10 of the People and Events Who Shaped the American Organized Labor Movement and Turned the Country on Its Head

10 of the People and Events Who Shaped the American Organized Labor Movement and Turned the Country on Its Head

Larry Holzwarth - July 25, 2018

The history of the American Labor Movement has run concurrently with the development of the nation, affecting political development, social reforms, industry, the economy, healthcare, recreation, agriculture, immigration laws, and virtually all aspects of aspects of American history. Beginning as a primarily agricultural nation with a small collection of artisans and mechanics, the United States emerged as an industrial colossus by the twentieth century, leading the world in the production of consumer products and standard of living. The United States has since slipped from the pinnacle in both of those categories, but its labor force remains one of the most diverse on earth in terms of skills.

It was a long and difficult road accepting the movements which protected – and still protect – the rights of workers in the United States, as well as ensuring a safe working environment, fair compensation, and relative job security. Labor unions remain controversial in America, with some blaming them for the decline of American heavy manufacturing, having created labor costs too high for producers to absorb. Right to work states are regarded as essential by those determined to keep manufacturing in America, others view them as an un-American assault on the union workers. The controversies over labor began at the dawn of the nation, and will continue to be part of the American landscape for the foreseeable future.

10 of the People and Events Who Shaped the American Organized Labor Movement and Turned the Country on Its Head

Here are ten highlights of the American labor movement which developed over the course of the nation’s history.

10 of the People and Events Who Shaped the American Organized Labor Movement and Turned the Country on Its Head
American master craftsmen like Paul Revere often employed journeymen to work for them, paid either hourly or by piece. Wikimedia

Early instances of collective bargaining in America

Long before the series of squabbles with Great Britain which led to the American Revolution, American workers joined together to improve their lot regarding their employment and income. As early as 1636, Maine fishermen joined together in a strike, demanding a higher price for the cod they delivered for salting. The strike was a successful one. In the larger colonial towns, artisans joined together, not to control prices for their services but to establish markets and regulate their apprentices. Manufacturing was done by small firms, usually a master, one or two journeymen workers, and apprentices who were learning the trade, often as indentured servants.

Following the American Revolution manufacturing grew rapidly in the Northern American towns throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. By the end of the War of 1812 journeymen workers outnumbered master craftsmen in the cities, and in several they joined together to obtain improvements in their compensation through either increased pay or decreased working hours for the same pay as previously. These cases were frequently referred by craftsmen to the magistrates, and the courts nearly always found the collusion to be illegal criminal activities, fining the workers, and in cases where they were unable to pay, jailing them for a time.

The developing case law led to the consideration that laborers had the right to gather in guilds or unions, but not to use gathering as a means of applying collective bargaining regarding wages or work conditions. Such activity was held to be illegal in emerging American common law. In 1842 a Massachusetts Supreme Court decision softened the conspiracy doctrine, finding unions to be legal if they were formed for a legal purpose and used legal means. The decision, Commonwealth v. Hunt is sometimes cited as a landmark of the labor movement, but it affected only Massachusetts. Conspiracy convictions of labor organizers continued in other states.

Through the first half of the nineteenth century labor organizations were local affairs, and covered workers in a single profession, such as the Journeymen Bootmakers Society in Boston, the organization found to be legal in Commonwealth v. Hunt. During the American Civil War Northern manufacturing grew exponentially, and following its end the National Labor Union (NLU) was formed by William H. Sylvis, a member of a local ironmolders union in Philadelphia. Sylvis planned to create an organization of the different unions and labor societies for various trades into a single entity which covered workers in all trades.

The NLU was moderately successful for a time, but the union experienced recruiting difficulties, competition from local unions for membership, and poor leadership and communication. It reached a peak of around 600,000 members in 1869 but declined rapidly in 1870. A similar organization for workers in the shoe industry formed in Wisconsin in 1867, grew rapidly in the state, declined even more rapidly, and collapsed during the Panic of 1873, as did the NLU. The goal of national labor organization remained elusive.

