawful, but nevertheless reached a conviction because the cordwainers had refused to work for any master who paid lower wages, or with any laborer who accepted lower wages, than what the combination had stipulated. The court held that methods used to obtain higher wages would be unlawful if they were judged to be deleterious to the general welfare of the community.[18] Commonwealth v. Morrow continued to refine this standard, stating that, "an agreement of two or more to the prejudice of the rights of others or of society" would be illegal.[19] Another line of cases, led by Justice John Gibson of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania's decision in Commonwealth v. Carlisle, held that motive of the combination, rather than simply its existence, was the key to illegality. Gibson wrote, "Where the act is lawful for an individual, it can be the subject of a conspiracy, when done in concert, only where there is a direct intention that injury shall result from it".[18] Still other courts rejected Pullis' rule of per se illegality in favor of a rule that asked whether the combination was a but-for cause of injury. Thus, as economist Edwin Witte stated, "The doctrine that a combination to raise wages is illegal was allowed to die by common consent. No leading case was required for its overthrow".[20] Nevertheless, while Hunt was not the first case to hold that labor combinations were legal, it was the first to do so explicitly and in clear terms.

Early federations

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen -- now part of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters -- was Founded May 8, 1863, at Detroit, Mich. [21]

The National Labor Union (NLU), founded in 1866, was the second national labor federation in the United States. It was dissolved in 1872.

The regional Order of the Knights of St. Crispin was founded in the northeast in 1867 and claimed 50,000 members by 1870, by far the largest union in the country. A closely associated union of women, the Daughters of St. Crispin, formed in 1870. In 1879 the Knights formally admitted women, who by 1886 comprised 10% of the union's membership,[22] but it was poorly organized and soon declined. They fought encroachments of machinery and unskilled labor on autonomy of skilled shoe workers. One provision in the Crispin constitution explicitly sought to limit the entry of "green hands" into the trade, but this failed because the new machines could be operated by semi-skilled workers and produce more shoes than hand sewing.[23]

Railroad brotherhoods

The Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886 was a trade union strike involving more than 200,000 workers.[24]

With the rapid growth and consolidation of large railroad systems after 1870, union organizations sprang up, covering the entire nation. By 1901, 17 major railway brotherhoods were in operation; they generally worked amicably with management, which recognized their usefulness.[25] Key unions included the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Division (BMWED), the Order of Railway Conductors, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, and the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen.[26] Their main goal was building insurance and medical packages for their members, and negotiating bureaucratic work rules that favored their membership, such as seniority and grievance procedures.[27]

They were not members of the AFL, and fought off more radical rivals such as the Knights of Labor in the 1880s and the American Railroad Union in the 1890s. They consolidated their power in 1916, after threatening a national strike, by securing the Adamson Act, a federal law that provided 10 hours pay for an eight-hour day. At the end of World War I they promoted nationalization of the railroads, and conducted a national strike in 1919. Both programs failed, and the brotherhoods were largely stagnant in the 1920s. They generally were independent politically, but supported the third party campaign of Robert M. La Follette Sr. in 1924.[28]

Knights of Labor

The first effective labor organization that was more than regional in membership and influence was the Knights of Labor, organized in 1869. The Knights believed in the unity of the interests of all producing groups and sought to enlist in their ranks not only all laborers but everyone who could be truly classified as a producer. The acceptance of all producers led to explosive growth after 1880. Under the leadership of Terence V. Powderly they championed a variety of causes, sometimes through political or cooperative ventures.[29]

Powderly hoped to gain their ends through politics and education rather than through economic coercion. The Knights were especially successful in developing a working class culture, involving women, families, sports, and leisure activities and educational projects for the membership. The Knights strongly promoted their version of republicanism that stressed the centrality of free labor, preaching harmony and cooperation among producers, as opposed to parasites and speculators.[29]

One of the earliest railroad strikes was also one of the most successful. In 1885, the Knights of Labor led railroad workers to victory against Jay Gould and his entire Southwestern Railway system. In early 1886, the Knights were trying to coordinate 1,400 strikes involving over 600,000 workers spread over much of the country. The tempo had doubled over 1885, and involved peaceful as well as violent confrontations in many sectors, such as railroads, street railroads, coal mining, and the McCormick Reaper Factory in Chicago, with demands usually focused on the eight hour day. Suddenly, it all collapsed, largely because the Knights were unable to handle so much on their plate at once, and because they took a smashing blow in the aftermath of the Haymarket Riot in May 1886 in Chicago.[30]

As strikers rallied against the McCormick plant, a team of political anarchists, who were not Knights, tried to piggyback support among striking Knights workers. A bomb exploded as police were dispersing a peaceful rally, killing seven policemen and wounding many others. The anarchists were blamed, and their spectacular trial gained national attention. The Knights of Labor were seriously injured by the false accusation that the Knights promoted anarchistic violence. Many Knights locals transferred to the less radical and more respectable AFL unions or railroad brotherhoods.[31]

American Federation of Labor

The American Federation of Labor union label, c. 1900.
Samuel Gompers in 1894; he was the AFL leader 1886-1924.

