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Why Labor Unions Declined in the 1920s

Why Labor Unions Declined in the 1920s

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Why were the 1920s such a tough time for America’s labor unions?

Call it a backlash against their growing strength. After expanding power during the Progressive Era in the first two decades of the 20th century, organized labor strengthened further during World War I. The U.S. government took a more conciliatory approach toward labor unions to prevent work stoppages that could disrupt the war effort. In return for a moratorium on strikes, unions received shorter workdays, greater collective bargaining rights and seats of power in federal wartime agencies such as the National War Labor Board, which mediated labor disputes. As a result, membership in the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the country’s largest labor union, surged by 50 percent between 1917 and 1919.

After World War I, however, the labor movement lost ground. The National War Labor Board disbanded, and American businesses sought to regain power over the unions. “As soon as the armistice was signed in November 1918, their pushback against workers’ gains began,” says Georgetown University labor historian Joseph McCartin. “Meanwhile, workers’ expectations had risen as a result of wartime gains, and they were not in a mood to give up those gains. This set the stage for a titanic struggle in 1919, the biggest eruption of labor unrest to that point in history.”

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Labor Strikes Rocked America in 1919

Inflation eroded American workers’ purchasing power in the months after the war. Food prices more than doubled and clothing prices more than tripled between 1915 and 1920. But most businesses refused to boost wages accordingly.

In response, over 3,500 work stoppages involving more than 4 million workers occurred in 1919. That February, labor unions across Seattle halted work in solidarity with 35,000 shipyard workers who had walked off the job in the first general (or cross-industry) strike in American history. That fall, nearly 400,000 members of the United Mine Workers of America went on strike, as did 365,000 steelworkers across the Midwest who attempted to unionize.

Striking workers, however, won few concessions. Having endured rationings and shortages during the war and the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic, an exhausted American public felt little solidarity with an increasingly militant labor movement. Attitudes further turned against organized labor when the police force in Boston went on strike and sparked fears about public safety. “When the big union drives in steel, electrical manufacturing and meatpacking were crushed by the strikebreaking of 1919, all of labor was on the defensive going into the 1920s,” McCartin says.

READ MORE: Why the Great Steel Strike of 1919 Was One of Labor's Biggest Failures

The Red Scare Divided Organized Labor in the 1920s

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In the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution and other communist uprisings in Europe, many middle- and upper-class Americans began to equate unionism with Bolshevism. Some believed labor leaders sought nothing less than to overthrow the American capitalist system. Amid this “Red Scare,” industrialists branded union members as anti-American radicals. The New York Times wrote of the Great Steel Strike of 1919: “It is industrial war in which the leaders are radicals, social and industrial revolutionaries.” Those concerns only grew after several mail bombs were sent to government officials, industrialists and perceived foes of organized labor in the spring of 1919, and an explosive device killed more than 30 people outside the Wall Street headquarters of J.P. Morgan and Co. on September 16, 1920.

“The union movement itself became quite conservative in reaction to the Red Scare,” says Nelson Lichtenstein, a historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He says worries about the possible radicalism of unskilled immigrant workers led the AFL and craft unions to focus instead on the organization of skilled workers and more conventional union activities. “It‘s a period when ethnic tensions are very high, and the working class in many mass-production industries such as steel are often immigrants,” says Lichtenstein. “The hostility of craft unions [devoted to a single trade] to the idea of big [multi-trade] industrial unions with lots of immigrant workers persisted in the 1920s.”

READ MORE: How Communists Became a Scapegoat for the Red Summer 'Race Riots' of 1919

Court Decisions Favored Big Business

Americans voted for a “return to normalcy” in 1920 with the election of Warren G. Harding, the first of three pro-business Republican presidents to occupy the White House in the 1920s. After a series of progressive presidencies, the playing field once again tilted toward employers. “The chief business of the American people is business,” declared Calvin Coolidge, who succeeded Harding after his death in 1923.

Throughout the 1920s, courts regularly issued injunctions against striking, picketing and other union activities. When 400,000 railroad shopmen walked off their jobs after the Railroad Labor Board slashed their wages in 1922, Attorney General Harry Daugherty won a sweeping injunction to crush the nationwide strike. “So long and to the extent that I can speak for the government of the United States, I will use the power of the government to prevent the labor unions of the country from destroying the open shop,” he declared.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a string of anti-labor decisions during the 1920s, says McCartin: Duplex Printing Press Co. v. Deering (1921) punched a fatal hole in the Clayton Act’s protections for labor. Truax v. Corrigan (1921) prevented states from limiting employers’ use of injunctions to crush strikes. And Adkins v. Children’s Hospital (1923) invalidated minimum-wage laws that protected women workers.

READ MORE: Minimum Wage in America: A Timeline

With the labor movement weakened, union membership plunged in the 1920s from 5 million to 3 million. Business profits, meanwhile, soared. The decade saw an accumulation of wealth that harkened back to the Gilded Age. Approximately 200 corporations controlled half of the country’s corporate wealth. Even though U.S. Steel, the country’s largest employer, saw its profits double between 1924 and 1929, workers didn't receive a single general wage increase.