In 1869 the Knights of Labor were formed, grew slowly for a decade, and then experienced a burst of growth in the 1880s. In the railroad industry which boomed in the decade following the Civil War, numerous unions developed based on the different trades demanded by the railroads. These included the Brotherhood of Railroad Engineers; the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen; and the Order of Railroad Conductors, among others. The railroad unions considered the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to be too radical and avoided affiliation with them, consolidating power among themselves.

Some railroad workers individually joined the Knights of Labor, especially during its period of explosive growth which started in 1880. The Knights of labor stressed programs for workers and their families, including the development of recreation facilities and educational programs. The Knights also used tactics which included them being associated with the anarchist movement which began in the United States. The association was an inaccurate perception which was fed by the anti-labor movement, but after the Haymarket Riot in 1886, in which seven policemen were killed, the Knights could not shake the reputation, and most of its members defected to the less radical AFL and the railroad brotherhoods.

10 of the People and Events Who Shaped the American Organized Labor Movement and Turned the Country on Its Head
A depiction of the Haymarket Riot that appeared in Harper’s Weekly, an influential American news magazine of the day. Wikimedia

The Haymarket Riot

In 1884 the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions announced from their convention that the eight hour workday would become the national standard on May 1, 1886. Labor organizations nationwide prepared to strike and demonstrate in support of the eight hour day’s implementation. In Chicago, which was a major industrial center, the Knights of Labor were active in preparing its members and those of other unions in supporting the nationwide strikes. On May 1 striking workers held rallies across the country, with up to 500,000 demonstrating, including up to 40,000 in Chicago, with another 80,000 people demonstrating their support.

On May 3, strikers gathered outside the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, home of the famous McCormick reaper. The strikers gathered in support of the molders, who had been on strike against McCormick since the preceding winter. The company had hired replacement workers, who were harassed by strikers when they entered and left the plant, and were escorted by armed Pinkerton guards. Although the strikers harassed the replacement workers, they did allow them across the picket line. When the shift ended on May 3 and the replacement workers encountered the strikers, guards fired into the crowd and three workers were killed.

The violence led to anarchists calling for a rally to be held in Haymarket Square the following day, with the anarchists distributing fliers throughout the city. The anarchists called the police actions’ the deliberate murders of workingmen. The rally was held in the early evening, under a steady rain which grew worse as the speakers at the event droned on. The final speaker was a British socialist who spoke for between ten and twenty minutes, according to conflicting reports in the newspapers. At about ten-thirty police arrived and ordered the crowd to disperse, marching towards the wagon on which the speakers had stood.

As the crowd, which had shrunk steadily during the evening due to the inclement weather, began to dissolve a bomb was thrown at the police, killing one officer instantly and fatally injuring six others. The police opened fire on the crowd as they fled, killing at least four workers, and injuring several other policemen with misdirected fire. Though the bomb had been brought to the rally by an anarchist, and was never officially connected to the union workers, in the public mind the organizers, especially the Knights of Labor, were tied to the violence. Union membership and public support of organized labor nosedived.

Eight were arrested for the bombing, including two of the speakers during the rally, though they had been complying with police orders to disperse when the bomb exploded. All were found guilty and seven were sentenced to death. One committed suicide in jail, the other six were hanged. The final defendant was given fifteen years. Union membership dwindled under the anti-union backlash generated by the international publicity over the bombing and the testimony during the trial. Nonetheless other union activity continued, as did public pressure for the eight hour work day, as the unions worked to separate themselves from the activities of the anarchists.

10 of the People and Events Who Shaped the American Organized Labor Movement and Turned the Country on Its Head
Labor activist and former cigar roller Samuel Gompers around the time of the First World War. Wikimedia

Samuel Gompers

Samuel Gompers was an Englishmen born of Jewish-Dutch descent, who went to the United States at the age of 13, in the company of his family. Forced by financial circumstances he began working as a cigar maker in England, a trade he continued in the United States to help support the family. Because of the need to work he received little in the manner of a formal education, though he studied the Talmud on his own at night. Upon arrival in the United States his father made cigars at home, and Samuel assisted him in their manufacture, rolling cigars by hand from the aged leaf purchased still on the heavy stalk.

