- Although the organization of working people in a particular craft or industry in response to industrialization and the rise of the factory system began in the early 19th century, it was not until the American Federation of Labor (AFL) emerged under the leadership of Samuel Gompers in the 1880s as an organization of skilled workers using collective bargaining to achieve better wages and conditions in the workplace that they achieved lasting prominence. However, while the AFL concentrated on skilled workers, unskilled immigrant and African American employees were largely ignored. The AFL was briefly challenged in its role as mouthpiece of the working classes in the 1890s by the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World. These radical challenges did much to prompt progressive reformers into action, but in the long run they had only a limited appeal to U.S. workers.During World War I, unions gained strength and recognition as a consequence of labor shortages and their participation in the mobilization of manpower. In 1919 there were 5 million members. However, a concerted counterattack by employers, aided by the conservative Republican administrations and the antipathy of the Supreme Court in the 1920s, led to a drop in membership to only 3 million.The reluctance of AFL leaders, especially Gompers’s successor in 1924, William Green, to organize industrial workers or engage in militant action left the organization even weaker and facing terminal decline. Faced with further losses during the Great Depression, some union leaders, particularly John L. Lewis, called for a revitalized effort to organize workers on an industrial basis, including the unskilled. This caused a rift with the AFL and eventually led to the emergence of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1938. Although this schism appeared to be the final straw, paradoxically, the 1930s turned out to be one of the greatest periods of union growth and militancy.With the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the start of the New Deal, government now supported union activity. The first step toward recognition came with Section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act, which recognized the right to organize, recognized the right to collective bargaining, and prohibited company unions. When the act was declared unconstitutional, new legislation like the National Labor Relations Act, introduced by Senator Robert F. Wagner in 1935, specifically provided union recognition and banned obstruction by employers. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established minimum wages and maximum work hours. This sympathetic government attitude spurred on organizers in both the AFL and CIO, and their determination often led to industrial action. In 1937, almost 2 million workers took part in 4,720 strikes, the most significant being those led by the Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee and also those in the car industry, starting in Flint, Michigan.The violence experienced in incidents like the Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago in 1937 and the revelations of the Senate committee chaired by Robert M. La Follette Jr. that some employers literally had small armies of spies and strikebreakers armed with an arsenal of weapons did much to win public sympathy for the unions. By 1940, more than 8 million workers were union members.The unions played an important role during World War II, and the war helped consolidate some of the earlier gains. In December 1941, the unions issued a “no-strike pledge” and indicated their willingness to cooperate with government and business. In January 1942, President Roosevelt established a National War Labor Board (NWLB) to resolve disputes that could jeopardize the war effort. In 1942, the NWLB adopted the “maintenance of membership” clause that ensured that members of unions remained so for the duration of war contracts. Coupled with full employment, this resulted in the addition of almost 5 million new union members and a total membership of more than 14 million by 1945. However, as unions grew in size, it often became harder for union officials to manage them. As wartime inflation pushed up prices, union members began to revolt against the restrictions imposed on wage increases under the “Little Steel” formula and the no-strike pledge. In 1943, almost 2 million workers took part in 3,700 strikes, and in 1944 more than 2 million were involved in 5,000 stoppages. Congress responded in 1943 by passing the War Labor Disputes Act in an attempt to curb wouldbe strikers.When a wave of strikes involving 5 million workers broke out during the period of postwar reconversion from 1946 to 1947, major elements of this legislation became permanent in the Taft-Hartley Act. Despite this, there was not the postwar reaction against unions that there had been in 1919, and although President Harry S. Truman alienated some workers with his response to the miners’ and railway workers’ strikes in 1946, organized labor was increasingly wedded to the Democratic Party both in terms of domestic policies and in support of the anticommunist strategies abroad. While support for the Democratic Party was channeled through Political Action Committees, unions that supported Henry A. Wallace in 1948 were expelled from the CIO, and both Philip Murray and Walter Reuther orchestrated campaigns against communist sympathizers in their organization. Thus, although by 1955 union membership stood at 17.5 million or 36 percent of the labor force, by the time the AFL and CIO merged later that year, much of the militant reforming zeal evident in the 1930s had disappeared.
Historical Dictionary of the Roosevelt–Truman Era . Neil A. Wynn . 2015.
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