The labor history of the United States describes the history of organized labor, US labor law, and more general history of working people, in the United States. Beginning in the 1930s, unions became important components of the Democratic Party. However, some historians have not understood why no Labor Party emerged in the United States, in contrast to Western Europe.
The nature and power of organized labor is the outcome of historical tensions among counter-acting forces involving workplace rights, wages, working hours, political expression, labor laws, and other working conditions. Organized unions and their umbrella labor federations such as the AFL-CIO and citywide federations have competed, evolved, merged, and split against a backdrop of changing values and priorities, and periodic federal government intervention.
As commentator E. J. Dionne has noted, the union movement has traditionally espoused a set of values--solidarity being the most important, the sense that each should look out for the interests of all. From this followed commitments to mutual assistance, to a rough-and-ready sense of equality, to a disdain for elitism, and to a belief that democracy and individual rights did not stop at the plant gate or the office reception room. Dionne notes that these values are "increasingly foreign to American culture". In most industrial nations the labor movement sponsored its own political parties, with the U.S. as a conspicuous exception. Both major American parties vied for union votes, with the Democrats usually much more successful. Labor unions became a central element of the New Deal Coalition that dominated national politics from the 1930s into the mid-1960s during the Fifth Party System. Liberal Republicans who supported unions in the Northeast lost power after 1964.
The history of organized labor has been a specialty of scholars since the 1890s, and has produced a large amount of scholarly literature focused on the structure of organized unions. In the 1960s, as social history gained popularity, a new emphasis emerged on the history of workers, including unorganized workers, and with special regard to gender and race. This is called "the new labor history". Much scholarship has attempted to bring the social history perspectives into the study of organized labor.
The history of labor disputes in America substantially precedes the Revolutionary period. In 1636, for instance, there was a fishermen's strike on an island off the coast of Maine and in 1677 twelve carmen were fined for going on strike in New York City. However, most instances of labor unrest during the colonial period were temporary and isolated, and rarely resulted in the formation of permanent groups of laborers for negotiation purposes. Little legal recourse was available to those injured by the unrest, because strikes were not typically considered illegal. The only known case of criminal prosecution of workers in the colonial era occurred as a result of a carpenters' strike in Savannah, Georgia, in 1746.
By the beginning of the 19th century, after the revolution, little had changed. The career path for most artisans still involved apprenticeship under a master, followed by moving into independent production. However, over the course of the Industrial Revolution, this model rapidly changed, particularly in the major metropolitan areas. For instance, in Boston in 1790, the vast majority of the 1,300 artisans in the city described themselves as "master workman". By 1815, journeymen workers without independent means of production had displaced these "masters" as the majority. By that time journeymen also outnumbered masters in New York City and Philadelphia. This shift occurred as a result of large-scale transatlantic and rural-urban migration. Migration into the coastal cities created a larger population of potential laborers, which in turn allowed controllers of capital to invest in labor-intensive enterprises on a larger scale. Craft workers found that these changes launched them into competition with each other to a degree that they had not experienced previously, which limited their opportunities and created substantial risks of downward mobility that had not existed prior to that time.
These conditions led to the first labor combination cases in America. Over the first half of the 19th century, there are twenty-three known cases of indictment and prosecution for criminal conspiracy, taking place in six states: Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Virginia. The central question in these cases was invariably whether workmen in combination would be permitted to use their collective bargaining power to obtain benefits--increased wages, decreased hours, or improved conditions--which were beyond their ability to obtain as individuals. The cases overwhelmingly resulted in convictions. However, in most instances the plaintiffs' desire was to establish favorable precedent, not to impose harsh penalties, and the fines were typically modest.
One of the central themes of the cases prior to the landmark decision in Commonwealth v. Hunt, which settled the legality of unions, was the applicability of the English common law in post-revolutionary America. Whether the English common law applied--and in particular whether the common law notion that a conspiracy to raise wages was illegal applied--was frequently the subject of debate between the defense and the prosecution. For instance, in Commonwealth v. Pullis, a case in 1806 against a combination of journeymen cordwainers in Philadelphia for conspiracy to raise their wages, the defense attorneys referred to the common law as arbitrary and unknowable and instead praised the legislature as the embodiment of the democratic promise of the revolution. In ruling that a combination to raise wages was per se illegal, Recorder Moses Levy strongly disagreed, writing that "[t]he acts of the legislature form but a small part of that code from which the citizen is to learn his duties . . . [i]t is in the volumes of the common law we are to seek for information in the far greater number, as well as the most important causes that come before our tribunals."
As a result of the spate of convictions against combinations of laborers, the typical narrative of early American labor law states that, prior to Hunt in Massachusetts in 1842, peaceable combinations of workingmen to raise wages, shorten hours or ensure employment, were illegal in the United States, as they had been under English common law. In England, criminal conspiracy laws were first held to include combinations in restraint of trade in the Court of Star Chamber early in the 17th century. The precedent was solidified in 1721 by R v Journeymen Tailors of Cambridge, which found tailors guilty of a conspiracy to raise wages.Leonard Levy went so far as to refer to Hunt as the "Magna Carta of American trade-unionism", illustrating its perceived standing as the major point of divergence in the American and English legal treatment of unions which, "removed the stigma of criminality from labor organizations".
However, case law in America prior to Hunt was mixed. Pullis was actually unusual in strictly following the English common law and holding that a combination to raise wages was by itself illegal. More often combination cases prior to Hunt did not hold that unions were illegal per se, but rather found some other justification for a conviction. After Pullis in 1806, eighteen other prosecutions of laborers for conspiracies followed within the next three decades. However, only one such case, People v. Fisher, also held that a combination for the purpose of raising wages was illegal. Several other cases held that the methods used by the unions, rather than the unions themselves, were illegal. For instance, in People v. Melvin, cordwainers were again convicted of a conspiracy to raise wages. Unlike in Pullis, however, the court held that the combination's existence itself was not unlawful, but nevertheless reached a conviction because the cordwainers had refused to work for any master who paid lower wages, or with any laborer who accepted lower wages, than what the combination had stipulated. The court held that methods used to obtain higher wages would be unlawful if they were judged to be deleterious to the general welfare of the community.Commonwealth v. Morrow continued to refine this standard, stating that, "an agreement of two or more to the prejudice of the rights of others or of society" would be illegal. Another line of cases, led by Justice John Gibson of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania's decision in Commonwealth v. Carlisle, held that motive of the combination, rather than simply its existence, was the key to illegality. Gibson wrote, "Where the act is lawful for an individual, it can be the subject of a conspiracy, when done in concert, only where there is a direct intention that injury shall result from it". Still other courts rejected Pullis rule of per se illegality in favor of a rule that asked whether the combination was a but-for cause of injury. Thus, as economist Edwin Witte stated, "The doctrine that a combination to raise wages is illegal was allowed to die by common consent. No leading case was required for its overthrow". Nevertheless, while Hunt was not the first case to hold that labor combinations were legal, it was the first to do so explicitly and in clear terms.
