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1) Choose a union.
2) Determine "bargaining unit."
3) Get at least 30% of people in the bargaining unit to sign union cards.
4) Submit the cards to the National Labor Relations Board.
5) The NLRB will set a hearing to finalize the bargaining unit and set an election date.
6) The election will be held and a simple majority wins.
The first step involved is, obviously, your decision to organize. You should also have some confidence that at least half of the workers at your workplace would be inclined to join a union. If possible, try to form a small committee of employees dedicated to the idea, but keep things quiet. (The longer it takes management to find out about the unionization attempt, the better.) Next, you must decide what union you wish to approach, if any. (You do not need to affiliate with any union; it is possible to form your own, independent union if you so wish, and labor law will protect your independent union just as any large, international union.) Talk to as many unions as you can, find out what they have to offer, how they organize, resources, etc. Don't be afraid to approach any union, regardless of their name: bookstores have been organized by the Longshoremen, office workers by the United Auto Workers. A good place to get phone numbers for unions is under "labor organizations" in the yellow pages.
Once you have chosen a union, you need to determine what you want the "bargaining unit" to be. That is, who at your workplace will be able to be in the union and who will not. You should include workers that have common duties, interests and similar pay. Managers and security guards cannot be included. Once you have decided what you would like the bargaining unit to be, (the "official" bargaining unit will be determined at a National Labor Relations Board hearing.) you will most likely begin having people sign union cards. These "cards" may be actual cards, or simply a petition. The cards or petition will indicate that the person signing the card would like a union to represent him or her in contract talks regarding wages, benefits, and working conditions, and are completely confidential (the employer never sees them). It is important to get a person's signature and the date on these cards, or they will not be considered valid.
Once 30% of the people in the bargaining unit sign the cards, you are entitled to submit them to the National Labor Relations Board, which views 30% as a sufficient number to warrant an election, that, if won, will certify the union in your workplace. Unofficially, you should get as many signatures as you possibly can. To win the election, you need a majority to vote "yes" and it is not unusual for some individuals who signed cards to end up voting "no." A good rule-of-thumb is that if you can't get at least 60% of the people in the bargaining unit to sign cards, you won't win the election.
Once you are ready to submit the cards to the NLRB (which entails handing the cards to an official and filling out a form), you should mail a certified letter to management indicating that you wish the union to be recognized. This is just a formality, as management will almost always refuse to recognize a union without an election. Once you have submitted the cards, the NLRB will contact the employer to schedule a hearing to determine the actual bargaining unit, and to schedule the election. At the hearing, the company will most likely try to pack the bargaining unit with workers that are likely to vote no, and try to challenge workers that are likely to vote yes. The union's lawyer will most likely handle things at this stage, so don't worry too much.
Once the bargaining unit is made final, the NLRB will schedule the date of the election. The election is secret ballot, overseen by an NLRB agent, with the ballot asking the question, "Do you want the "whatever union" to represent you in contract talks with "whatever employer?"" or something similar. A "yes" vote is for the union, a "no" against. A simple majority wins.
If you win: congratulations! The company must enter into contract talks with the union regarding wages, benefits, and working conditions.
If you lose: you must wait at least one year before trying again.
There are other options, of course: one need not rely on the NLRB process to win recognition to bargain for a contract. Employees can also try to force an employer to recognize them as a union through work actions such as strikes. This can be done even if an election was lost, although if you didn't have the strength to win the election, you may not have the strength to force recognition. (You can redefine your bargaining unit to increase your chances. For example, if your unit included factory workers and office staff, and the office staff voted against you in sufficient numbers to cause you to lose the election, you might try to get just the factory workers, where there is more solidarity, recognized.)
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The government protects the right of workers to organize in order to address issues of wages, benefits, and working conditions. The body of laws that protect this right is known as the National Labor Relations Act, sometimes referred to as the Wagner act. Of course, any questions you have regarding labor law can best be answered by a lawyer, but the following is a list of the basics:
Any group of workers may organize or help organize a union, except managers (supervisors) and security guards. (security guards can form their own union - they just can't be in a union with other employees.)
Workers have the right to strike.
Workers have the right to join a union.
The Wagner Act prohibits the employer from certain acts, known as unfair labor practices. If you feel you are the victim of an unfair labor practice, contact the NLRB, which will assign an agent to look into your case or consult a lawyer.
Unfair labor practices include management:
Threatening to fire a worker for union activity.
Threatening a worker in any way, implicitly or explicitly, because of union activities. This can include demotions, reprimands, etc.
Asking workers about union activities.
Threatening cuts in pay or benefits.
Promising increases in pay or benefits, beyond those normally scheduled. (Of course, this only applies until the election.)
Spying on union activity.
The Act also specifies some union activities as illegal:
Barring employees from entering the place of work.
Acts of force against workers.
Threats against any workers.
Also of interest: management (or the union) can be held accountable for anyone acting as an agent, even if management didn't know about or approve of the agent's actions. In other words, if an anti-union worker threatens you ("You'll lose your job if you vote yes.") management can be held accountable for that threat. This is to prevent management from using workers to deliver threats and thereby get around the law.
Companies do have the right to make predictions as to what will happen if a union wins. It becomes a threat, however, anytime the "prediction" is something that can be controlled by the employer. For example, saying that a major client might withdraw its contracts with the employer if a union wins is within the bounds of free speech. The employer has little or no control over what the client chooses to do. However, saying that a union would be too expensive and that the employer would have to cut its labor force to compensate is a threat, as the employer has complete control over the size of its work force.
During the entire campaign and negotiations, the employer must maintain the status quo with regards to pay, benefits, and working conditions. It cannot suddenly grant pay raises or cut pay, although regu larly scheduled pay raises must be given on time. Failure to do so is an unfair labor practice.
The NLRB uses a doctrine known as "the totality of conduct" when determining unfair labor practices. This means it looks at the employer's conduct throughout the entire campaign to determine if the law has been broken. In other words, an employer doesn't have to blatantly flaunt labor law to be reprimanded. If the employer constantly bends the law, or commits many minor infractions, the NLRB may find the employer in violation. It therefore behooves all employees to write down all infractions, no matter how minor. Write down the date, who was involved, the time of day, and any witnesses. Good documentation can be critical in winning a favorable ruling from the NLRB.
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The National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) (Big text file) .
Between 1978 and 1982 (the years covered by this study) 445 referrals were made to the Justice Department. These referals resulted in 261 convictions. This was out of a total of 350,000 union filings by 50,000 labor organizations - "a 0.1% referral rate and a 0.07% conviction rate." Furthermore, the "primary sources of [the information leading to conviction] were self-disclosure by unions on their annual financial reports, tips or complaints from union officials... Thus, unions themselves discovered and disclosed much of the misconduct..." (Elboar, David; Gold, Laurence. The Criminalization of Union Activity. Connerton, Bernstein & Katz.1985: pp.30-31) Another anaylisis in the same book that "severely overstates" the percentage of union officials indicted by the government lists a figure of a 0.2% (Ibid, pp. 38-39).
Contrast that, if you will, with the following information taken from
What Do Unions Do by Richard Freeman and James Medoff:
Let's compare that result to a survey by FORTUNE magazine in 1980 of corrupt acts in 1,043 large US corporations. They defined corportate corruption as "bribery, criminal fraud, illegal political contributions, tax evasion, and criminal anti-trust violations." The FORTUNE survey found that 117 corporations, or 11% of the total, had at least one serious violation in the period and some had been cited more than once. In total, there were 188 citations. Since the study excluded foreign bribes and kickbacks, it underestimated the possible violations. If the study had been extended to smaller companies, FORTUNE notes that the violation rate probably would have been higher, since "the bribing of purchasing agaents by small manufacturers and the skimming of receipts by cash-laden small retail business are a commonplace of commercial life."