Samuel joined a debating society while still in his early teens, which helped him to develop oratorical skills, and in 1864 joined the loosely organized Cigar Makers Union Local 15. Cigar makers were craftsmen, and the skill involved in producing well rolled and wrapped cigars was evident in the quality of the finished product. Higher quality meant higher prices, and skilled cigar makers were in demand, allowing them to move from shop to shop, which could be any room with light and a table on which to work. At seventeen Gompers married a co-worker; six years later he joined the David Hersch Cigar company, which employed only highly skilled workers, most of them German.

By the time he was 25 Gompers’ activities in the union led to his election as president of the Cigar Maker’s International Union Local 144. In his early days as a union leader Gompers was a radical, arguing that the capitalists which employed them were driven by a single motivation – profits – and that only through assertion of their rights through strikes and demonstrations could the workers receive what was rightfully theirs. Gompers became one of the leaders in the formation of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in 1881, which was reorganized as the American Federation of Labor in 1886, with Gompers as its president.

Gompers, an immigrant himself, led the AFL to oppose unlimited immigration, supporting the imposition of quotas based on the idea that additional workers reduced wages. The AFL endorsed the immigration laws which reduced the flow of eastern and southern Europeans to the United States. Gompers used the growing strength of the AFL to support political candidates favorable to its position on labor issues, and accumulated significant power in Washington himself. He endorsed American actions in the Spanish-American war and World War 1, and attended the Paris Peace Conference following the latter as a consultant on labor issues.

Following the First World War, Gompers politics and support of collective bargaining were deemed too conservative, and more radical unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and others attracted socialists and in some instances communists. By then Gompers had come to believe that the most important thing an employer owed to his employees was a profitable company. Gompers was instrumental in developing a system of unionization in the United States through which workers received improved wages, working conditions, and benefits, through negotiations with employers and influence on legislators.

10 of the People and Events Who Shaped the American Organized Labor Movement and Turned the Country on Its Head
National Guardsmen protect the Arcade Building from strikers in the company town of Pullman, Illinois in 1894. Wikimedia

The seeds of the Pullman strike

The Pullman Company, which built passenger and other railcars, also built a company town named Pullman, in which it required its employees to reside. It owned the houses for which it charged rents, the stores which provided groceries, clothing, shoes, and all other necessities. This meant that the wages paid to Pullman workers were returned to Pullman for goods and services. The company town was well designed and laid out, the houses spacious and well-built, and the merchandise in the stores was of generally good quality. Pullman’s workers were for the most part content with the arrangements until the Panic of 1893.

When that financial downturn led to a decline in demand for Pullman products the company cut wages for its production workers. The reduction in wages did not coincide with a reduction in rents paid for their homes nor in prices at the company’s stores. Many of Pullman’s workers found themselves falling into debt to their employer. The newly formed American Railway Union recruited the increasingly disgruntled Pullman workers though it counseled against a strike against the company, with union leader Eugene V. Debs believing that support from other unions would be necessary for an ARU strike to succeed. The various railroad brotherhoods generally opposed a strike.

Another reduction in wages led to a wildcat strike by Pullman workers on May 11, 1894. Debs, though initially in opposition to the strike, announced his support and began working to gain the support of other unions. The strike divided American public opinion and the American labor movement. The AFL and Samuel Gompers opposed the actions of the ARU as did most of the brotherhoods which represented the crafts required of the railroads. The ARU took steps to arbitrate the issue, but the Pullman Company refused, stating that it had nothing to arbitrate. The ARU, which consisted at the time of 465 locals representing most of the unskilled railroad positions, issued a deadline for arbitration of June 26.

When that date came and the Pullman Company continued to refuse to submit the matter to arbitration, the ARU called for a general strike by its member unions. The strike called for any trains which included Pullman cars to be boycotted. The railroads looked to the courts for relief, and received an injunction which forbade the ARU from sending messages in the form of telegrams or the US Mail encouraging members to strike or directing them in how to shut down the railroads. When the injunction was ignored and the workers refused to service trains with Pullman cars, orders for the arrest of Debs and other union officers were sent out.