The National Labor Union (NLU), founded in 1866, was the first national labor federation in the United States. It was dissolved in 1872.
The regional Order of the Knights of St. Crispin was founded in the northeast in 1867 and claimed 50,000 members by 1870, by far the largest union in the country. A closely associated union of women, the Daughters of St. Crispin, formed in 1870. In 1879 the Knights formally admitted women, who by 1886 comprised 10% of the union's membership, but it was poorly organized and soon declined. They fought encroachments of machinery and unskilled labor on autonomy of skilled shoe workers. One provision in the Crispin constitution explicitly sought to limit the entry of "green hands" into the trade, but this failed because the new machines could be operated by semi-skilled workers and produce more shoes than hand sewing.
With the rapid growth and consolidation of large railroad systems after 1870, union organizations sprang up, covering the entire nation. By 1901, 17 major railway brotherhoods were in operation; they generally worked amicably with management, which recognized their usefulness. Key unions included the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Division (BMWED), the Order of Railway Conductors, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, and the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. Their main goal was building insurance and medical packages for their members, and negotiating bureaucratic work rules that favored their membership, such as seniority and grievance procedures.
They were not members of the AFL, and fought off more radical rivals such as the Knights of Labor in the 1880s and the American Railroad Union in the 1890s. They consolidated their power in 1916, after threatening a national strike, by securing the Adamson Act, a federal law that provided 10 hours pay for an eight-hour day. At the end of World War I they promoted nationalization of the railroads, and conducted a national strike in 1919. Both programs failed, and the brotherhoods were largely stagnant in the 1920s. They generally were independent politically, but supported the third party campaign of Robert M. La Follette Sr. in 1924.
The first effective labor organization that was more than regional in membership and influence was the Knights of Labor, organized in 1869. The Knights believed in the unity of the interests of all producing groups and sought to enlist in their ranks not only all laborers but everyone who could be truly classified as a producer. The acceptance of all producers led to explosive growth after 1880. Under the leadership of Terence V. Powderly they championed a variety of causes, sometimes through political or cooperative ventures.
Powderly hoped to gain their ends through politics and education rather than through economic coercion. The Knights were especially successful in developing a working class culture, involving women, families, sports, and leisure activities and educational projects for the membership. The Knights strongly promoted their version of republicanism that stressed the centrality of free labor, preaching harmony and cooperation among producers, as opposed to parasites and speculators.
One of the earliest railroad strikes was also one of the most successful. In 1885, the Knights of Labor led railroad workers to victory against Jay Gould and his entire Southwestern Railway system. In early 1886, the Knights were trying to coordinate 1,400 strikes involving over 600,000 workers spread over much of the country. The tempo had doubled over 1885, and involved peaceful as well as violent confrontations in many sectors, such as railroads, street railroads, coal mining, and the McCormick Reaper Factory in Chicago, with demands usually focused on the eight hour day. Suddenly, it all collapsed, largely because the Knights were unable to handle so much on their plate at once, and because they took a smashing blow in the aftermath of the Haymarket Riot in May 1886 in Chicago.
As strikers rallied against the McCormick plant, a team of political anarchists, who were not Knights, tried to piggyback support among striking Knights workers. A bomb exploded as police were dispersing a peaceful rally, killing seven policemen and wounding many others. The anarchists were blamed, and their spectacular trial gained national attention. The Knights of Labor were seriously injured by the false accusation that the Knights promoted anarchistic violence. Many Knights locals transferred to the less radical and more respectable AFL unions or railroad brotherhoods.
The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions began in 1881 under the leadership of Samuel Gompers. Like the National Labor Union, it was a federation of different unions and did not directly enroll workers. Its original goals were to encourage the formation of trade unions and to obtain legislation, such as prohibition of child labor, a national eight hour day, and exclusion of Chinese and other foreign contract workers.
Strikes organized by labor unions became routine events by the 1880s. There were 37,000 strikes, 1881 to 1905. By far the largest number were in the building trades, followed far behind by coal miners. The main goal was control of working conditions, setting uniform wage scales, protesting the firing of a member, and settling which rival union was in control. Most strikes were of very short duration. In times of depression strikes were more violent but less successful, because the company was losing money anyway. They were successful in times of prosperity when the company was losing profits and wanted to settle quickly.
The Federation made some efforts to obtain favorable legislation, but had little success in organizing or chartering new unions. It came out in support of the proposal, traditionally attributed to Peter J. McGuire of the Carpenters Union, for a national Labor Day holiday on the first Monday in September, and threw itself behind the eight hour movement, which sought to limit the workday by either legislation or union organizing.
In 1886, as the relations between the trade union movement and the Knights of Labor worsened, McGuire and other union leaders called for a convention to be held at Columbus, Ohio on December 8. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions merged with the new organization, known as the American Federation of Labor or AFL, formed at that convention.
The AFL was formed in large part because of the dissatisfaction of many trade union leaders with the Knights of Labor, an organization that contained many trade unions and that had played a leading role in some of the largest strikes of the era. The new AFL distinguished itself from the Knights by emphasizing the autonomy of each trade union affiliated with it and limiting membership to workers and organizations made up of workers, unlike the Knights which, because of its producerist focus, welcomed some who were not wage workers.
The AFL grew steadily in the late 19th century while the Knights all but disappeared. Although Gompers at first advocated something like industrial unionism, he retreated from that in the face of opposition from the craft unions that made up most of the AFL.
The unions of the AFL were composed primarily of skilled men; unskilled workers, African-Americans, and women were generally excluded. The AFL saw women as threatening the jobs of men, since they often worked for lower wages. The AFL provided little to no support for women's attempts to unionize.
The Western Federation of Miners (WFM) was created in 1893. Frequently in competition with the American Federation of Labor, the WFM spawned new federations, including the Western Labor Union (later renamed to the American Labor Union). The WFM took a conservative turn in the aftermath of the Colorado Labor Wars and the trials of its president, Charles Moyer, and its secretary treasurer, Big Bill Haywood, for the conspiratorial assassination of Idaho's former governor. Although both were found innocent, the WFM, headed by Moyer, separated itself from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) (launched by Haywood and other labor radicals, socialists, and anarchists in 1905) just a few years after that organization's founding convention. In 1916 the WFM became the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, which was eventually absorbed by the United Steelworkers of America.