The idea that unions suffer from extreme corruption is simply false. The vast majority of unions are all but free of corruption as the above figures show. Where union corruption does exist, it is usually the union itself that finds and exposes the corrupt person.
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Since many people have little experience with contracts, I thought it might be helpful to some to outline what goes into them. Legally, I should say that every contract is the product of negotiation, so that it is possible that a contract could look completely different than the one outlined below.
That said, a few generalizations: most contracts are about 25-30 pages long, and, while boring to read, are not so difficult to understand. They usually last between 3 and 5 years. Contracts are to be taken as the minimum compensation for employees: if an employer wanted to suddenly introduce a stock option plan that is not in the contract, the employer is free to do so--but not as a substitute for anything in the contract. The following list of stuff is typical in contracts. I've worked under several and have read a dozen. All of them contained these provisions:
Union Shop - A provision that states that all employees must belong to the union as a condition of employment. Exceptions to this are granted for religious reasons and in "right to work" states. (States, mostly in the South, where union shops are illegal.)
PAC contributions - this is NOT compulsory, but employees who wish can give money to a union political action committee. By the way, this is where unions get their money for political activities, as union dues may not be used for such activities.
No discrimination policy - employers cannot discriminate against employees because of union membership, age, creed, color, sexual preference, religion, etc.
Seniority - the seniority system is spelled out. Basically, seniority is used to determine in what order employees are laid off in the event of a lay-off, in what order employees are called upon to work holidays, etc.
Grievance procedure - one of the cornerstones of unionism. This system provides a way for all conflicts between management and employees to be peacefully resolved. If an employee feels he or she has been wronged and cannot resolve it with management, a union representative will meet with a management rep. and try to resolve the issue. If that fails, another attempt is made with the management representative's superior. If that fails, an outside arbitrator is called in, whose word is binding.
Hours & Overtime defined - usually 40 hours at 8 hours a day. If more than 8 hours in one day or 40 hours in one week are worked, overtime must be paid.
Work breaks defined - usually two 15 minute breaks per 8 hours worked.
Union Stewards - union stewards are simply employees who are elected to represent the union on the job site. They make sure the contract is not violated, help employees that have problems with management, etc.
No strike/no lockout - during the duration of the contract, the union may not strike and management may not lock employees out of the workplace.
Appeal from discharge - in the event that an employee is fired, he or she can appeal to the union for help within 30 days.
Management rights - a provision that states that anything not covered explicitly in the contract remains the sole domain of management.
As I mentioned, the above was standard in the contracts I read or worked under. What follows, however, varied from contract to contract. This is the section where employees would have to prioritize what they would like to go after in a contract as it is unlikely that, in a first contract, all of this stuff would make it in.
Wages - the biggie! Union contracts will usually define what the base rate of pay is. If a union simply cannot secure a direct raise, there are other options available in getting better compensation for employees. Such as...
Raises - Contracts will lay out the raise system for the life of the contract.
Shift differential - unpopular/inconvenient shifts can be awarded a slightly higher wage - either a flat rate (so much per hour) or a percentage of the employee's normal wage per hour. (Often 10%)
Sunday premium pay - compensates employees at a greater rate for working Sunday. Usually a flat rate.
Birthday as a holiday - Happy Birthday! Take the day off!
Health care - union health plans are among the best in the nation. Most unions will work to insure that the employee has no monthly contribution.
Pension fund - the contract states that the employer will contribute so much per month to a pension fund. This amount usually increased as the employee gains more seniority.
Quality of Work Life Committee - representatives for management and the employees meet in a committee monthly to work together to determine the best path for the store or plant to take.
There are many other things that can and do go into contracts: they are tailored for each industry, shop, factory, etc., but this should give you some idea of what contracts cover.
Once more, I should mention that a union cannot guarantee anything in a contract. But, if you read a few contracts, you do begin to see the many things that unions usually do secure for employees. If you have questions, feel free to e-mail me or contact a local union representative.
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A union is a group of employees in which a majority decide to bargain collectively to try to improve wages, benefits and working conditions. They can do this independently or with the help of an established labor organization.
How do you form a union?
Basically, you sign a "union card" (a card that indicates that you would like to form a union at your workplace). If a majority of employees sign such a card, the cards are given to a government agency (The NLRB - The National Labor Relations Board) which then schedules and oversees a secret ballot election to see if the employees really do want a union. If a majority votes "Yes" then a union is formed, with which the company must bargain over wages, benefits and working conditions.
What does a union do?
The primary objective of a union is to secure a contract which spells out the wages, benefits and working conditions for employees. Once a contract is signed by the employer and ratified by the employees, the union then exists to help any employee who wants such help to smooth over problems with management. This is done through the grievance procedure.
The grievance procedure is a procedure spelled out in the contract that explains how any conflicts between employees and management is to be resolved. Basically it works as follows: Let's say you've been written up for something and you feel it isn't fair. You talk with your managers but they refuse to do anything about it. You then go to your shop steward (see below) to get help. The steward sits down with you and management and tries to resolve the issue. If it can't be resolved at this meeting, a business agent for the union (see below) will come to the store to talk with management. If they still cannot resolve the problem to everyone's satisfaction, the business agent will appeal to upper management. If this step fails, both parties will bring in a neutral arbitrator who will issue a final decision.
What's a shop steward and a business agent?
A shop steward is simply a coworker that is elected by you to make sure that the contract isn't violated. In addition, s/he is the person to contact when an employee has a problem with management and wants union help. A business agent is an official of the union that handles any problems the shop steward cannot.
What besides the grievance procedure goes
into a contract?
See What goes in a contract?
Who negotiates the contract?
The company and the union put teams together. The company's team is usually comprised of lawyers, local management and upper management officials. The union team usually consists of bargaining unit (see below) employees, lawyers, and union negotiators.
What kind of say do I get in the contract?
Before contract talks, the union passes out a form on which you list those things you'd like to see in a contract. The union uses this to base the negotiation on. Furthermore, you could be on the negotiating team, but at the very least you get to vote on the contract. If a majority doesn't approve of the contract, the negotiating team has to go back to the drawing board.
How long do contracts last?
Usually 3 to 5 years.
What's this "bargaining unit" thing I've heard about?
The bargaining unit defines which employees are eligible to vote for and be in the union. Excluded by federal law are managers and security guards. Hey, if I sign a union card, does that mean I have to vote yes in the election? What if I change my mind?
You can vote any way you like in the election whether or not you signed a card. It's secret ballot so no one, neither management nor anyone else, will ever know how you voted.
What are union dues? What are they used for?
Union dues are the money you pay to the union to help pay for union support staff, legal costs, negotiation costs, arbitrator's fees, etc. Dues can range anywhere from $200-$500 a year depending on industry, the union, and the amount of money the union members make.
Geez, isn't that a lot of money?
Yes, but these facts help: you don't pay a cent to the union until a contract is ratified by the employees. So if wage and/or benefits gains in the contract don't more than make up for your dues, simply turn the contract down.
What's a "union shop"?
This means that all employees in the bargaining unit (see above) must be part of the union. It's a standard part of most contracts. It enables the union to bargain from a stronger position, which benefits all employees.
Even if they voted against the union? That's not very fair.
Well, for better of worse, it's how democracy in our country works. What the majority votes for, the minority has to live with. And remember, even those who opposed the union also receive any increases in wages and/or benefits.
I've heard about union fines. What can I be fined for?
In theory, you can be fined for crossing picket lines, not doing a picketing shift during a strike, and such. But the Philly local (they only one I'm familiar with) of the UFCW has NEVER fined a member. Ever.
What's a "local"?
A union is set up kind of like the United States. There is a national government, but many of the decisions that really affect you are on the state level. This is even more true of a union. There is an international union that oversees national operations. But the local takes care of the contract, helps employees that want help with managerial problems, etc.
So what's this "International" do?
