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The Labor Movement in the United States


Although labor union activity dates back to the days of George Washington, unions did not play a signifi­cant role in the American economy before the Civil War. One reason was that most people worked on farms or for small businesses; they were not inter­ested in joining unions.


Another reason was that the courts rejected union efforts to improve working conditions. In 1806 mem­bers of the Journeymen Cordwainers, a Philadelphia-based union of leather workers, were tried for con­spiracy after they went on strike for higher wages. The union was found guilty and fined. Bankrupted, the union disbanded. The Cordwainers were only the first of several unions to be tried for conspiracy. Then, in 1842, in the case of Commonwealth vs. Hunt, a Massachusetts court decided that labor unions were legal organizations. Although the deci­sion applied only to that state, the precedent made it easier for labor unions to organize elsewhere.


Many labor unions were founded during the period of industrial growth before and after the Civil War. In that era, workers, many of whom were women and children, labored up to 16 hours a day in unsan­itary and unsafe conditions. Union membership offered workers a way to shorten the work day, raise wages, and improve working conditions.


The most successful of the early unions was the Knights of Labor. Organized in 1869, by 1886 the Knights had over 700,000 members. But internal conflict and public suspicion that the Knights used violence led to its rapid decline. By 1917 the Knights of Labor had disappeared.


The Rise of the AFL and CIO. In 1886, a new labor organization, the American Federation of Labor, was formed under the leadership of Samuel Gompers. Except for one short period, Gompers ran the organization until his death in 1924.


Unlike the Knights of Labor, which attempted to recruit both skilled and unskilled workers, the AFL united several local and national craft unions. A craft union consists of skilled workers in a particular craft or trade. Membership in the AFL rose rapidly, reaching 800,000 in 1900 and more than 4 million in 1920.


By the 1930s many members within the AFL want­ed to include unskilled workers. In 1938 John L. Lewis and the United Mine Workers Union, which he led, broke away from the AFL and formed a rival organization. Known as the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the new union soon included workers from the steel, automobile, rubber, textile, and meat-packing industries within its ranks. An industrial union is made up of both skilled and unskilled workers in a particular plant or industry.


Immediately before and during World War II (1939-1945), union membership continued its rapid growth. At the war's end labor had difficulty contin­uing to recruit members. A series of strikes and the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 were the principal culprits. Many union leaders also blamed the competition between the AFL and the CIO for the problem. Efforts to end the rivalry finally succeeded when, in 1955, the two came together to form the AFL-CIO.


Date: 2015-02-28; view: 1193

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