During the major economic depression of the early 1890s, the Pullman Palace Car Company cut wages in its factories. Discontented workers joined the American Railway Union (ARU), led by Eugene V. Debs, which supported their strike by launching a boycott of all Pullman cars on all railroads. ARU members across the nation refused to switch Pullman cars onto trains. When these switchmen were disciplined, the entire ARU struck the railroads on June 26, 1894. Within four days, 125,000 workers on twenty-nine railroads had people quit work rather than handle Pullman cars. Strikers and their supporters also engaged in riots and sabotage.
The railroads were able to get Edwin Walker, general counsel for the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway, appointed as a special federal attorney with responsibility for dealing with the strike. Walker went to federal court and obtained an injunction barring union leaders from supporting the boycott in any way. The court injunction was based on the Sherman Anti-Trust Act which prohibited "Every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States". Debs and other leaders of the ARU ignored the injunction, and federal troops were called into action.
The strike was broken up by United States Marshals and some 2,000 United States Army troops, commanded by Nelson Miles, sent in by President Grover Cleveland on the premise that the strike interfered with the delivery of U.S. Mail. During the course of the strike, 13 strikers were killed and 57 were wounded. An estimated $340,000 worth of property damage occurred during the strike. Debs went to prison for six months for violating the federal court order, and the ARU disintegrated.
Australian historian Peter Shergold confirms the findings of many scholars[who?] that the standard of living for US industrial workers was higher than in Europe. He compares wages and the standard of living in Pittsburgh with Birmingham, England. He finds that, after taking into account the cost of living (which was 65% higher in the U.S.), the standard of living of unskilled workers was about the same in the two cities, while skilled workers had about twice as high a standard of living. The American advantage grew over time from 1890 to 1914, and there was a heavy steady flow of skilled workers from Britain to industrial America. Shergold revealed that skilled Americans did earn higher wages than the British, yet unskilled workers did not, while Americans worked longer hours, with a greater chance of injury, and had fewer social services.
Nationwide from 1890 to 1914 the unionized wages in manufacturing rose from $17.63 a week to $21.37, and the average work week fell from 54.4 to 48.8 hours a week. The pay for all factory workers was $11.94 and $15.84 because unions reached only the more skilled factory workers.
The United Mine Workers was successful in its strike against soft coal (bituminous) mines in the Midwest in 1900, but its strike against the hard coal (anthracite) mines of Pennsylvania turned into a national political crisis in 1902. President Theodore Roosevelt brokered a compromise solution that kept the flow of coal going, and higher wages and shorter hours, but did not include recognition of the union as a bargaining agent.
The Women's Trade Union League was a support group that did not organize locals. It formed at the 1903 AFL convention in Boston and was loosely tied to the AFL. It was composed of both workingwomen and middle-class reformers, and provided financial assistance, moral support, and training in work skills and social refinement for blue collar women. Most active in 1907-1922 under Margaret Dreier Robins, it publicized the cause and lobbied for minimum wages and restrictions on hours of work and child labor.
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), whose members became known as "Wobblies", was founded in Chicago in 1905 by a group of about 30 labor radicals. Their most prominent leader was William "Big Bill" Haywood. The IWW pioneered creative tactics, and organized along the lines of industrial unionism rather than craft unionism; in fact, they went even further, pursuing the goal of "One Big Union" and the abolition of the wage system. Many, though not all, Wobblies favored anarcho-syndicalism.
Much of the IWW's organizing took place in the West, and most of its early members were miners, lumbermen, cannery, and dock workers. In 1912 the IWW organized a strike of more than twenty thousand textile workers, and by 1917 the Agricultural Workers Organization (AWO) of the IWW claimed a hundred thousand itinerant farm workers in the heartland of North America. Eventually the concept of One Big Union spread from dock workers to maritime workers, and thus was communicated to many different parts of the world. Dedicated to workplace and economic democracy, the IWW allowed men and women as members, and organized workers of all races and nationalities, without regard to current employment status. At its peak it had 150,000 members (with 200,000 membership cards issued between 1905 and 1916), but it was fiercely repressed during, and especially after, World War I with many of its members killed, about 10,000 organizers imprisoned, and thousands more deported as foreign agitators. The IWW proved that unskilled workers could be organized. The IWW exists today, but its most significant impact was during its first two decades of existence.
In 1908 the U.S. Supreme Court decided Loewe v. Lawlor (the Danbury Hatters' Case). In 1902 the Hatters' Union instituted a nationwide boycott of the hats made by a nonunion company in Connecticut. Owner Dietrich Loewe brought suit against the union for unlawful combinations to restrain trade in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The Court ruled that the union was subject to an injunction and liable for the payment of triple damages.
In 1915 Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, speaking for the Court, again decided in favor of Loewe, upholding a lower federal court ruling ordering the union to pay damages of $252,130. (The cost of lawyers had already exceeded $100,000, paid by the AFL). This was not a typical case in which a few union leaders were punished with short terms in jail; specifically, the life savings of several hundreds of the members were attached. The lower court ruling established a major precedent, and became a serious issue for the unions.
The Clayton Act of 1914 presumably exempted unions from the antitrust prohibition and established for the first time the Congressional principle that "the labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce". However, judicial interpretation so weakened it that prosecutions of labor under the antitrust acts continued until the enactment of the Norris-La Guardia Act in 1932.
State legislation 1912-1918: 36 states adopted the principle of workmen's compensation for all industrial accidents. Also: prohibition of the use of an industrial poison, several states require one day's rest in seven, the beginning of effective prohibition of night work, of maximum limits upon the length of the working day, and of minimum wage laws for women.
Gompers and nearly all labor unions were strong supporters of the war effort. They used their leverage to gain recognition and higher wages. They minimized strikes as wages soared and full employment was reached. To keep factories running smoothly, Wilson established the National War Labor Board in 1918, which forced management to negotiate with existing unions. The AFL unions and the railway brotherhoods strongly encouraged their young men to enlist in the military. They fiercely opposed efforts to reduce recruiting and slow war production by the anti-war IWW and left-wing Socialists. President Wilson appointed Gompers to the powerful Council of National Defense, where he set up the War Committee on Labor. The AFL membership soared to 2.4 million in 1917. Anti-war socialists controlled the IWW, which fought against the war effort and was in turn shut down by legal action by the federal government.