The legal basis for arrest warrants was on two violations of law by the strikers. The first was the Sherman Anti-trust Act, which made it illegal to restrain commerce or trade. The second was that the strike was impeding the flow of the US Mail, which moved by train between cities and towns. The injunction against the officers of the ARU was issued the first week of July, and by the seventh of that month the officers of the ARU were arrested and awaiting trial. The worst of the Pullman strike, which at its peak involved more than 250,000 workers and most of the American railroads west of Chicago, was yet to come.

10 of the People and Events Who Shaped the American Organized Labor Movement and Turned the Country on Its Head
Eugene V. Debs initially opposed the Pullman Strike, and was eventually convicted and jailed for his role. Library of Congress

The Pullman strike.

At stations and waysides throughout the American west, trains sat idle in early July, 1894, with members of ARU locals refusing to switch trains containing Pullman cars, or load or unload any cars from trains which also had Pullmans. The ARU called for a nationwide general strike by all unions, which was opposed by Samuel Gompers and the AFL, and failed to materialize. A call for the support of the other railroad unions also failed, and the Pullman workers on the trains themselves, porters and conductors, also refused to support the strike.

Public disapproval of the strike centered on the disruption of the flow of goods and passengers, then nearly wholly dependent on the railroads, and demanded the government do something to end the strike. President Grover Cleveland ordered the US Marshals to arrest the strikers and the US Army to take over the aspects of railroad operation boycotted by the strikers. The strike had already had its share of violence, mostly against railroad property, before the military involvement. After the army entered the labor dispute the violence became worse.

Twelve thousand American troops were used to bring an end to the strike, supported by the marshals and local authorities. Clashes in several locations led to at least 30 deaths among the strikers, and at least 57 injured. Damage to company property, including Pullman cars that were burned on the sidings by rioting strikers, exceeded $80 million, more than $2 billion in 2018. Much of the violence occurred in California, addressed by strikers to the Southern Pacific Railroad, which, like Pullman, had recently reduced the pay of its workers. They used sabotage techniques against their employer to wreck trains and company equipment.

The Pullman strike divided the populations of towns and cities across the Midwest and west, with merchants and industrialists strongly against the strikers and those involved in agriculture largely supporting them. The press was similarly divided, though the newspapers of most of the larger cities were against the strike. By July 20, 1894, the strike had been suppressed and the trains were again rolling. Most of the strikers lost their jobs. But Pullman lost its town. In the aftermath of the strike the Illinois Supreme Court ordered the Pullman Company to divest of the town in 1897.

Eugene V. Debs was convicted in federal court and sentenced to six months imprisonment, during which time he became a socialist. The ARU collapsed. The government of Grover Cleveland and Congress, at the urging of Samuel Gompers and other labor leaders who had opposed the Pullman strike, created the national holiday of Labor Day less than a week following the suppression of the strike. The Pullman strike in the majority view of the American public had been a victory over the socialists and anarchists which were linked with immigration by those who did not share American social mores and beliefs.

10 of the People and Events Who Shaped the American Organized Labor Movement and Turned the Country on Its Head
An IWW demonstration in New York in 1914. The IWW called WW1 a war for the benefit of capitalism. Library of Congress

The Industrial Workers of the World

In 1905 labor organizers, socialists, anarchists, Marxists, and others who believed the AFL to have become too conservative held a convention in Chicago in which they founded the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The AFL’s belief in the concept of capitalism was the impetus for the radical rejection of it as the spokesman for the labor movement. IWW members became known as Wobblies, though the origination of the term is unknown. The Wobblies believed in overall industrial unionization, rather than craft unionization, another point of contention with the AFL.

The IWW welcomed workers regardless of their trade or craft, ethnicity, or gender, an unusual stance at the time. During the first decades of the twentieth century it was involved in several strikes and often clashed with other unions, clashes which sometimes became violent. Leaders of the Western Federation of Miners were critical to the formation of the IWW; by the summer of 1907 the WFM left the IWW, with the miners for the most part rejecting the radicalism of the Wobblies. This led to physical violence during several work stoppages in the western mines where members of both groups were present.

IWW members also came into conflict with workers represented by the United Mine Workers in the bituminous coal fields in 1916. The IWW objected to the UMW practice of negotiating labor contracts for established time periods with their employers, and established picket lines to prevent UMW workers from entering the mines and support shops. The UMW was forced to request protection from the Pennsylvania State Police in order to honor their contracts. State Police escorted UMW workers across the picket lines. Actions such as these brought the IWW into disrepute with the general public and anti-socialist groups.

