A Very Brief History of Organized Labor in America


This 2200 word article was published in two parts in the Alamogordo Daily News September 1 and 2, 2005

Labor Day is a special holiday, a tribute to the contribution workershave made to the strength and prosperity of our country. It iscelebrated in other countries and on other dates, but the first LaborDay, complete with a parade of more than 20,000 workers and picnicsafterward, took place in New York City on Tuesday September 5, 1882.The idea spread rapidly, and in 1894 Congress made it a nationalholiday.

Samuel Gompers, son of a Jewish cigar maker who emigrated from Englandin 1863, said “All other holidays are in a more or less degreeconnected with conflicts and battles” and Labor Day is dedicated to thestruggles of US labor. Gompers was born in 1850, and like manychildren then he started working 12-hour days alongside his father atthe age of 10. At the age of 29 he became an active trade unionist,and in 1886 he was elected the first president of the AmericanFederation of Labor (AFL).

The struggle of American workers for recognition and fair treatmentstarted in America long before Gompers was born. The first recordedstrike took place in 1677 in New York City. The Boston Tea Party wasactually organized by carpenters disguised as Mohawk Indians, whowanted freedom from British oppression. But the “pursuit of happiness”did not end with the formation of the new nation.

Early strikers were organized around one craft and one city. InPhiladelphia, printers staged a walkout in 1786 for a $6 a week minimumwage, and in 1791 carpenters struck, unsuccessfully, for a 10 hour workday. New York workers staged several strikes.

However, both the factory owners and the young government were hostileto the cause of the workers. When the Philadelphia Cordwainers(shoemakers and leather-workers) struck for higher wages in 1806, theywere arrested and convicted of “criminal conspiracy.” This decisionwas used as a precedent by both the federal and state governments forthe next one hundred-plus years for violently breaking up strikes anddemonstrations.

The prevailing opinion was that a worker’s labor was a “commodity”that they had sold to their employers, just like a sack of potatoes.This applied to children too. In 1830 nearly a third of the workforcein New England was children under the age of 16. The work week forchildren in the silk mills of Paterson, New Jersey was 66 hours–eleven hours a day, six days a week. Profit was all-important, and“family values” were not an issue.

One of the many brave women who rallied the workers was Mary HarrisJones, better know as Mother Jones, born in Ireland sometime in the1830s. Her father was himself a political activist who fled Irelandwith his family in 1838. Mary grew up to be a schoolteacher, andsettled in Memphis Tennessee where she married George Jones, spendingsix happy years with him and raising four children, until the tragedyof a yellow fever epidemic wiped out her entire family in 1867. In herautobiography she writes, “I sat alone through nights of grief. No onecame to me. No one could. Other homes were as stricken as was mine.”

She then moved to Chicago and worked as a seamstress. “We worked forthe aristocrats of Chicago, and I had ample opportunity to observe theluxury and extravagance of their lives. Often while sewing for thelords and barons who lived in magnificence on the Lake Shore Drive, Iwould look out of the plate glass windows and see the poor, shiveringwretches, jobless and hungry, walking along the frozen lake front. Thecontrast of their condition with that of the tropical comfort of thepeople for whom I sewed was painful to me. My employers seemed neitherto notice nor to care.”

Tragedy struck again when the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed herhome and her business. She then devoted the rest of her life toorganizing unions, focusing on helping miners across the nation intheir fight for improved working conditions and decent wages, and onputting an end to child labor. 665 words

Between 1870 and 1915, while Mother Jones made speeches, recruitedunionists and organized soup kitchens to feed hungry families duringstrikes, the violence against strikers and workers increased. In 1874a detachment of mounted policemen charged into a crowd of unemployed,unarmed demonstrators in New York’s Tompkins Square Park, beating men,women and children with clubs, injuring hundreds. The Commissioner ofPolice said “it was the most glorious sight I ever saw.” In 1877federal troops killed 30 Chicago workers who were part of a nationwidestrike.