In 1919, the AFL tried to make their gains permanent and called a series of major strikes in meat, steel, and many other industries. Management counterattacked, claiming that key strikes were run by Communists intent on destroying capitalism. Nearly all the strikes ultimately failed, forcing unions back to positions similar to those around 1910.
The United Mine Workers under John L. Lewis called a strike for November 1, 1919 in all soft (bituminous) coal fields. They had agreed to a wage agreement to run until the end of World War I and now sought to make permanent their wartime gains. U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer invoked the Lever Act, a wartime measure that made it a crime to interfere with the production or transportation of necessities. Ignoring the court order 400,000 coal workers walked out. The coal operators played the radical card, saying Lenin and Trotsky had ordered the strike and were financing it, and some of the press echoed that language.
Lewis, facing criminal charges and sensitive to the propaganda campaign, withdrew his strike call. Lewis did not fully control the faction-ridden UAW and many locals ignored his call. As the strike dragged on into its third week, supplies of the nation's main fuel were running low and the public called for ever stronger government action. Final agreement came after five weeks with the miners getting a 14% raise, far less than they wanted.
One important strike was won by labor. Moved to action by the rising cost of living, the president of the Boston Telephone Operator's Union, Julia O'Connor, asked for higher wages from the New England Telephone Company. Wages of operators averaged a third less than women in manufacturing. In April, 9,000 women operators in New England went on strike, shutting down most telephone service. The company hired college students as strikebreakers, but they came under violent attack by men supporting the strikers. In a few days a settlement was reached giving higher wages. After the success O'Connor began a national campaign to organize women operators.
The 1920s marked a period of sharp decline for the labor movement. Union membership and activities fell sharply in the face of economic prosperity, a lack of leadership within the movement, and anti-union sentiments from both employers and the government. The unions were much less able to organize strikes. In 1919, more than 4 million workers (or 21 percent of the labor force) participated in about 3,600 strikes. In contrast, 1929 witnessed about 289,000 workers (or 1.2 percent of the labor force) stage only 900 strikes.
After a short recession in 1920, the 1920s was a generally prosperous decade outside of farming and coal mining. The GNP growth 1921-29 was a very strong 6.0%, double the long-term average of about 3%. Real annual earnings (in 1914 dollars) for all employees (deducting for unemployment) was $566 in 1921 and $793 in 1929, a real gain of 40%. The economic prosperity of the decade led to stable prices, eliminating one major incentive to join unions. Unemployment fell from 11.7% in 1921 to 2.4% in 1923 and remained in the range of 2%-5% until 1930.
The 1920s also saw a lack of strong leadership within the labor movement. Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor died in 1924 after serving as the organization's president for 37 years. Observers said successor William Green, who was the secretary-treasurer of the United Mine Workers, "lacked the aggressiveness and the imagination of the AFL's first president". The AFL was down to less than 3 million members in 1925 after hitting a peak of 4 million members in 1920.
Employers across the nation led a successful campaign against unions known as the "American Plan", which sought to depict unions as "alien" to the nation's individualistic spirit. In addition, some employers, like the National Association of Manufacturers, used Red Scare tactics to discredit unionism by linking them to subversive activities.
U.S. courts were less hospitable to union activities during the 1920s than in the past. In this decade, corporations used twice as many court injunctions against strikes than any comparable period. In addition, the practice of forcing employees (by threat of termination) to sign yellow-dog contracts that said they would not join a union was not outlawed until 1932.
Although the labor movement fell in prominence during the 1920s, the Great Depression would ultimately bring it back to life.
The Great Railroad Strike of 1922, a nationwide railroad shop workers strike, began on July 1. The immediate cause of the strike was the Railroad Labor Board's announcement that hourly wages for railway repair and maintenance workers would be cut by seven cents on July 1. This cut, which represented an average 12% wage decrease for the affected workers, prompted a shop workers vote on whether or not to strike. The operators' union did not join in the strike, and the railroads employed strikebreakers to fill three-fourths of the roughly 400,000 vacated positions, increasing hostilities between the railroads and the striking workers.
On September 1, a federal judge issued the sweeping "Daugherty Injunction" against striking, assembling, and picketing. Unions bitterly resented the injunction; a few sympathy strikes shut down some railroads completely. The strike eventually died out as many shopmen made deals with the railroads on the local level. The often unpalatable concessions--coupled with memories of the violence and tension during the strike--soured relations between the railroads and the shopmen for years.
The stock market crashed in October 1929, and ushered in the Great Depression. By the winter of 1932-33, the economy was so perilous that the unemployment rate hit the 25 percent mark. Unions lost members during this time because laborers could not afford to pay their dues and furthermore, numerous strikes against wage cuts left the unions impoverished: "one might have expected a reincarnation of organizations seeking to overthrow the capitalistic system that was now performing so poorly. Some workers did indeed turn to such radical movements as the Communist Party, but, in general, the nation seemed to have been shocked into inaction".
Though unions were not acting yet, cities across the nation witnessed local and spontaneous marches by frustrated relief applicants. In March 1930, hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers marched through New York City, Detroit, Washington, San Francisco and other cities in a mass protest organized by the Communist Party's Unemployed Councils. In 1931, more than 400 relief protests erupted in Chicago and that number grew to 550 in 1932.
The leadership behind these organizations often came from radical groups like Communist and Socialist parties, who wanted to organize "unfocused neighborhood militancy into organized popular defense organizations".
Organized labor became more active in 1932, with the passage of the Norris-La Guardia Act. On March 23, 1932, Republican President Herbert Hoover signed the Norris-La Guardia Act, marking the first of many pro-union bills that Washington would pass in the 1930s. Also known as the Anti-Injunction Bill, it offered procedural and substantive protections against the easy issuance of court injunctions during labor disputes, which had limited union behavior in the 1920s. Although the act only applied to federal courts, numerous states would pass similar acts in the future. Additionally, the act outlawed yellow-dog contracts, which were documents some employers forced their employees to sign to ensure they would not join a union; employees who refused to sign were terminated from their jobs.
The passage of the Norris-La Guardia Act signified a victory for the American Federation of Labor, which had been lobbying Congress to pass it for slightly more than five years. It also marked a large change in public policy. Up until the passage of this act, the collective bargaining rights of workers were severely hampered by judicial control.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office on March 4, 1933, and immediately began implementing programs to alleviate the economic crisis. In June, he passed the National Industrial Recovery Act, which gave workers the right to organize into unions. Though it contained other provisions, like minimum wage and maximum hours, its most significant passage was, "Employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representative of their own choosing, and shall be free from the interference, restraint, or coercion of employers."