The IWW opposed American intervention in the First World War, calling it a war for the benefit of the capitalists, to the detriment of the workers. During the war the anti-war stance of the IWW made it a target for the US government. IWW members and leaders were arrested for crimes including conspiring to evade the draft and other ant-war effort activities. One of its founders and leaders, Bill Haywood, was convicted under the espionage act and sentenced to prison by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. On bail pending appeal, Haywood fled to the Soviet Union, where he continued to reside for the rest of his life.

More than 150 IWW members and leaders were convicted under the Espionage Act near the end of the First World War, and during the ensuing Red Scare which followed that conflict. Through the 1930s the number of Wobblies wobbled downward. Following the Second World War the Taft-Hartley Act made communist leadership of American labor unions illegal, and membership dwindled yet further. It has since experienced something of a comeback in membership, and remains active in many organizing causes. Today, true to its name, the IWW has chapters around the world, spreading its message in all hemispheres.

10 of the People and Events Who Shaped the American Organized Labor Movement and Turned the Country on Its Head
Although some men were employed as early telephone switchboard operators, the phone companies soon discovered that women were less likely to swear at the customers. Wikimedia


During the First World War organized labor in the United States overwhelmingly supported the American war effort, the exceptions being the IWW and other socialist radical groups. The AFL membership reached 2.4 million during 1918, and organized labor worked hand in hand with government entities and employer management to keep production levels high. When the war ended, labor found the time of relative workplace peace to be short lived. Despite the combat being over, the Treaty of Paris was as yet unsigned, and temporary war measures and restrictions remained in effect.

One such measure was the Lever Act, a wartime restriction against hindering the movement of any necessity. When the war had been on the United Mine Workers had agreed to wage hikes which were temporary, as a war measure. With the war over they wanted them made permanent and 400,000 workers struck against the coal companies. The government invoked the Lever Act. The leader of the UMW, John L. Lewis, withdrew the call for the strike, but many locals ignored him and remained out. Coal was at the time the overwhelmingly most important fuel in the nation, and demands for government action were loud and fervent. After five weeks, the workers agreed to a 14% wage increase over pre-war levels.

As difficult as it is to believe today, the ability to directly dial any telephone number was nearly non-existent in 1919. Phone calls went through central switchboards, from which they were routed through other switchboards, until they were connected to the desired party. The switchboards were overwhelming operated by women. Telephone operators, a critical link in the communications chain, were poorly paid, their wages less than a third of those of women dressmakers, or seamstresses, or others in manufacturing jobs. In 1919 the Boston Telephone Operators asked for an increase in wages, and when New England Telephone refused, they went on strike.

Boston became isolated from the rest of the country, and in most cases from its own neighborhoods. In response New England Telephone hired strikebreakers, many of them from Boston’s numerous colleges and universities. When they were confronted by supporters of the women on the picket lines, many of them husbands, boyfriends, or brothers of the women, they for the most part turned back. New England Telephone relented, and the women, their wage demands acceded to, returned to their duties on the switchboards. The success led to an increase in the unionization of telephone company employees nationwide.

Although there was a brief downturn following the war, the Roaring Twenties were soon underway, and union expansion in the United States ebbed. Throughout the 1920s prices of consumer goods remained relatively stable, unemployment remained relatively low, and businesses expanded, particularly in the automotive industry. Nonetheless there were some major events affecting organized labor in the United States during the decade, including the use of contracts through which employees agreed not to join a union under pain of being terminated, and hostility by the courts to unions in general. There was also the Great Railroad Strike of 1922.

10 of the People and Events Who Shaped the American Organized Labor Movement and Turned the Country on Its Head
Guards protect railroad property during the failed 1922 railroad strike. Library of Congress

The Great Railroad Strike of 1922.

Because they were critical to the war effort, America’s railroads were nationalized during the First World War, and their return to private hands in 1920 was accompanied by the creation of the Railroad Labor Board, which retained the authority to establish wages and monitor working conditions. It also retained the eight hour day established as the norm during the war. The Railroad Labor Board cut wages across the board for railroad workers in 1921, and in 1922 cut them again, exempting many railroad positions protected by the Brotherhoods, and targeting the average 12% reduction in wages to the shop workers and maintenance workers.