They lobby Congress for changes in laws that would benefit workers, send help to any locals that need it, coordinate national organizing efforts, etc.
Can you give me a better idea of what will happen during a union drive?
You'll be asked at some point to sign a union card. Once about 65-75% of the employees in the bargaining unit are signed up (legally, you could file with as few as 30% of employees signed up, but it's best to wait for a solid majority), the cards are submitted to the NLRB. (The National Labor Relations Board, the government agency that oversees union/management relations.) The bargaining unit (see above) is finalized either by the NLRB or by agreement between the company and union. An election date is set. The secret ballot election is held and a majority wins. Of course, during the few weeks before the election, both management and pro-union employees will try to disseminate information. Management will do this through mandatory meetings and memos in your mailboxes. Pro-union employees will try to get you to talk with them about concerns, hold voluntary meetings and may mail stuff to your home. Tensions may start to run high, but the best way to avoid this is by feeling free to talk with you coworkers about your concerns.
How democratic are unions?
The whole process is democratic. You get to decide if you want to sign a card. You decide to vote yes or no for union representation. You decide what you want in a contract. You decide which employees will be on the negotiating team. You vote to ratify the contract or not. You vote on who will be your shop steward. Every 3 years you vote on who will be the officials of the local.
What if I have more questions?
Feel free to ask around. Ask both pro-union folk and management. Both would love to answer your questions. Stop by a unionized store (ask a pro-union person to get you a list or ask a union organizer where such a store is) and talk to the employees there. See what they think of their union. Or, you can always e-mail me, or ask to talk to a local union organizer.
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Unions are corrupt:
Several studies have been done that have demonstrated that less than 1% of locals had corruption problems. Contrast this with a 1980 investigation into corporate corruption by Fortune magazine that found that corporate corruption ran at 11%.
You won't be able to talk to your managers about problems:
Even if unions wanted to stop you from talking to managers about problems (and why on earth would they?) federal law mandates that you have the right to go to a manager with a problem without union representation.
Unions would lead the company into bankruptcy:
Unions do not ask for more in a contract than a company can afford.
They know that the worst possible disservice that a union could do to its membership is to drive the company they work for out of business. In fact, during hard financial times, most unions will do everything in their power to help companies stay in business. The most famous example of this is the Chrysler bailout in the 80's - pressure from both Chrysler and the UAW led the federal government to give Chrysler the loans that saved the company. Also, concessions during this time by the union enabled Chrysler to turn the corner and become one of the most profitable companies in the world today.
The union will be like having another boss:
Actually, management reserves all "boss" functions (management's rights) in a contract. So you won't have to check with "the union" to go on vacation, justify being late, or any hiring or firing situations. What the union does do in these situations is to advocate for you if you feel that management's decisions are unfair. For example, if you aren't given a vacation you deserve, the union will do what it can to rectify the situation working with management. (The process by which they do this, known as the grievance procedure, is spelled out in the contract.)
You won't be able to afford the dues:
Union dues usually range between two and five hundred a year, depending on the industry, the union, etc. Since no dues are paid until a contract is approved by the employees, employees can effectively insure that gains in the contract will be more than the amount paid per month in dues. Otherwise, the employees can simply turn the contract down and they never pay a cent.
Unions aren't really democratic:
All union officials must stand for election. Last year, for example, the Local UFCW in Philadelphia did its best to insure that everyone had the opportunity to vote, even setting up mobile voting "booths" so that they could reach rural areas were as few as three union members might be. And the most important union "official" in your life as a union member, your shop steward, is elected directly by you and your co- workers. Several of your co-workers are nominated by you and the other employees and then an election is held. It's direct democracy. Futhermore the employees get to choose members to be on the negotiating team and any contract must be ratified by a secret ballot vote before it is enacted. Even dues increases must be approved by the employees or they don't pay one cent more.
You'll go on strike:
Strikes are actually very rare. The chances that you'll go on strike over any given contract is about the same as the chances of the space shuttle blowing up at any given launch. (1 to 2%) The chances are much, much greater that you will end up with a fair contract. The only reason strikes leap to mind is that business' stress the fact that they could happen in order to scare employees, the media loves to cover them, and the labor movement glorifies them. (Understandable, I guess. Signing contracts lacks the drama. I can see my grandfather now: "Yes sir, I remember the great contract signing of '34.)
Of course, the best way to avoid misconceptions and rumors is to go talk to employees who are currently under a contract with your local union. Go to a few stores or plants, talk to a few employees in each. Ask them if they like the union and if they are better off with it than without. It's worth the effort.
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This brief history of more than 100 years of the modem trade union movement in the United States can only touch the high spots of activity and identify the principal trends of a "century of achievement." In such a condensation of history, episodes of importance and of great human drama must necessarily be discussed far too briefly, or in some cases relegated to a mere mention.
What is clearly evident, however, is that the working people of America have had to unite in struggle to achieve the gains that they have accumulated during this century. Improvements did not come easily. Organizing unions, winning the right to representation, using the collective bargaining process as the core of their activities, struggling against bias and discrimination, the working men and women of America have built a trade union movement of formidable proportions.
Labor in America has correctly been described as a stabilizing force in the national economy and a bulwark of our democratic society. Furthermore, the gains that unions have been able to achieve have brought benefits, direct and indirect, to the public as a whole. It was labor, for example, that spearheaded the drive for public education for every child. The labor movement, indeed, has served as a force for American progress.
American Labor's Second Century
Now, in the 1980s, as the American trade union movement looks toward its second century, it takes pride in its first "century of achievement" as it recognizes a substantial list of goals yet to be achieved.
In this past century, American labor has played a central role in the elevation of the American standard of living. The benefits which unions have negotiated for their members are, in most cases, widespread in the economy and enjoyed by millions of our fellow citizens outside the labor movement. It is often hard to remember that what we take for granted-vacations with pay, pensions, health and welfare protection, grievance and arbitration procedures, holidays never existed on any meaningful scale until unions fought and won them for working people.
Through these decades, the labor movement has constantly reached out to groups in the American society striving for their share of opportunity and rewards..... to the blacks, the Hispanics and other minorities..... to women striving for jobs and equal or comparable pay . . . to those who work for better schools, for the freedom of speech, press and assembly guaranteed by the Bill of Rights ... to those seeking to make our cities more livable or our rural recreation areas more available . . . to those seeking better health for infants and more secure status for the elderly.
Through these decades, in addition, the unions of America have functioned in an economy and a technology marked by awesome change. When the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions gathered in convention in 1881, Edison had two years earlier invented the electric light, and the first telephone conversation had taken place just five years before. There were no autos, no airplanes, no radio, no television, no air conditioning, no computers or calculators, no electronic games. For our modest energy needs-coal, kerosene and candies-we were independently self-sufficient.
The labor movement has seen old industries die (horse-shoeing was once a major occupation) and new industries mature. The American workforce, once predominantly "blue collar," now Jinds "white collar" employees and the "grey collar" people of the service industries in a substantial majority. The workforce in big mass production industries has contracted, and the new industries have required employees with different skills in different locations. Work once performed in the United States has been moved to other countries, often at wage levels far below the American standards. Multinational, conglomerate corporations have moved operations around the globe as if it were a mammoth chessboard. The once thriving U.S. merchant marine has shriveled.
A new kind of "growth industry"-consultants to management skilled in the use of every legal loophole that can frustrate union organizing, the winning of representation elections, or the negotiation of a fair and equitable collective bargaining agreement-has mushroomed in recent years, and threatens the stability of labor-management relationships. A group of organizations generally described as the "new right" enlist their followers in retrogressive crusades to develop an anti-union atmosphere in the nation, and to repeal or mutilate various social and economic programs that have brought a greater degree of security and peace of mind to the millions of American wage earners in the middle and lower economic brackets.