In 1886, again in Chicago, police killed four union members who werepart of a demonstration for an eight-hour day that turned into a fightbetween union and non-union workers. Three days later, on May 4, at amuch smaller demonstration, someone threw a bomb that killed sevenpoliceman. Although there was no evidence against them, eightanarchists who had advocated armed struggle were arrested, convicted,and sentenced to death– for their words, not their deeds. The citywas outraged by this miscarriage of justice. Three of the men werehanged on November 11, 1887, and 250,000 people lined the streets forthe funeral procession of their leader, Albert Parsons.

More killings– another fifteen people killed in Wisconsin on May 5,1886 when state militia fired on a crowd chanting for an eight-hourwork day. The Milwaukee Journal wrote that the governor was to becommended for his “quick action.” Thirty-five unarmed black sugarworkers shot to death by the Louisiana militia in 1887, thirty-fourAmerican Railway Union members killed by federal troops in Chicago in1894, nineteen unarmed striking mineworkers killed by a sheriff’s possein Pennsylvania in 1897, the machine gunning and burning of a uniontent during the 1914 strike at Colorado’s Ludlow Mine Field that killed19 people, 12 of them children … the list of killings goes on.

Now the strikers did fight back in some cases, such as the strikingminers in Coeur D’ Alene, Idaho, who dynamited the Frisco Mill in 1892.When the Pullman Palace Car Company of Chicago drastically reducedwages in 1893, rioters caused much property damage. But no striker orrioter fired on unarmed men, women and children.

The tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911 increasedthe general public’s awareness of the prison-like working conditionsendured by many American workers. One hundred forty-seven women wereburned to death or died when they leaped from the top three floors ofthe ten-story building. The stairway exits were locked. This time thegovernment did take action: the company owners were charged withmanslaughter, but the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. In acivil suit they paid an average of $75 per life lost. After this tragic fire, Frances Perkins headed the New York factoryinspection committee and collected enough evidence of widespreadhazardous working conditions that New York legislators finally passedseveral much-needed reforms in industrial safety and fire prevention.She later became President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary ofLabor (the first woman cabinet member in US history). There were some signs of enlightenment among employers, such as FordMotor company, which raised its basic wage from $2.40 for a nine-hourday to $5 for an eight-hour day in 1914, but the major breakthroughcame in 1915, when Congress passed the Clayton Act. Section 6 of thisact is headed: “Antitrust laws not applicable to labor organizations”and states that The labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce.Nothing contained in the antitrust laws shall be construed to forbidthe existence and operation of labor, agricultural, or horticulturalorganizations, instituted for the purposes of mutual help, and nothaving capital stock or conducted for profit, or to forbid or restrainindividual members of such organizations from lawfully carrying out thelegitimate objects thereof; nor shall such organizations, or themembers thereof, be held or construed to be illegal combinations orconspiracies in restraint of trade, under the antitrust laws. By the time of the Clayton Act legalizing labor organization, MaryHarris (“Mother”) Jones was about 80 years old and less able to workfor her cherished dream of banning child labor. She did publish herautobiography in 1925 [online athttp://womenshistory.about.com/library/etext/mj/bl_mj01.htm]. In Chapter 14 she writes about the conditions in the mills: “A fatherof two little girls worked a loom next to the one assigned to me. ‘Howold are the little girls?’ I asked him. ‘One is six years and tendays,’ he said, pointing to a little girl, stoop shouldered and thinchested who was threading warp, ‘and that one,’ he pointed to a pair ofthin legs like twigs, sticking out from under a rack of spindles, ‘thatone is seven and three months.’ ‘How long do they work?’‘From six in the evening till six come morning.’ ‘How much do theyget?’‘Ten cents a night.’ ‘And you?’ ‘I get forty.’ …. I did not staylong in one place. As soon as one showed interest in or sympathy forthe children, she was suspected, and laid off. Then, too, the jobs wentto grown-ups that could bring children.” [plus 849 words] In 1935 another major improvement was made in worker protection whenthe Wagner Act was passed, but it was not until 1938 that the horrorof child labor ended in the United States, at least officially. TheFair Labor Standards Act, a product of Roosevelt’s New Deal and one ofthe most humane laws ever passed, halted this injustice againstAmerica’s young. This law also established the 40-hour work week. Mary Harris Jones did not live to see this realization of her cherisheddream– she died in 1930. After a funeral attended by over 20,000people, she was buried in the United Mine Workers Union Cemetery inMount Olive, Illinois. The violence against strikers and union organizers did not completelystop after the passage of the Clayton Act. Lynchings of unionorganizers were common, and strikers were still being killed byvigilantes, police, and occasionally the National Guard or army troops.On the other hand, one contractor was killed by labor racketeers in1930. In 1942, after the United States entered World War II, the AFL pledgedthat there would be no strikes in defense-related factories for theduration of the war. This act of patriotism was given a slap in theface in 1947 when the Taft-Hartley Act was passed. It is fair enoughthat “coercion of an employer in his choice of persons to represent himin discussions with unions” should be banned. There were several lessbenign clauses, however. Supervisory employees and independentcontractors were excluded from the protection of the Wagner Act.Secondary boycotts of unions in sympathy with other strikers werebanned. The worst part of the Taft-Hartley Act is Section 14b: “Nothing inthis Act shall be construed as authorizing the execution or applicationof agreements requiring membership in a labor organization as acondition of employment in any State or Territory in which suchexecution or application is prohibited by State or Territorial law.”This legalese means that individual states can pass “Right to Work (forless)” laws. Labor union officials charge that their union securityand solidarity is jeopardized when individual workers can enjoy thehigher wages and improved benefits negotiated by their fellow unionworkers but opt out of any union membership or financialresponsibilities. The tend has been an increase in businesses wherethere is no union representation for workers. New Mexico is not a “right-to-work-for-less” state. Many southern andmidwestern states are. North Carolina is the least unionized state,with only 3.8% of the workforce represented by unions. Small wonderthat in 1991 a fire in the Imperial Foods chicken processing plant inthe village of Hamlet, NC killed 25 workers, most of them singlemothers, and injured another 54. The reason for the deaths, as in theTriangle Shirtwaist factory fire, was blocked exits– doors chainedshut “to prevent theft.” In this case, the owner negotiated a guiltyplea of manslaughter for the 25 deaths and served four years in prison(less than two months per death) and the company paid an $800,000 fine.  The Federal Emergency Management team that investigated the firelearned that there had not been one inspection of the factory by OSHAin its eleven years of operation. Perhaps this was because ofPresident Ronald Reagan’s appointment of an OSHA director whodiscouraged aggressive enforcement of industry standards and insteadencouraged a “volunteerism” approach. Perhaps it was because of thebudget cut in FY 1982 that led to a 22% reduction in the number of OSHAinspectors. State investigators called the Imperial Foods Chicken Plant a “deathtrap.” Eighty safety law violations were found, including nosprinklers, no fire alarm or fire safety plan. This would not havehappened in a union shop. The Taft-Hartley law made it possible for American companies to move tonon-union states where they can cut workers’ wages and benefits.NAFTA and CAFTA allow them to move their plants to other countrieswhere they can profit from even lower standards for workers’ wages andsafety in the workplace. Union membership has declined in the last twenty years, and in 2004unions represented only 12.5% of the American workforce (15.5 millionmembers). For 2004 the average union member’s weekly salary was $781.For non-union workers it was $612. In comparison, the average CEO weekly salary in 2004 was $189,000,representing a pay increase of 12% between 2003 and 2004. The averageworker’s salary increased by only 2.2% (2.7% for union workers) in thatyear. In these uncertain times, when it seems like the American workingfamily is under attack, let us listen again to the words of MotherJones: “In spite of oppressors, in spite of false leaders, the causeof the workers continues onward. Slowly his hours are shortened, slowlyhis standards of living rise to include some of the good and beautifulthings in life. Slowly, those who create the wealth of the world arepermitted to share it. The future is in labor’s strong, rough hands.”

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