This portion, which was known as Section 7(a), was symbolic to workers in the United States because it stripped employers of their rights to either coerce them or refuse to bargain with them. While no power of enforcement was written into the law, it "recognized the rights of the industrial working class in the United States".
Although the National Industrial Recovery Act was ultimately deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935 and replaced by the Wagner Act two months after that, it fueled workers to join unions and strengthened those organizations.
In response to both the Norris-La Guardia Act and the NIRA, workers who were previously unorganized in a number of industries--such as rubber workers, oil and gas workers and service workers--began to look for organizations that would allow them to band together. The NIRA strengthened workers' resolve to unionize and instead of participating in unemployment or hunger marches, they started to participate in strikes for union recognition in various industries". In 1933, the number of work stoppages jumped to 1,695, double its figure from 1932. In 1934, 1,865 strikes occurred, involving more than 1.4 million workers.
The elections of 1934 might have reflected the "radical upheaval sweeping the country", as Roosevelt won the greatest majority either party ever held in the Senate and 322 Democrats won seats in the United States House of Representatives versus 103 Republicans. It is possible that "the great social movement from below thus strengthened the independence of the executive branch of government".
Despite the impact of such changes on the United States' political structure and on workers' empowerment, some scholars have criticized the impacts of these policies from a classical economic perspective. Cole and Ohanian (2004) find that the New Deal's pro-labor policies are an important factor in explaining the weak recovery from the Great Depression and the rise in real wages in some industrial sectors during this time.
The AFL was growing rapidly, from 2.1 million members in 1933 to 3.4 million in 1936. But it was experiencing severe internal stresses regarding how to organize new members. Traditionally, the AFL organized unions by craft rather than industry, where electricians or stationary engineers would form their own skill-oriented unions, rather than join a large automobile-making union. Most AFL leaders, including president William Green, were reluctant to shift from the organization's longstanding craft unionism and started to clash with other leaders within the organization, such as John L. Lewis.
The issue came up at the annual AFL convention in San Francisco in 1934 and 1935, but the majority voted against a shift to industrial unionism both years. After the defeat at the 1935 convention, nine leaders from the industrial faction led by Lewis met and organized the Committee for Industrial Organization within the AFL to "encourage and promote organization of workers in the mass production industries" for "educational and advisory" functions.
The CIO, which later changed its name to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), formed unions with the hope of bringing them into the AFL, but the AFL refused to extend full membership privileges to CIO unions. In 1938, the AFL expelled the CIO and its million members, and they formed a rival federation. The two federations fought it out for membership; while both supported Roosevelt and the New Deal, the CIO was further to the left, while the AFL had close ties to the big city machines.
John L. Lewis (1880-1969) was the president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) from 1920 to 1960, and the driving force behind the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Using UMW organizers the new CIO established the United Steel Workers of America (USWA) and organized millions of other industrial workers in the 1930s.
Lewis threw his support behind Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) at the outset of the New Deal. After the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, Lewis traded on the tremendous appeal that Roosevelt had with workers in those days, sending organizers into the coal fields to tell workers "The President wants you to join the Union." His UMW was one of FDR's main financial supporters in 1936, contributing over $500,000.
Lewis expanded his base by organizing the so-called "captive mines", those held by the steel producers such as U.S. Steel. That required in turn organizing the steel industry, which had defeated union organizing drives in 1892 and 1919 and which had resisted all organizing efforts since then fiercely. The task of organizing steelworkers, on the other hand, put Lewis at odds with the AFL, which looked down on both industrial workers and the industrial unions that represented all workers in a particular industry, rather than just those in a particular skilled trade or craft.
Lewis was the first president of the Committee of Industrial Organizations. Lewis, in fact, was the CIO: his UMWA provided the great bulk of the financial resources that the CIO poured into organizing drives by the United Automobile Workers (UAW), the USWA, the Textile Workers Union and other newly formed or struggling unions. Lewis hired back many of the people he had exiled from the UMWA in the 1920s to lead the CIO and placed his protégé Philip Murray at the head of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee.
The most dramatic success was the 1936-7 sit-down strike that paralyzed General Motors. It enabled CIO unionization of GM and the main automobile firms (except Ford, which held out for a few years). However it had negative ramifications, as the Gallup Poll reported, "More than anything else the use of the sit-down strike alienated the sympathies of the middle classes".
The CIO's actual membership (as opposed to publicity figures) was 2,850,000 for February 1942. This included 537,000 members of the auto workers (UAW), nearly 500,000 Steel Workers, almost 300,000 members of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, about 180,000 Electrical Workers, and about 100,000 Rubber Workers. The CIO also included 550,000 members of the United Mine Workers, which did not formally withdraw from the CIO until later in the year. The remaining membership of 700,000 was scattered among thirty-odd smaller unions.
Historians of the union movement in the 1930s have tried to explain its remarkable success in terms of the rank and file--what motivated them to suddenly rally around leaders (such as John L. Lewis) who had been around for decades with little success. Why was the militancy of the mid-1930s so short lived?
The war mobilization dramatically expanded union membership, from 8.7 million in 1940 to over 14.3 million in 1945, about 36% of the work force. For the first time large numbers of women factory workers were enrolled. Both the AFL and CIO supported Roosevelt in 1940 and 1944, with 75% or more of their votes, millions of dollars, and tens of thousands of precinct workers.
However, Lewis opposed Roosevelt on foreign policy grounds in 1940. He took the Mine Workers out of the CIO and rejoined the AFL. All labor unions strongly supported the war effort after June 1941 (when Germany invaded the Soviet Union). Left-wing activists crushed wildcat strikes. Nonetheless, Lewis realized that he had enormous leverage. In 1943, the middle of the war, when the rest of labor was observing a policy against strikes, Lewis led the miners out on a twelve-day strike for higher wages. The bipartisan Conservative coalition in Congress passed anti-union legislation over liberal opposition, most notably the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947.
A statistical analysis of the AFL and CIO national and local leaders in 1945 shows that opportunity for advancement in the labor movement was wide open. In contrast with other elites, the labor leaders did not come from established WASP families with rich, well-educated backgrounds. Indeed, they closely resembled the overall national population of adult men, with fewer from the South and from farm backgrounds. The union leaders were heavily Democratic. The newer CIO had a younger leadership, and one more involved with third parties, and less involved with local civic activities. Otherwise the AFL and CIO leaders were quite similar in background.
The Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936-37 was the decisive event in the formation of the United Auto Workers Union (UAW). During the war Walter Reuther took control of the UAW, and soon led major strikes in 1946. He ousted the Communists from the positions of power, especially at the Ford local.
He was one of the most articulate and energetic leaders of the CIO, and of the merged AFL-CIO. Using brilliant negotiating tactics he leveraged high profits for the Big Three automakers into higher wages and superior benefits for UAW members.
New enemies appeared for the labor unions after 1935. Newspaper columnist Westbrook Pegler was especially outraged by the New Deal's support for powerful labor unions that he considered morally and politically corrupt. Pegler saw himself a populist and muckraker whose mission was to warn the nation that dangerous leaders were in power. In 1941 Pegler became the first columnist ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for reporting, for his work in exposing racketeering in Hollywood labor unions, focusing on the criminal career of William Morris Bioff. Pegler's popularity reflected a loss of support for unions and liberalism generally, especially as shown by the dramatic Republican gains in the 1946 elections, often using an anti-union theme.
With the end of the war in August 1945 came a wave of major strikes, mostly led by the CIO. In November, the UAW sent their 180,000 GM workers to the picket lines; they were joined in January 1946 by a half-million steelworkers, as well as over 200,000 electrical workers and 150,000 packinghouse workers. Combined with many smaller strikes a new record of strike activity was set.
The results were mixed, with the unions making some gains, but the economy was disordered by the rapid termination of war contracts, the complex reconversion to peacetime production, the return to the labor force of 12 million servicemen, and the return home of millions of women workers. The conservative control of Congress blocked liberal legislation, and "Operation Dixie", the CIO's efforts to expand massively into the South, failed.
The Republicans exploited public anger at the unions in 1946, winning a smashing landslide. Labor responded afterwards by taking strong actions. The CIO systematically purged communists and far-left sympathizers from leadership roles in its unions. The CIO expelled some unions that resisted the purge, notably its third-largest affiliate the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), and set up a new rival union to take away the UE membership.
Meanwhile, the AFL in 1947 set up its first explicitly political unit, Labor's League for Political Education. The AFL increasingly abandoned its historic tradition of nonpartisanship, since neutrality between the major parties was impossible. By 1952, the AFL had given up on decentralization, local autonomy, and non-partisanship, and had developed instead a new political approach marked by the same style of centralization, national coordination, and partisan alliances that characterized the CIO. After these moves, the CIO and AFL were in a good position to fight off Henry Wallace in 1948 and work enthusiastically for Truman's reelection. The CIO and AFL no longer had major points of conflict, so they merged in amicably 1955 as the AFL-CIO.
The Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, also known as the Taft-Hartley Act, in 1947 revised the Wagner Act to include restrictions on unions as well as management. It was a response to public demands for action after the wartime coal strikes and the postwar strikes in steel, autos and other industries that were perceived to have damaged the economy, as well as a threatened 1946 railroad strike that was called off at the last minute before it shut down the national economy. The Act was bitterly fought by unions, vetoed by President Harry S. Truman, and passed over his veto. Repeated union efforts to repeal or modify it always failed, and it remains in effect today.
The Act was sponsored by Senator Robert A. Taft and Representative Fred Hartley, both Republicans. Congress overrode the veto on June 23, 1947, establishing the act as a law. Truman described the act as a "slave-labor bill" in his veto, but after it was enacted over his veto, he used its emergency provisions a number of times to halt strikes and lockouts. The new law required all union officials to sign an affidavit that they were not Communists or else the union would lose its federal bargaining powers guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Board.
The Taft-Hartley Act amended the Wagner Act, officially known as the National Labor Relations Act, of 1935. The amendments added to the NLRA a list of prohibited actions, or "unfair labor practices", on the part of unions. The NLRA had previously prohibited only unfair labor practices committed by employers. It prohibited jurisdictional strikes, in which a union strikes in order to pressure an employer to assign particular work to the employees that union represents, and secondary boycotts and "common situs" picketing, in which unions picket, strike, or refuse to handle the goods of a business with which they have no primary dispute but which is associated with a targeted business. A later statute, the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, passed in 1959, tightened these restrictions on secondary boycotts still further.
The Act outlawed closed shops, which were contractual agreements that required an employer to hire only union members. Union shops, in which new recruits must join the union within a certain amount of time, are permitted, but only as part of a collective bargaining agreement and only if the contract allows the worker at least thirty days after the date of hire or the effective date of the contract to join the union. The National Labor Relations Board and the courts have added other restrictions on the power of unions to enforce union security clauses and have required them to make extensive financial disclosures to all members as part of their duty of fair representation. On the other hand, a few years after the passage of the Act Congress repealed the provisions requiring a vote by workers to authorize a union shop, when it became apparent that workers were approving them in virtually every case.
The amendments also authorized individual states to outlaw union security clauses entirely in their jurisdictions by passing "right-to-work" laws. Currently all of the states in the Deep South and a number of traditionally Republican states in the Midwest, Plains and Rocky Mountains regions have right-to-work laws.
The amendments required unions and employers to give sixty days' notice before they may undertake strikes or other forms of economic action in pursuit of a new collective bargaining agreement; it did not, on the other hand, impose any "cooling-off period" after a contract expired. Although the Act also authorized the President to intervene in strikes or potential strikes that create a national emergency, the President has used that power less and less frequently in each succeeding decade.
Historian James T. Patterson concludes that:
The AFL had always opposed Communists inside the labor movement. After 1945 they took their crusade worldwide. The CIO had major Communist elements who played a key role in organizational work in the late 1930s and war years. By 1949 they were purged. The AFL and CIO strongly supported the Cold War policies of the Truman administration, including the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan and NATO. Left-wing elements in the CIO protested and were forced out of the main unions. Thus Walter Reuther of the United Automobile Workers purged the UAW of all Communist elements. He was active in the CIO umbrella as well, taking the lead in expelling eleven Communist-dominated unions from the CIO in 1949.
As a leader of the anti-Communist center-left, Reuther was a founder of the liberal umbrella group Americans for Democratic Action in 1947. In 1949 he led the CIO delegation to the London conference that set up the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in opposition to the communist-dominated World Federation of Trade Unions. He had left the Socialist Party in 1939, and throughout the 1950s and 1960s was a leading spokesman for liberal interests in the CIO and in the Democratic Party.James B. Carey also helped influence the CIO's pullout from the WFTU and the formation of the ICFTU dedicated to promoting free trade and democratic unionism worldwide. Carey in 1949 had formed the IUE, a new CIO union for electrical workers, because the old one, the UE, was tightly controlled by the left.[self-published source]
Marxian economist Richard D. Wolff argues that anti-communism was part of a strategy by big business, Republicans and conservatives to single out and destroy the members of the coalition that forced through the New Deal, namely organized labor, socialist and communist parties.