Resistance to modest proposals like the labor law reform bill of 1977, and the use of lie detectors and electronic surveillance in probing the attitudes and actions of employees are a reminder that opposition to unions, while changing in style from the practices of a few decades ago, is still alive and flourishing often financed by corporate groups, trade associations and extremist ideologues.
Yet through this dizzying process of change, one need remains constant-the need for individual employees to enjoy their human rights and dignity, and to have the power to band together to achieve equal collective status in dealing with multi-million and multi-billion dollar corporations. In other words, there is no substitute for the labor union.
American labor's responsibility in its second century is to adjust to the new conditions, so that it may achieve optimum ability to represent its members and contribute to the evolutionary progress of the American democratic society.
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AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland expressed that concept in his formal statement on labor's centennial in 1981:
"Labor has a unique role in strengthening contemporary American society and dealing adequately and forcefully with the challenge of the future."
"We shall rededicate ourselves to the sound principle of harnessing democratic tradition and trade union heritage with the necessity of reaching out for new and better ways to serve all working people and the entire nation."
Toward a Federation of Labor
The roots of our country's trade unions extend deep into the early history of America. Several of the Pilgrims arriving at Plymouth Rock in 1620 were working craftsmen. Captain John Smith, who led the ill-fated settlement in 1607 on Virginia's James River, pleaded with his sponsors in London to send him more craftsmen and working people.
Primitive unions, or guilds, of carpenters and cordwainers, cabinet makers and cobblers made their appearance, often temporary, in various cities along the Atlantic seaboard of colonial America. Workers played a significant role in the struggle for independence; carpenters disguised as Mohawk Indians were the "host" group at the Boston Tea Party in 1773. The Continental Congress met in Carpenters Hall in Philadelphia, and there the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. In "pursuit of happiness" through shorter hours and higher pay, printers were the first to go on strike, in New York in 1794; cabinet makers struck in 1796; carpenters in Philadelphia in 1797; cordwainers in 1799. In the early years of the 19th century, recorded efforts by unions to improve the workers' conditions, through either negotiation or strike action, became more frequent.
By the 1820s, various unions involved in the effort to reduce the working day from 12 to 10 hours began to show interest in the idea of federation-of joining together in pursuit of common objectives for working people.
Puny as these first efforts to organize may have been, they reflected the need of working people for economic and legal protection from exploiting employers. The invention of the steam engine and the growing use of water power to operate machinery were developing a trend toward a factory system not much different from that in England which produced misery and slums for decades. Starting in the 1830s and accelerating rapidly during the Civil War, the factory system accounted for an ever-growing share of American production. It also produced great wealth for a few, grinding poverty for many.
With workers recognizing the power of their employers, the number of local union organizations increased steadily during the mid-19th century. In a number of cities, unions in various trades joined together in city-wide federations. The National Trades' Union, formed in 1834 by workers in five cities, was an early attempt at countrywide federation-but the financial panic of 1837 put an end to its efforts. In 1866 several national associations of unions functioning in one trade-printers, machinists, stone cutters, to name a few-sent delegates to a Baltimore meeting that brought forth the National Labor Union. Never very strong, it was a casualty of the sweeping economic depression of 1873.
Five years later, the Knights of Labor captured the public imagination. The Knights were an all-embracing organization committed to a cooperative society. Membership was not limited to wage earners; it was open to farmers and small business people-everybody, that is, except lawyers, bankers, stockbrokers, professional gamblers and anyone involved in the sale of alcoholic beverages. The Knights achieved a membership of nearly 750,000 during the next few years, but the skilled and unskilled workers who had joined the Knights in hope of improvement in their hours and wages found themselves frustrated by the Knights' vague organizational structure, by its officers' aversion to strikes against employers and by its leaders' reliance on the promise of future social gains instead of the hard day-to-day work of building and operating a union organization. So the stage was set for the creation of a down-to-earth, practical labor federation which could combine long range objectives of a better society with the practical activity of day-to-day union functions.
Federation of Organized Trades & Labor Unions
The first practical step in response to the need for a united labor movement was a meeting of workers' representatives from a few trades and industries at Pittsburgh on Nov. 15, 1881. The delegates came from the carpenters, the cigar makers, the printers, merchant seamen, and the steel workers, as well as from a few city labor bodies and a sprinkling of delegates from local units of the Knights of Labor.
The new Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions which they created had a constitution inspired by that of the British Trades Union Congress -which then was about a dozen years old. Its principal activity was legislative, its most important committee was concerned with legislation. The chairman of that committee was 31-year-old Samuel Gompers of the Cigar Makers Union, serving in the earliest phase of a career that was to make him the principal leader and spokesman for labor in America for the next four decades.
The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions was a good deal less than a strongly effective organization. In its third year, it collected just $508 in dues, and its 1884 convention brought together merely 18 delegates. Yet its fingers were clearly on the pulse of America's working class; it passed a resolution decreeing that "eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor from and after May 1, 1886." It recommended to its affiliated unions that they "so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution by the time named." In the words of a much later cliché, the federation's call for the 8-hour day was clearly "an idea whose time had come." It touched off, or accelerated, a strong and vociferous national clamor for the shorter work week.
Despite the popularity of that call for action, Gompers and a number of his associates-among them, particularly, Peter J. McGuire of the Brotherhood of Carpenters-felt the time had come for reorganizing the Federation to make it a more effective center for the trade unions of the country. So, on Dec. 8, 1886, they and a few other delegates met in Columbus, Ohio, to create a renovated organization.
It was at this meeting that the American Federation of Labor evolved from the earlier Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. The action was a giant step forward toward the development of a modern trade union movement in America. Gompers was elected president, McGuire secretary. Gompers, born in 1850, came as a boy with his parents to America from the Jewish slums of London; he entered the cigar-making trade and received much of his education as a "reader"-a worker who read books, newspaper stories, poetry and magazine articles to fellow employees to help break the monotony of their work in the shop-and became a leader of his local union and of the national Cigar Makers Union.
A statement by the founders of the AFL expressed their belief in the need for more effective union organization. "The various trades have been affected by the introduction of machinery, the subdivision of labor, the use of women's and children's labor and the lack of an apprentice system-so that the skilled trades were rapidly sinking to the level of pauper labor," the AFL declared. "To protect the skilled labor of America from being reduced to beggary and to sustain the standard of American workmanship and skill, the trades unions of America have been established."
The leadership of the early labor movement showed a keen awareness that the unions could not succeed with a "men only" philosophy, even though men were then the clearly dominant element in the labor force. In 1882 the Federation extended to "all women's labor organizations representation . . . on an equal footing." Even more explicitly-and rather grandiloquently-the AFL convention in 1894 adopted a resolution that "women should be organized into trade unions to the end that they may scientifically and permanently abolish the terrible evils accompanying their weakened, unorganized state; and we demand that they receive equal compensation with men for equal services performed."
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The new AFL, with its 300,000 members in 25 unions, came on the national scene in a time of discord and struggle. Earlier in 1886, railroad workers in the Southwest had been involved in a losing strike against the properties of Jay Gould, one of the more flamboyant of the so-called "robber barons" of the post-Civil War period. On May 1, 1886, some 200,000 workers had struck in support of the effort to achieve the 8-hour day.
While the national 8-hour-day strike movement was generally peaceful, and frequently successful, it led to an episode of violence in Chicago that resulted in a setback for the new labor movement. The McCormick Harvester Company in Chicago, learning in advance of the planned strike, locked out all its employees who held union cards. Fights erupted and the police opened fire on the union members, killing four of them. A public rally at Haymarket Square to protest the killings drew a large and peaceful throng. As the meeting drew to a close, a bomb exploded near the lines of police guards, and seven of the uniformed force were killed, with some 50 persons wounded. The police began to fire into the crowd; several more people were killed and about 200 were wounded.
