Our Labor Story

Builders of America

The American colonies were developed in the eighteenth century by the British government, in a desperate attempt to solve the overpopulation problem which accompanied Eng­land's industrial revolution. England was suffering from too many people and too few resources; the colonies offered a solution to both sides of the problem.

Craftsmen, unable to find work in England, were eager to come to the new country, where ever increasing numbers of artisans and craftsmen were needed. The supply of skilled labor could never quite catch up with the demand, partly because so many of the craftsmen who arrived here laid aside their tools and took up farming. The majority of those who did continue to practice their trade settled in the Massa­chusetts colonies, which left the rest of the country in des­perate need of skilled workers. To meet that need, the col­onists made use of bound labor and slaves.

Human Beings For Sale

Very few of the laborers who wished to escape from Europe could afford to pay for their passage to America. Most of them bought their ticket to a new life by selling their freedom - an ironic way to enter the Land of the Free. About half of our founding fathers were indentured servants. As such, they comprised the largest single element of the colonial work force. Indentured servants were men, women, and children who signed "articles of indenture" before boarding ship, thereby reducing themselves to the level of slaves, totally without rights, for a certain period of years. Upon arrival in America, they were essentially auctioned off.

In its desperation to supply workers to the colonies, Eng­land adopted the practice of sentencing criminals to work in America, rather than shutting them up in the already over­crowded British prisons.

Along with the indentured servants and convicts came another group of laborers who were called "free-willers" -craftsmen who had paid for their passage on credit. They signed an agreement to work off the cost of transportation, thereby committing themselves to practicing their trade for a certain period of time in the New World.

One step below the bound laborers on the scale of human dignity were the slaves, who made up the main element of the work force in the Southern colonies. The importation of slaves and the development of the slavery system became a major characteristic of the South. Like bound laborers, slaves were regarded as property and were totally power­less; the big difference was that their term of bondage was forever. Ironically, slaves often received better treatment from their master than did the bound laborers, since it was in the master's best economic interest to keep them healthy.

Life was bitter and hard for our laboring forefathers. They had come looking for the land of opportunity and found only degradation and misery. Many escaped illegally, as for ex­ample Benjamin Franklin, who found life as an indentured servant unbearable. Franklin had been working as a printer. Bound laborers and slaves, these workers could do nothing to change the system. However, those who endured the abuses of indentured servitude and eventually worked their way out of that purgatory, emerged as the most militant re­formers among laborers. Having experienced firsthand the impact of a system that treated human beings as property, they were determined to overthrow it. But their struggle was long and painful. Indenture was still a fact of life well into the nineteenth century, when another future United States Pres­ident, Andrew Johnson, ran away from his master.

Colonial Contentment

In Colonial times, reform efforts had to overcome the complacency which had settled down among master workmen and journeymen. For free laborers and for bound laborers who had been lucky enough to find a kind master, the master-journeyman system was quite satisfactory; it provided the chance for advancement that had been lacking in Europe. The needs of the journeymen, moreover, were identical with those of the master. They had the same con­cerns about craftsmanship, quality of work, competition of cheap or inferior work, and the welfare of members of their craft. If a member died, collections were taken up among masters and journeymen alike to give to the member’s widow. There were few disputes over wages of working conditions as long as the shop remained small - with just a few journeymen and one master. The relationship was much like a family, in which the master acted as father.


The human scene changed as industry changed to keep pace with the burgeoning growth of the colonies. Workshops grew into mills, employing workers not by the handful but by the hundred. The sense of closeness between master and journeymen was lost. Assembly line techniques gradually replaced earlier methods, and the business interests of mas­ters grew farther and farther apart from those of jour­neymen. Inevitably, workers grew closer to each other and began to form associations and organizations to deal with the problems of wages, hours, and working conditions. Thus it was in the early mills that the seeds for trade unionism were planted.

The first examples of such cooperative efforts among workers took place before the American Revolution. Car­penters, printers, and shoemakers in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia formed temporary organizations to protest the shop owners' decisions to reduce their wages. At this time, such worker efforts were temporary, called into being by a particular dispute. After the problem was settled one way or the other, the organizations disbanded. Such was the case, for example, with the journeymen tailors in New York who called a "turn out" to protest a wage reduction in 1768- the first officially recorded strike. Similar protests arose among other groups of workers over the issues of wages, minimum rates, enforcement of apprenticeship standards, working conditions, working hours, and the establishment of the "closed shop."

Suppression of Workers

Public reaction to any such attempts by workers to exert pressure on their employer was definitely negative. America was booming; products were in high demand. To the _public, as to the employer, production was all that mattered. At­tempts by workers to have a say-so in how they lived and worked were generally regarded as a threat to production. Consequently, local governments stifled such uprisings as much as possible. When worker organizations continued to develop and in fact grew more numerous and more outspo­ken, the employer's attitude, supported by public opinion, moved into the courts. Open suppression of workers' de­mands and associations became the customary practice.

Cordwainers Accused of Conspiracy

The legal sanction of suppression of labor organizations at the beginning of the nineteenth century is best exemplified by the case of the Philadelphia cordwainers (shoemakers) in 1805. Ten years earlier the Philadelphia cordwainers had formed the first original trade union in the United States - the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers. It was the first continuous organization of workers in this country, in­cluding in its ranks only journeymen shoemakers. They made use of strikes and pickets and grew steadily in confi­dence as they achieved more and more of their goals. The shoemakers were well organized and had successfully estab­lished what today is called the closed shop. It was their insistence on the union shop and their use of the strike that brought them before the courts.