Since its peak in the mid-20th century, the American labor movement has been in steady decline, with losses in the private sector larger than gains in the public sector. In the early 1950s, as the AFL and CIO merged, around a third of the American labor force was unionized; by 2012, the proportion was 11%, constituting roughly 5% in the private sector and 40% in the public sector. Organized labor's influence steadily waned and workers' collective voice in the political process has weakened. Partly as a result, wages have stagnated and income inequality has increased. "Although the National Labor Relations Act was initially a boon for unions, it also sowed the seeds of the labor movement's decline. The act enshrined the right to unionize, but the system of workplace elections it created meant that unions had to organize each new factory or firm individually rather than organize by industry. In many European countries, collective-bargaining agreements extended automatically to other firms in the same industry, but in the United States, they usually reached no further than a plant's gates. As a result, in the first decades of the postwar period, the organizing effort could not keep pace with the frenetic rate of job growth in the economy as a whole". On the political front, the shrinking unions lost influence in the Democratic Party, and pro-union liberal Republicans faded away. Intellectuals lost interest in unions, focusing their attention more on Vietnam, minorities, women and environmental issues.
By the 1970s, a rapidly increasing flow of imports (such as automobiles, steel and electronics from Germany and Japan, and clothing and shoes from Asia) undercut American producers. By the 1980s there was a large-scale shift in employment with fewer workers in high-wage sectors and more in the low-wage sectors. Many companies closed or moved factories to Southern states (where unions were weak). The effectiveness of strikes declined sharply, as companies after the 1970s threatened to close down factories or move them to low-wage states or to foreign countries. The number of major work stoppages fell by 97% from 381 in 1970 to 187 in 1980 to only 11 in 2010. The accumulating weaknesses were exposed when President Ronald Reagan--a former union president--broke the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike in 1981, dealing a major blow to unions.
Union membership among workers in private industry shrank dramatically, though after 1970 there was growth in employees unions of federal, state and local governments. The intellectual mood in the 1970s and 1980s favored deregulation and free competition. Numerous industries were deregulated, including airlines, trucking, railroads and telephones, over the objections of the unions involved.
Republicans, using conservative think tanks as idea farms, began to push through legislative blueprints to curb the power of public employee unions as well as eliminate business regulations.
The friendly merger of the AFL and CIO marked an end not only to the acrimony and jurisdictional conflicts between the coalitions, it also signaled the end of the era of experimentation and expansion that began in the mid 1930s. Merger became politically possible because of the deaths of Green of the AFL and Murray of the CIO in late 1952, replaced by George Meany and Reuther. The CIO was no longer the radical dynamo, and was no longer a threat in terms of membership for the AFL had twice as many members.
Furthermore, the AFL was doing a better job of expanding into the fast-growing white collar sector, with its organizations of clerks, public employees, teachers, and service workers. Although the AFL building trades maintained all-white policies, the AFL had more black members in all as the CIO. The problem of union corruption was growing in public awareness, and CIO's industrial unions were less vulnerable to penetration by criminal elements than were the AFL's trucking, longshoring, building, and entertainment unions. But Meany had a strong record in fighting corruption in New York unions, and was highly critical of the notoriously corrupt Teamsters.
Unification would help the central organization fight corruption, yet would not contaminate the CIO unions. The defeat of the New Deal in the 1952 election further emphasized the need for unity to maximize political effectiveness. From the CIO side the merger was promoted by David McDonald of the Steelworkers and his top aide Arthur J. Goldberg. To achieve the successful merger, they jettisoned the more liberal policies of the CIO regarding civil rights and membership rights for blacks, jurisdictional disputes, and industrial unionism. Reuther went along with the compromises and did not contest the selection of Meany to head the AFL-CIO.
Fearing the fallout of a drawn-out negotiation process, the AFL and CIO leadership decided on a "short route" to reconciliation. This meant all AFL and CIO unions would be accepted into the new organization "as is," with all conflicts and overlaps to be sorted out after the merger. Negotiations were conducted by a small, select group of advisors. The draft constitution was primarily written by AFL Vice President Matthew Woll and CIO General Counsel Arthur Goldberg, while the joint policy statements were written by Woll, CIO Secretary-Treasurer James Carey, CIO vice presidents David McDonald and Joseph Curran, Brotherhood of Railway Clerks President George Harrison, and Illinois AFL-CIO President Reuben Soderstrom.
Labor unions were a whole high-profile target of Republican activists throughout the 1940s and 1950s, especially the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Both the business community and local Republicans wanted to weaken unions, which played a major role in funding and campaigning for Democratic candidates. The strategy of the Eisenhower administration was to consolidate the anti-union potential inherent in Taft-Hartley. Pressure from the Justice Department, the Labor Department, and especially from congressional investigations focused on criminal activity and racketeering in high-profile labor unions, especially the Teamsters Union. Republicans wanted to delegitimize unions by focusing on their shady activities. The McClellan Committee hearings targeted Teamsters president James R. Hoffa as a public enemy. Young Robert Kennedy played a major role working for the committee. Public opinion polls showed growing distrust toward unions, and especially union leaders--or "labor bosses," as Republicans called them. The bipartisan Conservative Coalition, With the aid of liberals such as the Kennedy brothers, won new Congressional restrictions on organized labor in the form of the Landrum-Griffin Act (1959). The main impact was to force more democracy on the previously authoritarian union hierarchies. However, in the 1958 elections, taking place during a sharp economic recession, the unions fought back especially against state Right to Work laws and defeated many conservative Republicans.
The Teamsters union was expelled from the AFL for its notorious corruption under president Dave Beck. Its troubles gained national attention from highly visible Senate hearings. The target was Jimmy Hoffa (1913-1975), who replaced Beck and held total power until he was imprisoned in 1964.
Hispanics comprise a large fraction of the farm labor force, but there was little successful unionization before the arrival in the 1960s of Cesar Chavez (1927-1993), who mobilized California workers into the United Farm Workers organization.