The shop workers and others associated with the wage reduction had been allowed to unionize during the war, and when notified of the targeted reduction they voted to strike rather than accept the cuts. On July 1, 1922, through seven unions, 400,000 railroad workers went on strike. The railroads were still able to run the trains since the engineers, firemen, brakemen, and so on did not support the strike. The railroad companies accordingly turned to the time-honored tactic of hiring strikebreakers to replace the maintenance crews and mechanics. The Railroad Labor Board encouraged the practice, and established that the hires were to be permanent.

The railroads, including the Baltimore and Ohio, the Chesapeake and Ohio, the New York Central, and the Pennsylvania, stripped the striking workers of their seniority. This meant that even if they returned to their jobs they would be considered new hires, out of line for any promotions to one of the skilled railroad crafts. In several different instances around the country, armed company guards fired on strikers, who also found themselves the targets of anti-labor community workers and their spouses, who threw eggs, rotten fruit, and heavier missiles such as bricks and stones at them on the picket line.

For their part the strikers took opportunities to commit acts of sabotage against their employers, damaging locomotives, rolling stock, switches, control towers, and other equipment to disrupt schedules as much as possible. As negotiations to resolve the strike dragged on, with little movement on either side, state governors mobilized their National Guard units as needed to protect railroad property. As the strike went on the Federal government took an active role to defeat it. This hostility to the strikers was ameliorated by President Harding, who wanted to arbitrate a solution which was acceptable to both sides.

Finally, on September 1, a federal judge issued an injunction against strikes, pickets, and several other union activities. Some shop workers and maintenance men attempted to return to their jobs, while others simply found other forms of work. During the strike thousands of black workers crossed the picket lines, and when it was learned that the rail brotherhoods would not accept them the railroads kept them in their jobs, further weakening the unions. The strike gradually died out, after the injunction made the act of picketing a crime subjecting the picket to arrest and fines. The Strike of 1922 didn’t so much end, it just gradually faded away.

10 of the People and Events Who Shaped the American Organized Labor Movement and Turned the Country on Its Head
An empty storefront, evidently a former restaurant, and a hopeless drifter symbolize the Great Depression. FDR Presidential Library

The Great Depression and the New Deal

During the earliest days of the Great Depression union activity came to a standstill. With many men out of work and the economy in near total collapse union membership began to lag, since so many men could not afford to pay their membership fees and dues. Contrary to common belief today, the Hoover administration was not inactive regarding the depression nor towards organized labor during the depression, and in 1932 passed legislation which was pro-union. Among these was an act which prohibited the sort of injunction which had made the Great Railroad Strike of 1922 illegal. The act applied to the federal judiciary. Soon states passed similar laws.

Hoover also made it illegal for employers to demand prospective employees sign a promise that they would not join a union, known as a yellow dog contract. These two actions had been pushed by the AFL in Congress for years, and signified its growing political power. When Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the Presidency, the AFL flexed its growing muscle, and the result of the lobby and the Democratic input was the National Industrial Recovery Act, which gave workers the right to organize and denied their employers the right to refuse to bargain with them, as well as made coercion and other intimidation of workers illegal.

By 1936 membership in the AFL was over 3.4 million. The AFL still supported the organization of unions by crafts rather than by industry. For example, electricians within the automotive industry were in the craft electrician unions, rather than in the automotive industry unions. By 1936 there was sufficient opposition to this approach for the formation of the Committee for Industrial Organization, which later changed its name to the Congress of Industrial Organizations. In 1938 the AFL and the CIO separated and they became rivals for membership, though both labor organizations supported the Democratic Party and Franklin Roosevelt.

John L. Lewis was the first president of the CIO and he used money from his United Mine Workers, which he brought into the CIO, to fund recruiting drives in the auto industry, oil industry, steel, and textiles. The CIO grew rapidly, and as it did it encouraged its members to support FDR with their votes, while the union supported him with its money. In 1936-37 the CIO successfully brought unionization to General Motors and most of the auto industry, though Ford would not yield for several years. The auto industry emerged from World War II with many new factories and industries, birthed to support the war effort.