Eight anarchists were arrested and charged with a capital crime. Four were executed; four others were eventually freed by Gov. John P. Altgeld of Illinois after he concluded that the trial had been unfairly conducted. No one knows for certain who planted the bomb. But as Gompers ruefully commented some time later: "The bomb not only killed the policemen, but it killed our eight-hour movement for a few years after."
The new AFL, breaking with the cloudy organizational structure that had hampered the Knights of Labor and other previous attempts at federation, placed emphasis on the autonomy of each affiliated union in its jurisdiction, and encouraged the development of practical collective bargaining to gain improvements for the membership. But it takes two to make collective bargaining work - employers and workers - and as American industry moved into a period of immense growth and power in the latter part of the 19th century, the lords of industry were little inclined to negotiate with the unions of their employees. The Sherman Antitrust Act, designed to break up the power of monopoly corporations, was used very strongly against small unions, contrary to its intent. And so, the companies grew in strength while their lawyers fought successful rearguard actions to make the law inoperative.
Thus the decade of the 1890s and the early years of the 20th century witnessed many intense struggles between essentially weak unions seeking to liberate their members from back-breaking toil under often unsafe and unhealthy working conditions for very low wages, and powerful corporations with heavy financial resources, the active or passive support of the government and its police forces, and the backing of much of the press and the general public. It was a perfect climate for union-busting and violence.
In 1891 steel boss Henry C. Frick broke a Pennsylvania strike of coke oven workers seeking the 8-hour day. But that was just a warm-up event for Frick, who as head of the Carnegie Steel Company in 1892 ordered a pay cut ranging from 18 to 26 percent. The Amalgamated Association of Iron & Steel Worker some of the stronger unions of the period-called a strike at the Carnegie plant at Homestead, Pa., to seek a rescinding of the cut in wages. Pitched battles followed between the strikers and a boatload of 300 armed Pinkerton detectives. The strikers won the battle and the Pinkertons retreated, with a death toll of seven workers, three strikebreakers and scores of wounded. The state militia then took over the town. Indictments poured out, but no one was convicted; and Frick had succeeded in breaking the strike.
The next big confrontation, in 1894, was at the Pullman plant near Chicago. The American Railroad Union-not affiliated with the AFL and led by Eugene V. Debs, a leading American socialist-struck the company's manufacturing plant, and called for a boycott of the handling of Pullman's sleeping and parlor cars on the nation's railroads. Within a week, 125,000 railroad workers were engaged in a sympathy protest strike. The government swore in 3,400 special deputies; later, at the request of the railroad association, President Cleveland moved in federal troops to break the strike-despite a plea by Gov. Aitgeld of Illinois that their presence was unnecessary. Finally a sweeping federal court injunction forced an end to the sympathy strike, and many railroad workers were blacklisted. The Pullman strikers were essentially starved into submissive defeat.
The strike illustrated the increasing tendency of the government to offer moral support and military force to break strikes. The injunction, issued usually and almost automatically by compliant judges on the request of government officials or corporations, became a prime legal weapon against union organizing and action.
A Testing Period and Growth
A better method of federal intervention occurred during a 1902 strike of anthracite coal miners, under the banner of the United Mine Workers. More than 100,000 miners in northeastern Pennsylvania called a strike on May 12, and kept the mines closed all that summer. When the mine owners refused a UMW proposal for arbitration, President Theodore Roosevelt intervened on Oct. 3, and on Oct. 16 appointed a commission of mediation and arbitration. Five days later the miners returned to their jobs, and five months later the Presidential Commission awarded them a 10 percent wage increase and shorter work days-but not the formal union recognition they had sought.
The difficulties that unions experienced in fashioning their strategies for bringing workers into membership and fighting low-wage non-union competition could best be observed in a long court fight which became nationally known as the Danbury Hatters case. In 1902, the AFL hatters union instituted a national boycott of a non-union company in Danbury, Conn. The company, charging a conspiracy in restraint of trade, under the provisions of the antitrust law, filed a damage suit in the state court but lost.
The case worked its way through the federal courts over the next few years, and in 1908 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision against the union. It held that the Hatters Union had participated in an illegal secondary boycott, which was subject to federal injunctive restraint. The decision was a clear signal to the federal judiciary and to the corporations that injunctions could be used to stop various kinds of labor strikes and strike-support actions. In addition, the individual strikers were fined a total of nearly $250,000. In 1915, the AFL proclaimed a Hatters' Day, in which workers voluntarily contributed an hours pay to help pay off the fines. The money thus collected kept 184 individual Danbury hat workers from having their homes seized in order to pay the court-ordered levy. [It is important to differentiate between direct consumer boycotts or "unfair to labor" or "don't buy" activities, which are recognized as perfectly legal when conducted in connection with or in support of labor union disputes with employers-and, on the other hand, secondary boycotts, which were the issue in the Danbury Hatters case and which were made illegal under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. A secondary boycott is one directed at companies or stores to try to force them not to use, or to offer for sale, products which have been made by a company involved in a strike or otherwise deemed "unfair" by the legitimate union. The secondary boycott has all but disappeared since Taft-Hartley was passed. It should be noted, however, that the courts have ruled that the Constitution's free speech provisions legally permit a union to place "informational pickets" outside a store selling "unfair" goods and calling attention to labor's "don't buy" campaign-so long as they do not call the store itself "unfair" or ask the public not to patronize the establishment.]
This was not to be the first or last example of the way in which employers have sought to redirect the thrust of laws designed to regulate corporations and instead aimed them toward labor unions and their members. Indeed, even at the current time, efforts are still being made to include labor under the antitrust and other laws originally aimed at corporations.
Not all the strikes and struggles of the period were conducted by the "sons of toil" in the nation's heavy industries. Long before the rise of the contemporary feminist movement, large numbers of women were at work-particularly in the big cities and in the men's and women's garment industry. Their grievances were real and tangible in both the textile and garment industries. Their pay was often at sweatshop levels, their hours too long, the speed-up rampant, the working conditions dreadful. Conditions such as these led in 1909 to a strike known widely as "The Uprising of the Twenty Thousand." The strikers, mostly women, almost all of them recent immigrants from eastern Europe, conducted the first big protest in the needle trades under the banner of the Ladies' Garment Workers against shirtwaist and dress manufacturers. Their plight brought widespread public support, and they gained the 52-hour work week and wage increases.
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In 1910, some 50,000 cloakmakers called a strike in New York. Thanks to the efforts of Louis D. Brandeis, a lawyer later named to the U.S. Supreme Court, the dispute ended on a constructive note. A "protocol of peace" designed by Brandeis established procedures for conciliation and arbitration of future grievance disputes, as well as such important advances as the abolition of homework, the free use of electricity, 10 paid holidays a year, and piece work at rates fixed by joint union-management committees.
But a reminder that the garment industry was a good deal this side of paradise occurred in 191 1, when a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. on New York's lower east side. About 150 employees almost all of them young women-perished when the fire swept through the upper floors of the loft building in which they worked. Many burned to death; others jumped and died. Why so large a casualty list? The safety exits on the burning floors had been securely locked, allegedly to prevent "loss of goods." New York and the country were aroused by the tragedy. A state factory investigation committee headed by Frances Perkins (she was to become Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of labor in 1933, the first woman cabinet member in history) paved the way for many long needed reforms in industrial safety and fire prevention measures.
Another of the historic industrial conflicts prior to World War I occurred in 1912 in the textile mills of Lawrence, Mass. It was led not by an AFL union but by the radical Industrial Workers of the World-the IWW, or the Wobblies, as they were generally known -an organization in frequent verbal and physical conflict with the AFL and its affiliates. The strike in Lawrence started when the mill owners, responding to a state legislature action reducing the work week from 54 to 52, coldly and without prior notice cut the pay rates by a 31/2 percent. The move produced predictable results: a strike of 50,000 textile workers; arrests; fiery statements by the IWW leaders; police and militia attacks on peaceful meetings; and broad public support for the strikers. Some 400 children of strikers were "adopted" by sympathizers. When women strikers and their children were attacked at the railroad station by the police after authorities had decided no more youngsters could leave town, an enraged public protest finally forced the mill owners not only to restore the pay cuts but to increase the workers' wages to more realistic levels.