In 1805, eight members of the cordwainers society were brought to trial, charged by the Commonwealth of Pennsyl­vania with committing the crime of conspiring to raise their wages. A jury composed of twelve small businessmen brought an indictment against them which accused them of:

  1. combining, conspiring and agreeing to increase the prices and rates usually paid and allowed to them;
  2. preventing workmen and journeymen from working except at certain "large prices, and rates set by them for their future work, to the great damage and preju­dice of others…”
  3. unlawfully forming themselves into a club in combination and adopting unlawful and arbitrary by-laws, rules, and orders.

Since the common wealth of Pennsylvania did not have a law prohibiting workers from combining to raise their wages, the prosecution applied English Common Law to the case. The trial judge left little doubt as to how he expected the jury to decide, when he told them the cordwainers' strike was "pregnant with public mischief and private injury." Predict­ably, the jury returned a guilty verdict stating they found "the defendants guilty of a combination to raise their wages." The eight cordwainers were fined and sent to jail until their fines were paid. The decision was to serve as the legal precedent for the suppression of any and all organiza­tional activity among workers for the next forty years.

Public Opinion

At the end of the 18th century and early in the 19th, public opinion supported suppression of workers' associations. The public viewed strikes and other attempts by workers to bet­ter their conditions as dangerous threats to production. However, as the new century unfolded, conditions became increasingly unbearable for laborers, and public opinion gradually changed.
As the tendency to replace small shops with big factories continued, working people felt the brunt of the accelerated production. Mill-owners grew more and more abusive to the men, women, and children who worked in the mills under unsafe, unsanitary conditions from dawn to dark, seven days a week. Consequently, despite the legal prejudice against union activities, more and more associations of workers came into being. In some cases, these organizations spread out beyond the limits of one community. In 1834 the first labor federation was formed when the labor bodies from seven cities combined in the National Trades Union. Within two years, many crafts had organized regionally. Unions were definitely on the rise, and the public mood had changed to support. In fact, when a conspiracy verdict was handed down in 1836 in a New York case involving a society of journeymen tailors, labor leaders were able to get 27,000 people to participate in a public demonstration, in which the judge was burned in effigy. The public outrage expressed at that time led to a turnabout in court policy a few years later.

Unions Declared Legal

The reversal of court policy came about in 1842, in the case of Commonwealth vs. Hunt -a case involving the Boston Journeymen Boot Makers Society. This association had grown out of a need to guard against the effects of infla­tion without commensurate wage increases. The avowed purpose of the society was to maintain a wage rate that would keep pace with changes in the members' cost of living. Membership dues were 12 and a half cents a month, to be used to assist members who had been on strike for at least ten days. Any worker violating the rules of the organization was fined. Moreover, members were not to work with a non-member journeyman in a "society shop" (closed shop) unless the shop did not have a majority of the Society's members at work.

The Boot Makers Society was brought to court when a member of the Society refused to pay fines imposed on him by the organization for working with a non-member. The Society demanded that the employer of the non-complying member discharge him. The employer did so, and the member filed a complaint with Boston's District Attorney, who looked upon the case as an opportunity to make some political hay. After all, here was a workers' organization being sued by one of its own members -a perfect opportu­nity to put the troublemakers down and pull the District Attorney up in the eyes of the public.

An indictment was secured against Hunt, president, and six members of the Boot Makers Society which charged (I) that the Society was a criminal conspiracy to oppress an impoverished employer and a non-conformist worker, and (2)that the defendents conspired together and agreed not to work for any master who, after notice from the Society to discharge any workman who was not a member, continued to employ him. Following the arguments from the defense and the prosecution, the jurors appeared thoroughly con­fused. Again, as in the cordwainers' case, the trial judge made it clear to the jury that he expected a guilty verdict; the jury complied. The defense filed exceptions to the judge's charge and to the verdict. Sentencing was withheld until the Supreme Court's ruling was received.

In the meantime, labor leaders and citizens' groups stirred up public support for the Boot Makers and for workers' organizations in general. By the time the case reached the Massachusetts Supreme Court, that body had to be aware of the new pro-worker climate of public opinion. Accordingly, Chief Justice Shaw handed down a cautiously worded ruling in favor of the Boot Makers -a landmark decision in the history of organized labor.

Chief Justice Shaw concluded that the primary purpose of the Society was to induce workers of their particular craft to become members -an act which could not be considered unlawful, in his opinion. Furthermore, he did not view the refusal by the Society's journeymen to work for any em­ployer who engaged a non-member journeyman as the use of criminal means. In essence, his conclusion was that agree­ment for common action to achieve a lawful object was not necessarily a criminal conspiracy. He ruled, "the legality of such an association will depend upon the means to be used for its accomplishment."

The Hunt case did not bring an immediate end to all prob­lems faced by workers; it didn't even end suppression by the courts. But at least it conceded that in some cases unions and closed shops might not be unlawful. After many decades of total suppression, trade unions finally won at least a toehold on legality.

Depression and Dreams

Trade unionism did not have a chance to take advantage of that toehold immediately, however, because the nation fell into a decade-long depression, precipitated by the financial panic of 1837. During the 1840's, when great numbers of workers were unemployed, labor's leaders tended to turn to intellectual schemes of changing the economic structure of the country, rather than using trade union techniques to im­prove the existing structure. Among the leaders and utopian dreamers of the day were Ely Moore, Mathew Carey, Robert Dale Owen, and William H. Channing.