The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions began in 1881 under the leadership of Samuel Gompers. Like the National Labor Union, it was a federation of different unions and did not directly enroll workers. Its original goals were to encourage the formation of trade unions and to obtain legislation, such as prohibition of child labor, a national eight hour day, and exclusion of Chinese and other foreign contract workers.

Strikes organized by labor unions became routine events by the 1880s. There were 37,000 strikes, 1881 to 1905. By far the largest number were in the building trades, followed far behind by coal miners. The main goal was control of working conditions, setting uniform wage scales, protesting the firing of a member, and settling which rival union was in control. Most strikes were of very short duration. In times of depression strikes were more violent but less successful, because the company was losing money anyway. They were successful in times of prosperity when the company was losing profits and wanted to settle quickly.[32]

The Federation made some efforts to obtain favorable legislation, but had little success in organizing or chartering new unions. It came out in support of the proposal, traditionally attributed to Peter J. McGuire of the Carpenters Union, for a national Labor Day holiday on the first Monday in September, and threw itself behind the eight hour movement, which sought to limit the workday by either legislation or union organizing.

In 1886, as the relations between the trade union movement and the Knights of Labor worsened, McGuire and other union leaders called for a convention to be held at Columbus, Ohio on December 8. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions merged with the new organization, known as the American Federation of Labor or AFL, formed at that convention.[33]

The AFL was formed in large part because of the dissatisfaction of many trade union leaders with the Knights of Labor, an organization that contained many trade unions and that had played a leading role in some of the largest strikes of the era. The new AFL distinguished itself from the Knights by emphasizing the autonomy of each trade union affiliated with it and limiting membership to workers and organizations made up of workers, unlike the Knights which, because of its producerist focus, welcomed some who were not wage workers.

The AFL grew steadily in the late 19th century while the Knights all but disappeared. Although Gompers at first advocated something like industrial unionism, he retreated from that in the face of opposition from the craft unions that made up most of the AFL.

The unions of the AFL were composed primarily of skilled men; unskilled workers, African-Americans, and women were generally excluded. The AFL saw women as threatening the jobs of men, since they often worked for lower wages. The AFL provided little to no support for women's attempts to unionize.[34]

Western Federation of Miners

The Western Federation of Miners (WFM) was created in 1893. Frequently in competition with the American Federation of Labor, the WFM spawned new federations, including the Western Labor Union (later renamed to the American Labor Union). The WFM took a conservative turn in the aftermath of the Colorado Labor Wars and the trials of its president, Charles Moyer, and its secretary treasurer, Big Bill Haywood, for the conspiratorial assassination of Idaho's former governor. Although both were found innocent, the WFM, headed by Moyer, separated itself from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) (launched by Haywood and other labor radicals, socialists, and anarchists in 1905) just a few years after that organization's founding convention. In 1916 the WFM became the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, which was eventually absorbed by the United Steelworkers of America.[35]

Pullman Strike

During the major economic depression of the early 1890s, the Pullman Palace Car Company cut wages in its factories. Discontented workers joined the American Railway Union (ARU), led by Eugene V. Debs, which supported their strike by launching a boycott of all Pullman cars on all railroads. ARU members across the nation refused to switch Pullman cars onto trains. When these switchmen were disciplined, the entire ARU struck the railroads on June 26, 1894. Within four days, 125,000 workers on twenty-nine railroads had people quit work rather than handle Pullman cars.[36] Strikers and their supporters also engaged in riots and sabotage.[37][38]

The railroads were able to get Edwin Walker, general counsel for the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway, appointed as a special federal attorney with responsibility for dealing with the strike. Walker went to federal court and obtained an injunction barring union leaders from supporting the boycott in any way. The court injunction was based on the Sherman Anti-Trust Act which prohibited "Every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States". Debs and other leaders of the ARU ignored the injunction, and federal troops were called into action.[39]

The strike was broken up by United States Marshals and some 2,000 United States Army troops, commanded by Nelson Miles, sent in by President Grover Cleveland on the premise that the strike interfered with the delivery of U.S. Mail. During the course of the strike, 13 strikers were killed and 57 were wounded. An estimated $340,000 worth of property damage occurred during the strike. Debs went to prison for six months for violating the federal court order, and the ARU disintegrated.

Labor Exchanges and Tokens

Labor exchange notes are a rare numismatic item. They were issued by many Labor Exchanges in the western United States during the 1890s due to difficult economic times and may have been connected to early labor union cooperatives. The notes represented an exchange of labor for goods or labor for labor. However, they were issued in limited numbers and only for a short period of time because the plan to expand the Labor exchange notes program did not meet expectations.

Tokens and medals were also used as propaganda for labor movements as early as the late 1800s. They were issued by local labor groups to members of their "temples" or made to commemorate important events, such as the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago. These tokens often featured popular labor union symbols like clasped hands or an arm and hammer. Some tokens were industry specific, such as those issued by the Loyal League of Loggers and Lumbermen (LLLL), which depicted airplanes, trees, logs, ships, saws, and axes.[40]