Perhaps the temper of the times in which working men and women sought to build their unions was epitomized by the attitude of George Baehr, head of the Philadelphia and Reading Railway Company, at the time of the 1902 coal strike. In Mr. Baehr's publicly expressed view, "the rights and interests of the labor man will be protected and cared for not by the labor agitators but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of the country and upon the successful management on which so much depends." Such an attitude did not leave much room for flexibility in developing more equitable labor-management relationships.
Yet not all of the news was of strike and struggle. By 1904, the AFL could claim a membership in its affiliated unions of nearly 1,700,000 members. Ten years later, at the eve of World War 1, it had climbed to about 2 million.
There were, furthermore, important legislative accomplishments. Congress, at the urging of the AFL, created a separate U.S. Department of Labor with a legislative mandate to protect and extend the rights of wage earners. A Children's Bureau, with a major concern to protect the victims of job exploitation, was created. The LaFollette Seaman's Act required urgently needed improvements in the working conditions on ships of the U.S. merchant marine. Of crucial importance, the Clayton Act of 1914 made explicit the legal concept that "the labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce" and hence not subject to the kind of Sherman Act provisions which had been the issue in the Danbury Hatters case. The act gave a legal basis in the federal jurisdiction to strikes and boycotts and peaceful picketing, and dramatically limited the use of injunctions in labor disputes. Little wonder that AFL President Gompers hailed the Clayton Act as a "magna carta," probably not foreseeing that future court decisions and interpretations would seriously undermine the power of the language of the law.
The Adamson Act passed by Congress in 1916 concerning work hours on the railroads was an important milestone in the decades-long effort to achieve the 8 hour day, an objective of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in 1884 and of many subsequent strikes. The 10-hour day-an improvement in its era-was introduced for federal government employees in 1840, but it took until the early years of the 20th century before the 8-hour work day became broadly accepted in the private sector, particularly in the printing and building trades. The mass production industries and the railroads continued their refusal to grant it.
The Adamson Act brought the shorter work day to railroad employees. It came in other industries through the impact of strikes, collective bargaining, state laws and two federal statutes: the Public Contracts Act in 1936, requiring contractors on government jobs to observe the 8-hour day, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 which provided a maximum work week for employers in interstate commerce -first a maximum of 44 hours and, after two years, 40 hours a week.
Women in the Unions
A noteworthy event in the labor movement of the early 1900s was the creation of the Women's Trade Union League, to help educate women workers about the advantages of union membership, to support their demands for better working conditions, and to acquaint the public with the serious exploitation of the rising number of women workers, many of them in "home industries" or industrial sweatshops.
It was founded by Mary O'Sullivan, a bindery worker who became the first woman organizer employed by the AFL; Jane Addams, the noted social worker and founder of Chicago's Hull House; Mary Kehew, a Boston philanthropist, and women who were officials in the unions of the garment and textile industries.
For much of its first century, the labor movement was-in huge majority composed of men. Except in a few occupations clerical work and the garment, textile, retail and hotel industries-the labor force was essentially male.
Since World War 11, however, women have moved increasingly into new occupations and larger numbers of women have become full-time wage earners. As more and more women went to work, their union membership climbed, passing 7 million in 1980.
In 1984, two women were serving on the AFL-CIO Executive Council as federation vice presidents. Women also head a major AFL-CIO staff department and a national affiliate, while others hold offices of increasing responsibility in their unions.
Wartime Gains and Post-War Challenges
When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the AFL under President Gompers' leadership worked in close cooperation with President Wilson to ensure industrial peace and a steady flow of military equipment and armaments for the American Expeditionary Force in Europe. As head of the War Committee on Labor and member of the Council for National Defense, Gompers and the unions be represented played an increasingly important role in national affairs. A wartime disputes board helped avoid strikes and maintain production; it had the support and cooperation of the labor movement. With the vast expansion of production for military and civilian needs, unions grew rapidly during the wartime years.
A symbolic recognition of labor's new status was President Wilson's visit to Buffalo in 1917 to address the annual AFL convention-the first time a President had made such an appearance. In succeeding Administrations most Presidents, Republican and Democratic alike, spoke to the labor conventions.
One effort in which Gompers worked hard and successfully was for the creation of the International Labor Organization, an inter-governmental body headquartered in Geneva, with government, labor and employer delegates and advisers, to discuss intentional problems directly affecting workers and to seek the elevation of work standards and the rights of workers in every country. The ILO was established under the Treaty of Versailles that followed World War 1. Although the U.S. Senate finally refused to ratify the treaty, the American labor movement played an important role in ILO affairs beginning in 1934, and more intensely after World War II when the ILO became a specialized international agency of the United Nations.
During the years following World War 1, however, the labor movement suffered setbacks and difficulties.
While AFL membership had reached almost 4 million by 1919, the postwar reaction from employers and their allies was swift and predictable. Elbert Gary, head of U.S. Steel (the company bestowed his name on the Indiana city), refused to meet with striking workers. The AFL endorsed and supported a strike of steel workers committed to such objectives as the end of the 12-hour day, the dismantlement of company-dominated "unions," collective bargaining and wage increases. Using massive propaganda which sought to depict the strike as "unpatriotic," plus such time-tested favorites as strikebreakers, spies, armed guards and cooperative police departments, "Big Steel" finally wore down the strikers, and they were forced to return to work early in 1920 under the old conditions.
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Both the steel strike and an early post-war meat packing strike found employers-not for the first time nor the last-importing blacks from southern rural areas and Mexican peasants in order to serve as strikebreakers, usually without advance knowledge of that fact until they had to face the ordeal of being escorted through hostile picket lines. These random events, however, did not prevent the labor movement from playing a role of support for future civil rights activities and legislation.
The "Roaring Twenties," nostalgically depicted in some movies and musical comedies as an era of unbounded prosperity and champagne-induced gaiety, fell a good deal short of those marks for most American working people. Throughout the decade, unemployment rose, quietly, almost anonymously. It was a time of considerable hardship for many of the unemployed, long before the days of unemployment insurance or supplementary benefits.
The postwar depression brought wages down sharply and caused major erosion of union membership-a loss of about a million members in the years from 1920 to 1923. The difficulties were multiplied by the decision of the National Association of Manufacturers and other anti-union "open shop" groups to wipe out or seriously diminish the status of American , can unions. The fear of "Bolsheviks," often hysterical, that was nurtured by the Russian communist revolution was used gleefully by the anti-union forces. As early as 1913, President John Kirby of the NAM had decided the trade union movement was "an un-American, illegal and infamous conspiracy." As the Senate Civil Liberties Committee, headed by Sen. Robert LaFollette Jr., reported years later, such demands as "union recognition, shorter hours, higher wages, regulation of child labor and the hours and wages of women and children in industry" came to be seen-under the influence of the NAM-sponsored 'American Plan' -as aspects of the alleged communist revolution from which the anti-labor employers wanted to save the nation. Strikebreaking, blacklisting and vigilanteeism became, for a time, acceptable aspects of this new and spurious brand of patriotism.
The "yellow dog contract," which workers had to sign in order to get a job, bound them never to join a union; at the same time, the corporations promoted employee representation plans or company unions-pale and generally useless imitations of the real thing.
In 1 924, faced with continual attacks and decisions by the Republican and Democratic parties to present the voters with the very limited choice between President Coolidge, a laissez faire conservative, and John W. Davis, a corporation lawyer, the AFL voted to support "neither of the above" but to make an endorsement for the first time in a presidential election. Senator LaFollette of Wisconsin, an old line friend of labor and the farmers, ran on the Progress Party ticket with strong AFL backing. He drew an impressive 1 7 percent of the total vote.