Civil War

The Civil War provided a boost to the economy, as the production of war goods gave employment to more people and created new industries. Trade unionism grew with the economy. In 1863, approximately 80 local unions existed in the Northern states; by 1864, these same states could count 300 local unions. Moreover, city-wide central councils began to spring up. Thirteen national and international unions formed during the Civil War, some of which have continued to the present, such as the Bricklayers, Cigar makers, and Plasterers.
By the 1850's, the economy had improved considerably and trade unionism revived. Several national unions were created during this decade, including the Stonecutters, Hat Finishers, Molders, Machinists, and Locomotive Engineers. There were strikes during the l 850's in every known craft and in every part of the country, as worker organizations grew more active. One of their chief demands was that the workday be shortened to 10 hours.

The years following the war were a time of peak produc­tion and exhilarating prosperity. New inventions stimulated great improvements in industry and in agriculture. The war had opened the way to an unprecedented surge of industrial growth and expansion. In 1869, East met West, as the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads came together in Utah.

With the entire continental United States connected by rail, American industry could make use of previously inaccessi­ble resources, and could rapidly transport products to a big­ger market than ever before. America rushed into the Indus­trial Revolution.

National Labor Union

During this period of prosperity, trade unionism made great strides forward. The demand for a national federation of trade unions grew ever louder and was finally answered by William Sylvis, of the Molders Union, who formed the National Labor Union in 1866. Sylvis was an inspiring leader; he became the first noteworthy figure in the history of organized labor in the United States.

The National Labor Union was a loose-knit assemblage of the leading national unions of the time, including Molders, Printers, Machinists, Blacksmiths, and Carpenters, along with some state federations, some local unions, and a variety of reformist organizations. Susan B. Anthony was an active member, representing the Working Women's Protective Association. Such a diverse group was not destined to stay together for very long, but while it survived it accomplished some major reforms. Its first effort was to agitate for an 8-hour workday. The group brought such well-organized energy to bear on Congress that it passed a Jaw establishing an 8-hour workday for employees of the federal government -an impressive first step. The NLU was also principally responsible for the creation of a U.S. Bureau of Labor, even though the bureau wasn't set up until several years later.

William Sylvis led the National Labor Union into politics. He was convinced that organized labor could accomplish nothing unless it became politically active. Sylvis created the National Reform and Labor Party and tried to get labor can­didates elected in the 1872 election. At that time, however, labor Jacked the strength to make it on its own politically. Sylvis's error in judgment contributed to the demise of the NLU. The organization rapidly disintegrated over political and philosophical disagreements and was completely dead by 1872. In six years it had proven, by its successes, that nationally organized labor was a force to be reckoned with. It had also proven, by its mistakes, that labor was neither sufficiently strong nor sufficiently united to support a sepa­rate political party.

Depression Again

Sylvis's candidates did not get elected in 1872. President Grant was reelected and the economy crashed. The workingman's plight was worse than ever during the 1870's, but Grant refused to use federal power to improve it. The cries of laboring people and their leaders were ignored by the government, but they were heard by radical reformists. Karl Marx had just published Das Kapital in 1867; the "First International" (International Workingman's Association) had been formed soon after. Disenchanted labor leaders in this country naturally looked hopefully towards an organiza­tion which promised relief for workers.

The workingman's misery was made more severe during the depression by the mass immigrations which took place at that time. Millions of Europeans came into the country, seeking relief from the depression that hung over their own homeland. Many were brought in by employers in accor­dance with a law passed in 1864, which encouraged Amer­ican manufacturers to purchase cheap foreign labor, called "contract labor." The practice amounted to a new form of indenture.

Employers then used the immigrants to break strikes and to pull wages down to a devastating low. European craftsmen, who had been led to believe they were coming to a land of plenty, found instead plenty of poverty and resent­ment.

Knights of Labor

Throughout the 1870's, a national organization of labor unions known as the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor struggled to remain in existence. It had been formed in 1869 by a man named Uriah Stephens, who barely managed to keep the organization alive. He stepped aside in 1878 and was replaced by Terence Powderly, who emerged as one of the chief figures in the history of organized labor. Under Powderly's leadership in the 1880's, as the nation recovered from the depression, the Knights of Labor grew to a mem­bership of over 700,000. Much of this phenomenal growth was due to the respect and national prominence they gained by successfully taking on the powerful Jay Gould railroad system. However, in March of 1886 Jay Gould deliberately led the Knights into a confrontation for which he was finally prepared; the appalling defeat which the Knights suffered brought on the end of the organization.

The Knights established a national organization that functioned at the regional and local level. Local assemblies were either one trade or a mixture of occupations. All workers, including professionals and housewives, were eli­gible to join the Knights regardless of skill level, with two notable exceptions -lawyers and bartenders.

Philosophically, the Knights of Labor stood for broad, basic reform of the economic structure of the nation. They wanted to replace free enterprise and capitalism with a cooperatively owned system of business, whereby workers would share in the wealth created by their labor because they would own their own labor. The Knights were obvi­ously greatly influenced by Marxist philosophy.

American Federation of Labor

As the Knights of Labor declined, torn apart from the inside by disputes over basic philosophy and aims, as well as by disagreements over organizational structure, and plum­meting from their position of respect in the eyes of the public after Jay Gould defeated them, another federation of labor groups was on the rise -the American Federation of Labor.

The A.F.L. grew out of a small federation of six craft unions (printers, carpenters, iron and steelworkers, molders, cigarmakers and glassworkers) organized in 1881 under the title: Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU). Its leaders were Samuel Gompers and Adolph Strasser, both from the cigarmakers union. The organization was completely overshadowed by the Knights of Labor up until 1886, when Jay Gould defeated the Knights. In that year, FOTLU merged with those craft unions affiliated with the Knights who had by then become disenchanted with the Knights of Labor. The amalgamation of all the craft unions formed a strong organization which took the name: Amer­ican Federation of Labor. Samuel Gompers was elected president -a position he was to hold all his life, with the exception of one year.