As the labor unions grew in membership, political influence, and financial power they found within themselves was targeted by other groups. One was a free press investigating increasingly rumored and later confirmed incidents of corruption within the unions. Another was organized crime. Government investigations into the latter frequently led them to links within the labor movement. Despite organized labor’s overwhelming support of the war effort during World War II there was still a perception of anti-labor groups that it was supportive of communism in the United States. In the early days of television these links were explored by Congressional committees with Americans watching.

10 of the People and Events Who Shaped the American Organized Labor Movement and Turned the Country on Its Head
Harry Truman faced a series of strikes immediately following World War 2, infuriating him and leading him to explore nationalizing the steel industry and the railroads. The White House

The American labor movement today.

In the days after World War II concerted efforts to expand the organized labor movement into the American Deep South were blocked by a combination of factors including the Jim Crow laws of the south, national anti-union sentiment from a series of strikes in 1945, and the beginnings of the Cold War. Communism, socialism, and the organization of labor were all linked in the public mind, and exploited by those opposing unionization. This led to a weakening of the unions in general, as it became evident that factories which were struck in the north could simply be moved to the south, where there was cheaper labor and little threat of unions.

The attempted unionization of the south was a largely CIO project named Operation Dixie. Its defeat led to the merger of the CIO and the AFL in 1955, and the trend towards social unionism was replaced with the business unionism of the AFL, which reflected the beliefs in capitalism instilled by Samuel Gompers at the beginning of the century. Though the AFL and CIO did not merge until 1955, they both fought against the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. Passed because it was perceived that the unions’ actions in striking the steel industry in 1945, and threatening a railroad strike that was called off at the last minute were dangerous to national security, Taft-Hartley placed restrictions on both unions and management in dealing with them.

Closed shops were barred by the act. Closed shops meant that all employees must be union members. The act also allowed states to establish themselves as “right-to-work” states. In a right-to-work jurisdiction, employees who are not members of a union cannot be compelled to pay union dues or other fees as a condition of employment. Twenty-eight states have right-to-work jurisdictions as of 2018. Taft-Hartley was sent to President Truman for his signature, was vetoed by the president and returned to the Congress, which overcame the president’s veto, enacting the bill into law. Despite intense lobbying by unions and other interests, it remains in effect.

With the merger of the AFL and CIO in 1955, strong efforts on the part of the unions to shed themselves of communist philosophy and members within their ranks were undertaken. As both the AFL and CIO strongly supported the anti-communist activities of the Truman Administration the extreme left-wing members of their unions protested, and they were purged from leadership activities. The CIO was in particular supported by communists in its formative years, the AFL less so because of its commitment to capitalism. By the end of the 1940s the known communist elements of the CIO and its member unions were gone from the organization.

When the AFL-CIO merger was completed in 1955 roughly 33% of the American labor force were represented by a union, and were actively paying dues for the privilege. By the year 2012 that had been reduced to about 11%. The steady decline of unionization in the private sector was fed by the relocation of jobs to right-to-work states (or their elimination by relocating them overseas), a shift of jobs from manufacturing to service industries, and the decline of the power of the unions to influence political activities. By 2010 the United Auto Workers had more members on its roster that were retired than were working, a problem facing many unions and their pension funds in the United States today.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“History of Labour in the United States”, by John R. Commons, 1957

“Labor Leaders in America”, by Melvyn Dubofsky, 1987

“Seventy Years of Life and Labor”, by Samuel Gompers, 1925

“The Great Railroad Strike of 1894”, by Frank A. Leach, Library of Congress, November 2, 2016, online

“IWW History Project”, by James Gregory and Conor Casey, University of Washington, online

“The Lean Years” A History of the American Worker 1920 -1933″, by Irving Bernstein, 1966

“Nation’s 1922 railroad strike became a matter of life and death”, by James Rada, Cumberland Times-News, June 4, 2011

“Traitor to his Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt”, by H. W. Brands, 2009

“Is this the end for organized labour in the US?”, by John Logan, The Guardian, March 11, 2011