That same year, Samuel Gompers died, leaving a heritage of admiration and respect and a philosophy of trade unionism that still today underlies much of labor's thinking. His successor was William Green, who guided the destinies of the Federation until his death in 1952. Green, born in Coshocton, Ohio, in 1873, left school to become a coal miner, joined the union, and served as Mine Workers secretary-treasurer for a dozen years before being elected AFL president. An earnest and dedicated trade unionist, Green presided over the AFL with calm dignity during a difficult period-the depression years and the years of the division of the labor movement.
The decade of the 1920s drifted on a downhill course for the labor movement. Virulent anti-unionism, the steady, creeping ascent of unemployment, and the complacent political climate engendered by the Hoover Administration had a decidedly negative effect on the fortunes of the AFL, its unions and America's working men and women in every part of the country, in every sector of the economy.
From Murdered Miners to Shiny Dimes
One chapter of the history of early-century industrial conflicts involved John D. Rockefeller, the first tycoon of the age of energy and the creator of the Standard Oil complex of corporations.
Rockefeller controlled the Colorado Fuel & Iron Corporation, whose coal miners went on strike in 1914. With their families, they were promptly evicted from company-owned homes in Ludlow, Colo.
They moved into a cluster of tents, around which National Guard soldiers took positions and at night occasionally fired their rifles into the colony. To protect the children, the miners dug a cave under the largest tent. But on Easter night 1914, company-hired gunmen and some of the National Guard poured oil over the strikers' tents and set them on fire.
As the frantic miners and their families ran for safety in the night, they were machine-gunned. Some escaped, some were wounded and 13 children and a pregnant woman in the recently dug cave all died-some with gun wounds, some from suffocation.
The nationwide protest against the killings on Rockefeller property were immediate and long sustained. Eventually, it led Rockefeller, the nation's first billionaire, to hire Ivy Lee, an early public relations man, to repair John D.'s sullied reputation.
Even as an old man, Rockefeller continued to hand out shiny new dimes to little children in the effort to erase the Ludlow image-but among the miners and workers in many other unions, the memory of Ludlow persists like an endless bad (]team.
Depression, War and A Labor Schism Healed
December 1931-the 50th anniversary of the creation of the modern labor movement-found America and much of the world sliding down the much steeper slope of a cataclysmic economic depression. Business enterprises failed by the thousands, production plummeted, unemployment went through the roof. By 1932, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President, the American economy was in chaos-and the American trade union movement was but a ghost of its former strength and numbers.
Roosevelt, taking the leadership of the all but paralyzed nation on March 4, 1933, undertook a number of programs designed to recharge the economy, feed the unemployed and restore confidence. At his urging, Congress passed the National Recovery Administration; the NRA's Section 7a specifically placed on the statute books the right of unions to exist and to negotiate with employers. Although it had no real enforcement powers, Section 7a was seen by millions of workers as a green light-if not a government invitation-to join a union.
Many AFL unions took quick advantage of the new atmosphere and soon began to register spectacular gains in membership. Some issued leaflets suggesting that "President Roosevelt wants you to join the union."
The Supreme Court soon declared NRA unconstitutional, and Section 7a was no more. Under the leadership of Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York, Congress in 1936 enacted the National Labor Relations Act-known as the Wagner Act. It went beyond "7a" to establish a legal basis for unions; set collective bargaining as a matter of national policy required by the law; provided for secret ballot elections for the choosing of unions; and protected union members from employer intimidation and coercion. That law, as amended in 1947 by the Taft-Hartley Act and in 1959 by the Landrum Griffin Act, is still in force.
The surge in union membership in the early years of the New Deal, and the potential for organizing the important non-union mass production industries like steel, automobile, rubber, textile and others, led directly to the most serious schism in the history of the modern labor movement. Heads of a number of the industrial unions in the AFL, led by John L. Lewis of the Mine Workers, called upon the AFL to finance and support big organizing campaigns in the nonunion industries on a basis that all the workers in each industry would belong to one industrial, or ,'vertical," union. Most of the leaders of the AFL unions presided over craft, or "horizontal" unions, and they maintained that employees of the same skills or crafts in the unorganized industries should sooner or later belong to their organizations.
In November 1935, Lewis announced the creation of the CIO-the Committee for Industrial Organization-composed of about a dozen leaders of AFL unions, to carry on the effort for industrial unionism. Lewis, born in Iowa in 1880 of Welsh immigrant parents, went to work in the coal mines and became president of the Mine Workers in 1920. An orator of remarkable virtuosity, Lewis voiced increasingly bitter attacks on his colleagues on the AFL Executive Council; his words helped speed the break. In 1936, the various CIO unions were expelled from the Federation-because, said Lewis, they favored industrial unionism; because, said AFL President Green, they had flouted procedures and rules of the AFL. In 1938 the CIO held its first constitutional convention and became the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
In any event, the CIO began a remarkably successful series of organizing campaigns-and in rapid succession, over the next few years, brought industrial unionism to large sectors of basic American industry. After U.S. Steel signed with the CIO Steel Workers in the spring of 1937, major organizing efforts brought, during the next few years, first signed agreements most frequently after strike action-with major corporations in the steel, auto, rubber, glass, maritime, meat packing and other mass production industries. At the same time the unions remaining in the AFL registered even more substantial gains in membership.
The growth in union strength of both the AFL and CIO throughout the period, coupled with Roosevelt's domestic program, led to passage of a number of national social programs long advocated by the labor movement: among them, the national social security program, unemployment compensation, workers' compensation, and a federal minimum wage-hour law (the original minimum hourly pay set by the 1938 statute was 25 cents an hour).
During World War 11, the AFL and CIO, while preserving areas of disagreement, began to find more substantial bases for working together on problems affecting all workers. Philip Murray, who succeeded Lewis as president of the CIO, and AFL President Green served jointly and cooperatively on a number of government commissions involved in the war effort. MLirrav, born in Scotland in 1886, came as a boy to the corn fields of western Pennsylvania, and through his negotiating talents and oratorical ability rose through the Mine Workers ranks to vice president. Murray headed the CIO's Steel Workers Organizing Committee in 1936, and in 1942 he was elected president of the new United Steelworkers, a position he retained while serving as head of the CIO.
In 1952, Murray died, and was succeeded by Walter P. Reuther of the United Automobile Workers. Reuther, born in 1907 as one of four sons of a socialist brewery worker in Wheeling, W.Va., moved to Detroit during the depression and became a skilled worker in the auto industry. He was one of the prime organizers of the Auto Workers and after World War 11 won a closely contested battle for the UAW presidency, a post he held until his death in an airplane crash in 1970. Just a few weeks after Murray's death, William Green died, and was succeeded by George Meany, the AFL secretary-treasurer. Many of the old antagonisms had died out, many of the old issues had been resolved, and the stage was set for merger of the two labor groups. They were reunited into the AFL-CIO at a convention in New York opening on Dec. 5, 1955.
George Meany was unanimously elected president of the merged labor federation, and a new chapter opened for the American labor movement. Meany, born in the Bronx, N.Y., in 1894, followed his father's footsteps as a plumber, became active in his local union, and was elected president of the New York State Federation of Labor in 1934. On the basis of a brilliant record of helping win enactment of state labor and social legislation, he was elected AFL secretary-treasurer, to fill a vacancy, in 1939.
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The AFL-CIO Years
George Meany's commitment to "the traditional objectives of the labor movement" was expanded in his role as AFL-CIO president, to include labor's "full contribution to the welfare of our neighbors, to the communities in which we live, and to the nation as a whole." In the 25 years after the merger, a number of important issues and trends emerged; they embrace both the tradition or improving working conditions and a new emphasis on issues involved in local, state, national and international affairs.