The American Federation of Labor differed from the Knights in two important ways, both of which contributed to the eventual success of the new federation and to the failure of the Knights.

1. The AFL was exclusive, where the Knights had been all inclusive. That is, the AFL refused to admit any unions other than skilled craft unions, while the Knights had tried to organize both the skilled and un­skilled workers in all types of jobs.
2. In contrast to the Knights' ideological aim of restructur­ing the U.S. monetary system, the AFL practiced and preached "pure and simple" unionism; their main ob­jective was to raise wages and improve working condi­tions.
Thus the AFL was both more exclusive and more practical than its predecessor. From an initial membership of 138,000, the AFL doubled its size by 1898.

The AFL continued to grow, reaching two million mem­bers by the outbreak of World War I. During the war, its ranks rose to a high of four million in 1920. During these years, the federation adhered closely to its goals of raising wages, improving working conditions, and securing the 8-hour workday. Generally speaking, the AFL resisted any tendency to engage in partisan politics and focused its politi­cal efforts on those issues which affected workers in a direct way. It followed Samuel Gompers' oft-quoted advice:

"Reward Your Friends and Punish Your Enemies."

In practice, this amounted to supporting measures and candidates favorable to the interests of workers. In addition, the AFL opposed any independent labor party and refused
to follow the European labor unions' practice of supporting candidates on a labor ticket and forming a labor party. Through its structure of state and local labor councils the AFL was active in state and local politics; several states passed laws regulating child labor and providing protective legislation by 1915. During the next twenty years, the devel­opment and growth of the AFL was directly influenced by economic conditions, employer opposition and public at­titude. The AFL's policy of excluding the unskilled and semi-skilled workers within the booming manufacturing sec­tors, such as auto and steel, kept the membership totals down.

Thus the American Federation of Labor has been the prin­cipal federation of trade unions since 1886. During that long stretch of time, it has undergone important changes as an organization, and its members have suffered injustices and abuses fully as severe as those suffered by the indentured servants of colonial times.

Pullman Strike

The forty years from 1890 to 1930 were in many respects the darkest period of history for organized labor. During that period employers made use of new methods for holding unions down -methods that had the stamp of approval of the U.S. court system. The major judicial weapons and techniques used by employers were: (1) the court injunction, (2)the "yellow-dog" contract, (3) the technique of holding union . officers personally responsible for damages during strikes and boycotts, and (4) the use of the Sherman Anti­ Trust Act.

There are many examples of the use of the court injunction by big business to defeat union efforts to improve the worker's lot, but one of the classic ones is the infamous Pullman Strike, which occurred in 1894.

The Pullman Palace c.ar Company, established by George Pullman, was m the business of building and reconditioning Pullman sleeping and dining cars. The company's stock was
owned by railroad executives, which assured the Pullman Company of a monopolistic market position. The company was located in Pullman, Illinois -a so-called "model com­pany town." The Pullman employees lived in the company town, and almost every facet of their lives was controlled by the company, which .owned all the churches, shops, utilities,
hotels, and homes. Thus the Pullman workers were at the mercy of their employer, George Pullman.

The event which precipitated the initial clash between the Pullman employees and George Pullman was Pullman's un­ilateral decision to cut wages 30 percent, while refusing to lower the rent charged by the company for their housing. He did this at a time when he increased dividends to the stock­holders -railroad executives. On May 7, 1894, a grievance committee representing the Pullman employees met with George Pullman and made three requests: (1) that the wage cut be rescinded, (2) that wages be restored to previous levels, and (3) that rent for company housing be lowered. The union committee members were informed that the com­pany was working at a loss; therefore the wage cut would stand. Pullman refused to discuss the rent question, stating that it was a landlord-tenant problem, not an employer - employee issue. Pullman requested the workers not take any action and promised not to take any action against the griev­ance committee members.

On the following morning, three members of the grievance committee were fired. As soon as the word spread, 2500 employees walked out and an additional 600 quit at noon. The employees notified the company that they were striking over the three requests made to Mr. Pullman. The company retaliated immediately by closing down the entire plant -a lockout of all employees.

The Pullman employees belonged to the American Rail­way Union -a huge union with 150,000 members, with a powerful and unforgettable leader, Eugene V. Debs. This union had become so large that the General Managers As­sociation, a group of top railroad executives, was eager for an excuse to destroy it. When the Pullman employees' local requested the support of the national organization, the Amer­ican Railway Union Convention, after considerable debate, gave Pullman the following ultimatum: unless he agreed within four days to negotiate a settlement with his employe­es, a sympathy strike would be ordered.

Eugene Debs was reluctant to engage the Railway Union in such a broad test of strength. But, following the conven­tion's mandate, he announced a nationwide boycott of all Pullman Palace cars. The union members would not inspect, switch, or haul a Pullman car on any railroad.
Pullman turned to the General Managers Association for their assistance and they developed a plan for combating the union which proved far more effective than they could have anticipated; it virtually destroyed the entire American Rail­way Union. The managers' plan was ingeniously simple. They ordered railroad cars carrying U.S. mail to be attached to the Pullman cars, so that when a switchman cut off a Pullman car, the car carrying mail was also cut off. They also ordered the discharge of all employees refusing to haul Pullman cars, thereby forcing the union to call a nationwide strike in support of the discharged members. Thus they turned a Pullman boycott into a general strike against the railroads, which opened the way for Federal Government intervention.