Successes of the UFW include: (1.) securing a three-year contract with grape growers; (2.) securing another 3-year contract with Minute Maid for 55,000 workers; (3.) securing, with political allies, as the result of continuing strikes, an Agricultural Relations Board, after much conflict and union-busting by the Teamsters in the mid-1970s; and (4.) maintaining the ability to invoke consumer boycotts. Chavez had a significant political impact; as Jenkins points out, "state and national elites no longer automatically sided with the growers." Thus, the political insurgency of the UFW was successful because of effective strategizing in the right kind of political environment.
Nationwide unions have been seeking opportunities to enroll Hispanic members. Much of their limited success has been in the hotel industry.
Cloud argues, "the emblematic moment of the period from 1955 through the 1980s in American labor was the tragic PATCO strike in 1981." Most unions were strongly opposed to Reagan in the 1980 presidential election, despite the fact that Reagan remains the only union leader (or even member) to become President. On August 3, 1981, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) union--which had supported Reagan--rejected the government's pay raise offer and sent its 16,000 members out on strike to shut down the nation's commercial airlines. They demanded a reduction in the workweek to 32 from 40 hours, a $10,000 bonus, pay raises up to 40%, and early retirement.
Federal law forbade such a strike, and the Transportation department implemented a backup plan (of supervisors and military air controllers) to keep the system running. The strikers were given 48 hours to return to work, else they would be fired and banned from ever again working in a federal capacity. A fourth of the strikers came back to work, but 13,000 did not. The strike collapsed, PATCO vanished, and the union movement as a whole suffered a major reversal, which accelerated the decline of membership across the board in the private sector.
Schulman and Zelizer argue that the breaking of PATCO, "sent shock waves through the entire U.S. labor relations regime.... strike rates plummeted, and union power sharply declined." Unions suffered a continual decline of power during the Reagan administration, with a concomitant effect on wages. The average first-year raise (for 1000-plus-worker contracts) fell from 9.8% to 1.2%; in manufacturing, raises fell from 7.2% to negative 1.2%. Salaries of unionized workers also fell relative to non-union workers. Women and blacks suffered more from these trends.
By 2011 fewer than 7% of employees in the private sector belonged to unions. The UAW's numbers of automobile union members are representative of the manufacturing sector: 1,619,000 active members in 1970, 1,446,000 in 1980, 952,000 in 1990, 623,000 in 2004, and 377,000 in 2010 (with far more retired than active members).
By 2014, coal mining had largely shifted to open-pit mines in Wyoming, and there were only 60,000 active coal miners. The UMW has 35,000 members, of whom 20,000 were coal miners, chiefly in underground mines in Kentucky and West Virginia. By contrast it had 800,000 members in the late 1930s. However it remains responsible for pensions and medical benefits for 40,000 retired miners, and for 50,000 spouses and dependents.
The number of union members nationwide increased from 2016 to 2017, and some states saw union growth for the first time in several years or decades. Union growth in 2017 was primarily millennial workers. For instance, about 76 percent of new UAW union members during their increase came from workers under the age of 35. Although the total number of union members increased 1.7 percent in 2017, the Economic Policy Institute noted that year-to-year union membership often fluctuates due to hiring or layoffs in particular sectors, and cautioned against interpreting one-year changes as trends. The percentage of the workforce belonging to unions was 10.7 percent in 2017, unchanged over the previous year, but down from 11.1 percent in 2015, and 12.1 percent in 2007.
In 2018, a series of statewide teacher strikes and protests happened garnering nationwide attention due to their success, as well as the fact that several of them were in states where public-employee strikes are illegal. Many of the major strikes were in Republican majority state legislatures, leading to the name "Red State Revolt". Protests were held in Arizona, Colorado,North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. Additional smaller protests were held in Kentucky and North Carolina. The protests spread to a bus driver strike in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, where nearly 250 bus drivers participated. The strikes included an adjunct faculty strike at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia leading to an increase in adjunct wages.
Labor unions generally ignored government employees because they were controlled mostly by the patronage system used by the political parties before the arrival of civil service. Post Office workers did form unions. The National Association of Letter Carriers started in 1889 and grew quickly. By the mid-1960s it had 175,000 members in 6,400 local branches.
Several competing organizations of postal clerks emerged starting in the 1890s. Merger discussions dragged on for years, until finally the NFPOC, UNMAPOC and others merged in 1961 as the United Federation of Postal Clerks. Another round of mergers in 1971 produced the American Postal Workers Union (APWU). In 2012 the APWU had 330,000 members. The various postal unions did not engage in strikes.
Historian Joseph Slater, says, "Unfortunately for public sector unions, the most searing and enduring image of their history in the first half of the twentieth century was the Boston police strike. The strike was routinely cited by courts and officials through the end of the 1940s." Governor Calvin Coolidge broke the strike and the legislature took control of the police away from city officials.
The police strike chilled union interest in the public sector in the 1920s. The major exception was the emergence of unions of public school teachers in the largest cities; they formed the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), affiliated with the AFL. In suburbs and small cities, the National Education Association (NEA) became active, but it insisted it was not a labor union but a professional organization.
In the mid 1930s efforts were made to unionize WPA workers, but were opposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Moe points out that Roosevelt, "an ardent supporter of collective bargaining in the private sector, was opposed to it in the public sector." Roosevelt in 1937 told the nation what the position of his government was: "All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.... The very nature and purposes of government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with government employee organizations.
Change came in the 1950s. In 1958 New York mayor Robert Wagner, Jr. issued an executive order, called "the little Wagner Act," giving city employees certain bargaining rights, and gave their unions with exclusive representation (that is, the unions alone were legally authorized to speak for all city workers, regardless of whether or not some workers were members.) Management complained but the unions had power in city politics.
By the 1960s and 1970s public-sector unions expanded rapidly to cover teachers, clerks, firemen, police, prison guards and others. In 1962, President John Kennedy issued Executive Order 10988, upgrading the status of unions of federal workers.
After 1960 public sector unions grew rapidly and secured good wages and high pensions for their members. While manufacturing and farming steadily declined, state- and local-government employment quadrupled from 4 million workers in 1950 to 12 million in 1976 and 16.6 million in 2009.
In 2009 the U.S. membership of public sector unions surpassed membership of private sector unions for the first time, at 7.9 million and 7.4 million respectively.
In 2011 states faced a growing fiscal crisis and the Republicans had made major gains in the 2010 elections. Public sector unions came under heavy attack especially in Wisconsin, as well as Indiana, New Jersey and Ohio from conservative Republican legislatures. Conservative state legislatures tried to drastically reduce the abilities of unions to collectively bargain. Conservatives argued that public unions were too powerful since they helped elect their bosses, and that overly generous pension systems were too heavy a drain on state budgets.