While labor's interest in politics was by no means new, the development of COPE-the AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education-brought to labor a more efficient and practical means of achieving these three goals: ( I ) To make workers aware of the records and promises of the candidates running for public office. (2) To encourage workers to register and to vote. (3) To endorse candidates at local, state and national levels.
The AFL-CIO merger and its accompanying agreements brought about the virtual elimination of jurisdictional disputes between unions that had plagued the labor movement and alienated public sympathy in earlier years. The unions placed a new priority on organizing workers in areas, industries and plants where no effective system of labor representation yet existed. In many cases, it meant crossing the barriers of old thinking and tired methods to reach the employees of companies which for years had resisted unions.
A major phenomenon of this period was the rapid growth of unions of government employees-federal, state and local. For many decades, postal employees, teachers, the fire fighters, and building and metal trades workers in some federal installations represented about the only substantially unionized part of public sector employment. With increasing economic pressures, more public employees turned to unions trend spurred on by such developments as an Executive Order by President Kennedy in 1962 underscoring the right of federal employees to join unions and negotiate on many issues, and by various statutes in the states and cities providing for various forms of collective bargaining with their personnel.
Throughout the years after World War 11, women entered the workforce in ever increasing numbers, and especially significant was their entry into "nontraditional" occupations. A long sought objective, equal pay for equal work-was passed by Congress in 1963, prohibiting economic discrimination on the basis of sex.
Five years later, the Age Discrimination Act was passed to assist persons in the older brackets of the workforce.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, strongly supported by the AFL-CIO, was a significant forward step toward equal rights for blacks and other minorities, at the workplace and in the community. President Johnson, in signing the act into law, acknowledged that it could not have happened without the affirmative support of the AFL-CIO.
The Civil Rights Act could trace its legislative history back to the days of World War 11, when A. Philip Randolph, president of the AFL Sleeping Car Porters, persuaded President Roosevelt to issue an Executive Order establishing a Fair Employment
Practices Commission. Randolph, a brilliant union officer and civil rights champion, managed to convince FDR that governmental action to stop discrimination in hiring and promotion was essential to the wartime production effort.
The words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. illustrate the common bonds among labor, blacks, Hispanics and other minority groups: "Our needs are identical with labor's needs-decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community."
Throughout these years, the AFL-CIO was forced to resist various efforts to limit the rights of unions. The so-called "right-to-work" bills, which in fact were aimed at outlawing contract language providing union security, arose in many states. In Congress there were continued efforts to expand the Hobbs Act to make every picket-line scuffle or act of violence a federal case, even though they are currently covered by state and local laws.
The increasing interest in safety on the job, heightened by the introduction of new and potentially dangerous materials used in a wide variety of industries, gave rise to labor's intensive support for a federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, which became law in 1970. Specifically, the act authorized the Secretary of Labor to establish health and safety standards, to enforce them, and to listen to employees' legitimate complaints about conditions at the workplace.
Full employment was and continues to be a first rank concern of the AFL-CIO, with its vivid recollection of past unemployment. The unions have kept insisting that whoever is able and willing to work should not be denied this opportunity. The full employment concept was endorsed by labor in its successful drive for passage of the Employment Act of 1946, which had the support of President Truman. The Humphrey-Hawkins Act of 1978 re-expressed the need to direct full attention to the problem of unemployment in the United States.
Recognition that workers have interests as consumers as well as producers has been apparent in the labor movement for many decades. Unions have played an active role in the formation of consumer cooperatives, and at both national and local levels have worked with other citizen groups for the enactment of various forms of consumer protection legislation. At the same time unions have voiced concern that apparent "bargains" of goods imported from low-wage countries may in fact be of inferior quality or workmanship and thus, in the long run, more expensive for the consumer. In recent years, there has been a vast increase in imported manufactured goods-often produced by corporations directly or indirectly related to American conglomerate companies-and the AFL-CIO has called for a revitalization of American manufacturing industries.
The strengthening of free unions throughout the world is another ongoing objective of the AFL-CIO. Special agencies functioning within the framework of the AFL-CIO carry out many of labor's efforts to move toward this goal, which was constantly expressed by George Meany: to build strong, free, noncommunist unions in the democratic societies of the free world and to resist all forms of tyranny and political repression. In fact, resistance to domination of workers and their organizations by governments or by political parties, or the control of unions by right-wing or left-wing extremist groups, has been a constant theme of American labor during the entire post-war period.
As the federal government broadened its range of social and economic programs from the 1930s onward, trade
Union interests also expanded. To meet its responsibilities to its members and as "the people's lobby," the AFL-CIO maintains a staff of experienced professionals in the fields of law, education, legislation, research, social and community services, civil rights and allied disciplines.
In addition groups of unions have developed autonomous departments of the AFL-CIO to meet specialized needs. The first of these, the Building and Construction Trades, was set up back in 1916. The Industrial Union Department was created in the AFL-CIO merger agreement. Other departments include the Union Label & Service Trades, Maritime Trades, Metal Trades, Food & Beverage, Professional Employees and Public Employees.
The George Meany Center for Labor Studies, established in 1969, plays an increasingly important role in training labor union staff and officials through a range of courses from techniques of collective bargaining to labor law institutes.
Meany retired at the AFL-CIO convention in 1979, at the age of 85; he nominated Lane Kirkland as his successor, and Thomas R. Donahue was elected secretary-treasurer. Kirkland, born in South Carolina in 1922, had been a merchant marine officer during World War II, and became a member of the Master, Mates & Pilots Union. He joined the staff of the AFL in the post-war years; filled a number of increasingly responsible positions, including that of executive assistant to Meany; and was elected secretary-treasurer of the Federation in 1969. Donahue, born in New York in 1928, served in many capacities for the Service Employees Union, both with its Local 32B in new York and as vice president of the international union. He was named in 1973 as executive assistant to Meany.
Under their leadership, the base of organized labor's effectiveness has remained firmly cemented in the unity and enthusiasm of its members. Grassroots strength and commitment were highlighted by an unprecedented 'Solidarity Day" demonstration that drew more than 400,000 union members to Washington, D.C., in 1981.
The AFL-CIO also is confronting the challenges posed by revolutionary changes in the nature of work and the composition of the workforce. In 1985 the federation issued a landmark report, "The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions," with specific recommendations aimed at bringing about a "resurgence" of the labor movement.
Among the early products of these recommendations is an office of Comprehensive Organizing Strategies and Tactics to help affiliates develop innovative approaches to organizing. Also being explored are new concepts of benefits and services to members beyond those traditionally achieved through collective bargaining, such as a low-interest-rate credit card and supplementary health and life insurance.
Thus, the AFL-CIO continues to demonstrate the resiliency and the ability to adapt to change that have marked the American labor movement for more than 100 years.
On the Farm: Workers Seek Equality
The generally unenviable plight of agricultural workers has for many decades been a thorn in the American social conscience. Large numbers of migrant farm workers-most of them blacks or Hispanics from the South and the Southwest, as well as workers who have entered the country either on temporary work passes or illegally from the Caribbean and Mexico-have been excluded from the legal protections afforded to most workers in industry and commerce.
Suffering from low pay, abominable temporary housing, lack of access to decent schools for their children, and often deprived of adequate medical care or safety protection measures, the migrant farm workers have been too often the "forgotten people" of the American economy.
In recent years, the Farm Workers union-in the face of great difficulties-has been able to organize some of them, principally in California, and bring them the benefits of collective bargaining.
Public response, in the form of consumer boycotts of grapes and lettuce at various times, has helped their cause. The beginnings of legislation, both federal and state, and attention to their plight in the press and on television, have brought some relief to the farm workers. But much remains to be done.
Adapted from March 1981, AFL-CIO American Federationist
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