The managers were able to get the United States Marshal to authorize the use of 3600 special deputies to prevent obstruction of the mails and to protect railroad property. These special deputies were described by the Chicago Chief of Police as "thugs, thieves, and ex-convicts." In addition, the managers got the U.S. Attorney General to file a com­plaint on behalf of the U.S. government charging the Rail­way Union, Eugene Debs, and 16 other union officers and members with conspiracy to interfere with and restraint of regular transportation, to obstruct transportation of the mails, and by menaces, threats, and intimidation to prevent the employment of persons. The Attorney General secured an injunction against all defendants, restraining them "from in any way or manner interfering with, hindering, obstructing or stopping" any of the business of railroads entering Chicago, or any trains carrying U.S. mails or engaged in interstate commerce. The injunction was issued and the At­torney General convinced President Cleveland that Federal troops were needed to insure compliance by the strikers. The presence of the troops and special marshals precipitated riots, violence and lawlessness. The Illinois Governor dis­patched the state militia to assist in restoring order.

Following numerous court battles, the injunction against Debs and the others was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, thus setting a precedent which was to be followed for the next 30 years. The injunction became a favorite weapon of management against the American labor movement. The Pullman Strike was a major defeat for labor. The American Railway Union was destroyed. Eugene Debs went to prison for six months for violating the injunction. However, Debs' testimony before Congressional committees was widely re­printed and read by the American public, which resulted in the beginning of a change to a more positive public attitude towards the plight of organized labor.

Damage Suits 

One of the earliest tactics utilized by unions to influence their ability to organize a non-union employer was the boycott. The union would ask its members and other poten­tial consumers to avoid buying or using a non-organized em­ployer's goods or services. The use of the boycott had be­come a very successful union tactic. Thus, during the time when judicial prejudice was at its worst, employers formed an organization called the American Anti-Boycott Associa­tion whose sole purpose was to destroy the use of the boycott by unions. This organization achieved its goal in the case of Loewe versus Lawlor, which began in 1902.

The union involved in the case was the United Hatters of North America. At that time, the hatmaking industry utilized many dangerous chemicals to soften the animal pelts used to make hats. The hatters' union had been successful in or­ganizing workers in the industry as early as the 1830's, be­cause the union fought for and received improved safety conditions for its membership.

The Hatters' union had attempted unsuccessfully to orga­nize the· shop of Dietrich Loewe. The union,· in its second organizing attempt, was determined to fight it out and win the shop over. After being notified by Loewe that he could not recognize the Hatters' union, the workers at the plant went on strike and the union initiated a boycott of Loewe's hats. Loewe was prepared for both the strike and the boycott. In fact, the Anti-Boycott Association had pledged $20,000 to Loewe to finance his fight against the union. The leaders of the Association persuaded Loewe to take his bat­tle into the courts.

Prior to filing suit against the union, Loewe investigated records to determine which members of the union lived and owned real estate or had bank accounts in Connecticut. When these individuals were identified, Loewe filed two ac­tions against the union and its membership: the one action charged the union and its members with conspiracy and claimed damage of$100,000, and was filed in the Connecticut State Courts for Common Law; the other charged the unionists with violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and as­serted damages of$240,000. With the suit started, the homes and bank accounts of240 individual union members residing in Connecticut were attached.

Obviously, this development caused panic within the ranks of organized labor and resulted in a loss of morale among the workers. Through intimidation, the Anti-Boycott Association had demonstrated to unions and their members that they could risk losing their accumulated property if they became or remained a union member.

The court case was fought for thirteen years and finally was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1913. The Su­preme Court upheld a lower court which found the union, its members and leaders (Lawlor) guilty of violating the Sher­man Anti-Trust Act and required them to pay damages of $252,130.

The irony in this decision is that the original purpose of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act was to break business monopolies such as the Standard Oil Company, yet it came to be a weapon used by the powerful to suppress the powerless.

Yellow-Dog Contracts and Blacklists 

Another employer device used to destroy unions or at least weaken them was the so-called "yellow-dog" contract. It was a very simple device used to identify and determine whether or not a potential employee was sympathetic to­wards a union. The following is a sample of this type of contract:
I am employed and work for the Hitchman Coal and Coke Company with the express understanding that I am not a member of the United Mine Workers of America and will not become so while an employee of the Hitchman Coal and Coke Company, and that the Hitchman Coal and Coke Company is run non-union and agrees with me that it will run non-union while I am in its employ.

If at anytime while I am employed by the Hitchman Coal and Coke Company, I want to become connected with the United Mine Workers of America, or any af­filiated organization, I agree to withdraw from em­ployment of said company, and agree that while I am in the employ of that company I will not make any effort amongst its employees to bring about the unionizing of that mine against the company's wishes. I have either read the above, or heard same read.

Potential employees who refused to sign the above were not hired and those currently employed by a firm that re­fused to sign were fired. Obviously, the legality of such a document was questionable. In 1917 John Mitchell, Presi­dent of the UMWA, pressed this issue before the U.S. Su­preme Court. The Court ruled that "yellow-dog" contracts were valid; thereafter, this device became a favorite weapon of management. In addition, following this decision union organizers attempting to organize signatories of such con­tracts could be sued for interfering with a legal contract.

Another effective device used by employers during this period was the blacklist - a list of workers within an indus­try who were in any way associated with union attempts to organize workers in that industry. These lists were maintained and continually updated by industrial spies and sold to all employers within a local, regional, and sometimes, national industry. The worker whose name appeared on the blacklist had no chance of being employed.

Total Prejudice

This forty-year period, 1890-1930, was unquestionably the most severe test for American labor organizations. The period reflects total legal favoritism towards employers. Not only did the courts, supported by public opinion, condone the use of yellow-dog contracts, blacklists, court injunctions and damage suits to thwart every attempt by unions to com­bat the employer sector, but to make matters worse the so ­called "Red scare" took hold of the public imagination. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, employers encouraged the fear that any union activity was a prelude to revolution in this country. Anti-union organizations spent considerable time and money perpetuating this myth. Tims, the attempts of unions to extend the principles of democracy down into the ranks of laborers and their families were branded as threats to the democratic system itself.

Open warfare against organized labor reached its high point during this period. In the "open shop" drives of the 1920's, employers resorted to extreme violence to stamp out union activity. Many of these drives were successful and many trade unionists were killed in their attempts to secure industrial democracy. Yet, in their very success in suppres­sing unions, employers inadvertently defeated themselves. They carried their violence too far and incurred adverse pub­licity which, ·coupled with the most severe economic depres­sion ever to occur in the United States, ushered in a new political party and a radical change in public attitude towards unions.

New Deal and New Hope

The late I920's and the early 1930's found the United States in the midst of the most severe economic depression of its history. Union membership had declined as a result of violent employer opposition as exemplified by the "open shop" drives; judicial prejudice, characterized by declaring "yellow-dog" contracts legal and holding unions guilty of restraint of trade in strike or boycott situations; and the eco­nomic depression which saw approximately 14 million workers unemployed by 1933. The effects of the depression extended beyond industrial plants and the construction industry. Small businesses and farmers were wiped out over­night. The vast majority of Americans demanded a change - particularly a change in the attitude of the Federal govern­ment, headed by President Herbert Hoover, who refused to recognize the need for drastic solutions to alleviate the ef­fects of the economic depression.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised to deal with these problems with seemingly drastic measures and government intervention; his administration was characterized by the "New Deal" approach. The public attitude had changed pro­foundly. Now public opinion supported government policies and programs that would stimulate the economy, regulate the stock markets, insure individual bank deposits, provide financial support to the farmers and legislation protecting the workers from sweatshop working conditions, low wages, in­dustrial warfare, and anti-labor courts. Moreover, the Su­preme Court adopted a position of non-involvement in the industrial affairs between companies and unions.

The Norris-La Guardia Anti-Injunction Act of 1932 pro­vided the unions with relief from the court injunctions that management had formerly been able to obtain easily against organization efforts and prohibited "yellow-dog" contracts. The Norris-La Guardia Act defines a labor dispute as "any controversy concerning terms or conditions of employment, or concerning the association or the representation of per­sons, in negotiating, fixing, maintaining, changing, or seeking to arrange terms or conditions of employment regardless of whether or not the disputants stand in approximate relations of employer and employee." Prior to this act, the court in­terpreted the provision of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the Clayton Act, which sought to exclude unions from the Sherman Act, in such a manner that court injunctions would be granted to employers that prohibited almost any union from initiating a boycott or strike. But by virtue of the Norris-La Guardia Act, the government was to remain neu­tral; that is, the courts and the law were to show no favoritism. Henceforth unions were again able to use the strike as a method of increasing wages. In fact, Roosevelt relied upon an increase in the purchasing power of the peo­ple as one means to industrial economic recovery. Moreover, the Act encouraged collective bargaining.

In 1933, at the President's request, Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). The Act encour­aged industry to establish codes of fair competition. How­ever, it stated that the codes would have to include three provisions that allowed employees to organize, prohibited employers from forcing employees to join company unions, and insisted that companies comply with conditions of em­ployment to be established by the President. This entire Act was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935. However, unions began to organize during the two-year interim and membership rolls began to swell - a healthy sign as viewed by the administration. However, there was still no law obligating employers to bargain with union repre­sentatives selected by their members.

Recognizing the need for such a law, Senator Robert Wagner of New York introduced legislation into the Senate making collective bargaining a legal process and the law of the land. Wagner, aware of the need to head off attacks on this law and of the possibility that the Supreme Court might declare it unconstitutional, wrote a provision into the bill giving Congress the right to pass legislation dealing with in­dustrial disputes that could affect interstate commerce. His justification was based on the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution.

The Wagner Act was tested and held to be constitutional. In essence, it provided that workers could form organiza­tions of their own choosing without interference from em­ployers. It defined as "unfair" labor practices all attempts by employers to suppress or oppress labor unions, and it created the National Labor Relations Board, to enforce the Act's provisions. With the Wagner Act, workers finally achieved legal recognition of their right to establish organiza­tions of their own choosing for the purpose of promoting industrial democracy.

Organized labor flourished under the protection of the Wagner Act. From approximately 3 and ¼ million members in 1932, the ranks of organized labor grew to almost 15 mill­ion by 1945.

Other laws passed during this era included the Social Se­curity Act (1935), the Walsh-Healey (Public Contracts) Act (1936), and the Fair Labor Standards (Wage-Hour) Act (1938). All of these had a direct effect on organized labor, particularly the Public Contracts and the Wage-Hour laws. These laws provided regulatory measures in the areas of minimum wages, maximum hours, and the maintenance of basic labor standards for materials or supplies furnished on federal contracts. In addition, they provided improvements in state workmen's compensation laws.

Formation of C.I.O

Throughout this period of federally legislated improve­ments for working people, the American Federation of Labor remained the principal federation of labor unions. However, a basic conflict was going on inside the organiza­tion over the question of whether workers should be orga­nized on the basis of industry or of craft. Those who held that the basis of organization should be a worker's craft, regardless of where he worked, remained in the AFL. Those who held all workers in a particular industry should belong to one union broke off from the parent organization to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

For the next twenty years the two union federations existed in parallel, but not in harmony. Competition between the two sparked violence in many factories, as the CIO at­tempted to organize unskilled workers in plants where some of the skilled workers already belonged to various AFL unions. This open warfare did considerable damage to the public image of unions.

Nevertheless, both the AFL and the CIO increased their membership dramatically during the years of dual unionism. By 1946, the AFL claimed 9 million members and the CIO 5 million. In general, organized labor had much more politi­cal strength than ever before and no longer needed preferen­tial treatment under the law; in most places, unions were powerful enough to hold their own in contests with em­ployers. Certainly, some areas of the country, particularly in the South, remained for the most part unorganized, but all of the industrialized centers were by this time heavily orga­nized. The actual strength of this many organized workers remained untested during the period of the Second World War, since the unions had pledged themselves to the war production cause and had virtually pledged not to strike or interfere with production level. Controls over labor­ management relations and wages during the war years were under public agencies. At the end of World War II, however, these controls were removed and industrial strife resumed.

Post-War Turmoil

Strikes broke out immediately upon the expiration of the National War Labor Board - the agency which had handled labor's demand for wage increases during the war years. Altogether, 42 large strikes occurred in the eleven months following V-J Day. Each of these 42 strikes involved 10,000 or more workers.

The incidence of postwar work stoppages, affecting the much desired production of consumer goods, signified seri­ous industrial problems and unrest in the public mind. Strike idleness in 1946 was the highest ever recorded. Among the many reasons for the industrial unrest of the post-war period, the following must be considered: (1) considerable employer opposition to unions was revived; (2) collective bargaining was still relatively new in many industries; and (3) many newly formed unions could not maintain discipline under the baclog of wartime grievances, and as a result the union members resorted to militant methods to settle old problems.

Anti-Union Drive

In this period of turmoil, opponents of the Wagner Act were able to gain much support. The phenomenon which had occurred at the onset of the 19th century was repeated in the middle of the 20th century. It was the fear that union growth would bring about an increase in the cost of domestic goods that brought about the conspiracy verdict in the case of the Philadelphia cordwainers in 1805 and ushered in an era of open suppression of labor organizations. Similarly, the out­break of union protests and demands at the end of the Sec­ond World War alarmed the American public because of the immediate effect on the economy. Again, public opinion supported legislation which would cripple the power of unions; in this case the result was the Taft-Hartley Act.

Senator Taft, a conservative leader, demanded change, ar­guing that although the Wagner Act had been passed to aid unions in maintaining a "balance" of rights and respon­sibilities between workers and employers, it had gone far beyond that point and the unions had acquired an excess of power. He and Congressman Hartley introduced legislation rewriting the Wagner Act.


Despite the opposition of organized labor, anti-unionists drummed up sufficient support for the Labor-Management Relations Act (Taft-Hartley) to get it passed in 1947. It was enacted by a Republican-Dixiecrat controlled Congress which overrode President Truman's veto.

Under the Taft-Hartley law, some of the provisions that labor and management had obtained or were seeking through the collective bargaining process were outlawed or severely limited. Union security clauses providing for "closed shop" provisions were prohibited. The "union shop" agreement was allowed, except in those states where such agreements were prohibited by state law. This section of the Taft­Hartley Act (14b) is quite unusual; it allows states to pass legislation that takes precedence over federal law. During committee hearings on the bill, union spokesmen claimed that in states where unions were weak or where the legisla­tive branches were controlled by anti-union interests, this provision of the bill would be an open invitation to legislators to pass laws prohibiting the union shop. Indeed, their predic­tion came to pass in twenty states, where so-called “right-­to-work" laws were passed. All twenty of these states are dominated by agricultural-business interests, particularly the Southern and Mid-Western states. Other regulations con­tained in the Taft-Hartley Act regulated the checkoff of union dues, welfare funds and contract termination arrange­ments. 

An attempt was made to establish a new balance between employers and unions by including in the Act a list of"unfair labor practices" applying to unions, along with a list applica­ble to employers. Union "unfair labor practices" include: (1) engaging in secondary boycotts, (2) stopping work over jurisdictional or interunion disputes, (3) charging excessive initiation fees to keep workers out of a union, and (4) refusal to bargain in good faith. In addition, the Act provides for Presidential intervention in strike situations that may create or threaten emergencies by imperiling the national health or safety. Cooling off periods are a feature of this provision.

The public attitude towards unions had changed drasti­cally since the "New Deal" period. This change was the result of much adverse publicity about the power of unions and their alleged abuse of that power. Certainly some unions had become big and powerful, but the vast majority were not in this category and some were still struggling for their very survival. For many unions, this struggle continues even to­day.

Union leaders had misjudged the public attitude towards their organizations just prior to the passage of the Taft­Hartley Act. Its passage ushered in a period in which union were required to be more responsible to the public. For sev­eral years, the unions continued to grow in membership, although at a much slower rate. In the mid-1950's the growth of unionism began to decline both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the total workforce. Many labor leaders feel that the Taft-Hartley Act was, and still is, responsible for this slowdown in organizing the unorganized. Yet, even rec­ognizing that public opinion now required unions to be re­sponsible for their activities, several large unions continued to violate the democratic privileges of their membership and, in some cases, practiced corruption and racketeering, espe­cially with union funds. The public's attention was focused on unions with the establishment in January, 1957, of a Sen­ate Committee to investigate corrupt influence in labor­ management relations.


The Senate committee, referred to as the McClellan com­mittee, which investigated alleged corruption and racketeer­ing within the organized labor movement, dominated the newspaper headlines and television for eighteen months. The hearings disclosed that within a very few unions, out of over 125 labor organizations, the leadership was guilty of abuses. Both the AFL and the CIO, prior to their merger in 1955, attempted to clean their own houses by expelling those unions which were found to be corrupt. But the public de­manded more. Thus, in 1959, the Labor-Management Re­porting and Disclosure Act, which is known as the Landrum-Griffin Act, was passed.

This Act focused on two broad issues: (1) democracy within labor unions, and (2) corruption and racketeering in these same organizations. Congress had concluded that there was a correlation between internal union abuses and a lack of union democracy. Unions, in general, were dis­pleased with the law but very few have objected to its provi­sions. It is doubtful that unions have become more demo­cratic as a result of the Landrum-Griffin Act. Those unions that were democratic before the law have remained so. Now, they simply meet the requirements of public reporting and disclosure about their internal affairs.

Labor and Social Responsibility

The history of the treatment of worker organizations in the courts traces the changing image of labor in American soci­ety. Each court decision mentioned in this sketch reflects the social, economic, and political environment of a given period in history and provides an index to the prevailing public opinion at that time. There is a slight lag, in that it takes a certain amount of time for a change in public attitudes to be reflected in the judicial system; however, each step in the development is accurately recorded.

For the most part, organized labor has become cognizant of the need to influence public opinion. Many unions have initiated public relations programs to improve their organiza­tional image. In recent years, unions in general have taken a more active role in the American political arena through the political process. Since 1935, unions have been very conspicuous in the public eye. The public, through Congression­al legislation, has up until now defined the areas of social responsibility for labor's adherence. It remains to be seen in the 1970's whether or not unions will begin to define their own areas of responsibility and activity. If so, a new era in the development of the American labor movement will be­gin.

AFL and CIO Problems

At the same time that labor's relationship to the rest of society was changing, structural changes were taking place inside labor organizations. The split in the AFL in the mid­-thirties, which had produced the CIO as a parallel federation, was the result of disagreement over one main issue - whether or not to organize unskilled workers in mass prod­uction industries. The drive to open up the federation to these great numbers of workers was led by John L. Lewis - one of the most dramatic and prominent figures in labor lore.

Lewis was the president of the dissenting unions which broke away from the AFL to form the CIO. Under his enthu­siastic leadership, the CIO zealously organized almost every mass-production industry, including the rubber, chemical, automobile, steel, electrical, and textile industries. At the same time, perhaps spurred on by competition with the new federation, the AFL itself grew tremendously from 1935 to 1955 -the time of dual unionism. Moreover, the AFL moved away from its tradition of "pure and simple" trade unionism during this time.

In the years immediately following the Second World War, the CIO experienced severe internal problems, created by the infiltration of Communists, who had been able to entrench themselves in leadership positions during the CIO's rapid growth. The CIO took steps to rid itself of the Com­munist element, expelling eleven unions in 1949 and 1950.

The AFL did not have the Communist problem, but it did have serious problems with corruption and racketeering, as has been mentioned. The AFL expelled one corrupt union, in 1953, and later readmitted it after the union had reformed itself. A general housecleaning inside the AFL unions took place during the early 1950's.

During the 1960's several changes took place in organized labor. First, President Kennedy gave federal employees the right to form unions. Thousands of federal government em­ployees subsequently joined the ranks of organized labor. Second, many states followed the federal example, bringing thousands of state, county, and city employees into unions. Third, the AFL-CIO and its affiliates began to take a more direct and commanding role in the political arena at all levels of government. Fourth, labor began to deviate further from "pure and simple" labor legislation by supporting social legislation such as the Equal Opportunities Act, Economic Opportunity Act, and Civil Rights bills. In this way, orga­nized labor continued and amplified its expression of social consciousness. President Lyndon Johnson said of this par­ticipation by labor in social reform:

"The AFL-CIO has done more good for people than any other group in America in its legislative activities. It doesn't just try to do something about wages and hours for its own people. No group in the country works harder in the interest of everyone. It helps young and old and middle aged. It's interested in education, in housing, in the poverty program and does as much good for millions who have never belonged to a union as for its own members. That is my conception of an organization working in the public interest." - Lyndon B. Johnson

Merger: AFL-CIO

The AFL and the CIO merged in December, 1955. The move towards joining forces had been under way for some time, but it was made much easier when both organizations experienced a change in leadership. The deaths of William Green, who had long been president of the AFL, and Phillip Murray, president of the CIO, put an end to a longstanding personal antagonism. The choice of George Meany as presi­dent of the AFL and of Walter Reuther as president of the CIO, smoothed the way to merger.

The merger brought together in one federation over 16 million workers or between 85 and 90 percent of all U.S. union members. The newly created AFL-CIO retained most of the structural characteristics of the AFL but incorporated several important changes fom the CIO. Among these were the Community Services Organization and Industrial Union departments and the establishment of a strong political ac­tion structure: the Committee on Political Education (COPE). These changes demonstrate that the AFL-CIO realizes its commitment to its affiliates extend beyond the bargaining table.

Internal problems revolving around the unethical practices of some affiliates caused considerable turmoil in the new federation and although it adopted stringent rules, it had to threaten expulsion or expel several unions. All of these unions were re-affiliated and removed from probationary status after they convinced the AFL-CIO they had done away with corruption, with the exception of the Teamsters Union, which has remained non-affiliated since its expul­sion. Union growth began to decline during the 1950's. This decline supported the claim of labor critics who suggested that organized labor had lost its appeal and usefulness.

The modern AFL-CIO, and some non-affiliates such as the UAW, have moved into new areas of concern and recognize that organized labor's commitments and obligations to its membership, and to the whole of American society, does not stop at the plant gate or on the construction site. A move­ment which began with strikes for higher wages has pro­gressed to the realization that organized labor can and should occupy a viable role in all segments of our society. Today organized labor contributes significantly to the con­tinual rebuilding and improving of American society at all levels.