Following the onset of the Great Depression, however, organized labor rebounded as President Franklin D. Roosevelt advanced his New Deal program, which brought new protections that led to a new surge in union membership.

WATCH: Fight the Power: The Movements that Changed America, premieres Saturday, June 19 at 8/7c on The HISTORY® Channel.

Why Union Membership is Declining


Research Fellow, Labor Economics

Would you want to work for an employer who ignores your contributions? What about one who only promotes on seniority? The answer to these questions explains why union membership keeps falling: unions have not adapted to the modern workplace.

Collective bargaining means one contract covers everyone. Such contracts do not reflect individual contributions. Instead unionized companies typically base promotions and raises on seniority, not merit. Unions designed this system for the industrial economy of the 1930s.

Today's knowledge economy looks quite different. Machines and computers automated many of the rote tasks of the industrial age. Most employers today value employees for their skills and abilities - "human resources" - instead of seeing them as interchangeable cogs on the assembly line. Employees also expect to be rewarded for what they bring to the table.

Collective contracts make that challenging, especially when unions fight against individual recognition. In 2011 Giant Eagle grocery stores gave several employees in Edinboro, Pa., raises. United Food and Commercial Workers Local 23 promptly sued, arguing their contract prevented the company from awarding individual pay increases. The courts agreed and ordered Giant Eagle to rescind the raises. Local 23 wanted everyone to make the same amount, no matter how good they were at their job.

Many unions share this attitude. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced legislation to allow unionized employers to give performance-based raises. These pay increases would come on top of union wages. Unions nonetheless denounced the proposal. SEIU President Mary Kay Henry objected that the bill would allow "arbitrary" wage increases. The Teamsters derided it as a "bosses' pet" bill. This attitude alienates many potential union members.

In the past unions offset such concerns by negotiating higher pay for everyone. In today's competitive economy, they no longer can. If unions raise labor costs, consumers can shop elsewhere. Unions that insist on uncompetitive wages wind up like Hostess's Bakery Union - with unemployed union members. Consequently, studies find unions do not raise pay at most newly organized companies.

Without being able to offer higher pay, unions have to sell workers on the value of collective bargaining itself. But that has proven difficult. The government already requires employers to provide employment protections like safety standards protections and overtime rates. Polls show that most workers feel their employer respects them. Unsurprisingly, polls also show that only one in 10 non- union workers want to join a union.

This makes it difficult for unions to organize enough new members to replace those lost to bankruptcy. Union membership has steadily declined over the past two generations. Today just 11.2 percent of employees belong to unions, fewer than when President Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. The private sector figures are even lower - just one in 15 private employees hold union cards.

Unions only remain strong in the one sector of the economy that faces no competition: the government. Government unions do not have to organize new members to replace those lost in bankruptcy. The government does not go out of business.

Unions do not need to persuade new government employees to unionize either. Once formed, unions remain certified indefinitely without standing for re-election. New employees hired afterward are compelled to accept union representation.

Consider New York Public schools. No one currently teaching in New York voted in the 1961 union organizing election. Yet the United Federation of Teachers represents every teacher in the district to this day.

This dynamic keeps unions strong in government even as they faded elsewhere. Today, most union members work in government. The U.S. Post Office employs twice as many union members as the domestic auto industry.

This explains why unions so strongly support higher taxes and more government spending - they directly benefit from bigger government. It is hardly surprising that government unions organize rallies like the one they hosted in Springfield, Illinois. There government employees protested outside the state capitol chanting "Raise my taxes! Raise my taxes! Raise my taxes!"

Few workers outside government feel that way.

The union movement needs to adapt to the 21st century workplace. That means replacing their one-size-fits-all collective bargaining model with a focus on creating value for employees and employers.

A new union movement could offer workers needed services like job training, networking opportunities, and advice on managing 401(k)'s. Instead of an adversarial relationship unions could help employers tailor compensation packages and work hours to their employees' needs.

Such unions would attract far more support than ones which go to court to block pay increases for their members. If unions want to reverse their membership decline, they need to become relevant to today's employees.

-James Sherk is a senior policy analyst in labor economics at The Heritage Foundation.

U.S. Unions in the 1920s and 1980s

Discussion of various cures for the ailing unions has dominated the organized labor movement recently. There were some militant strikes and a few partial victories in the last year or so, but the weakened condition of the unions remained unchanged and this is what continues to prompt reassessment of their prospects for survival. Unavoidable comparison is made to the similar decline of the unions in the 1920s.

A few random examples will suffice to indicate the scope and character of this discussion to date.

* Last September, when the AFL-CIO Executive Council was holding its annual meeting in Florida, a television interviewer observed that according to all reports “an almost tangible feeling of depression” pervaded the meeting of top union officials. One reason, he said, was the “shattering defeat” of Walter Mondale, their choice for president in 1984. Another reason was the relative decline of union membership from 32 percent of the work force in 1953 to 20 percent in 1983.

The question under discussion was: “Can organized labor survive in an economy that is changing? From low tech to high tech. From producing goods to delivering services. From brawn to brains.”

Lane Kirkland, AFL-CIO president, appeared on the program. He responded evasively. “We find that the labor movement has demonstrated notable resilience during a period of especially rapid and destabilizing change,” he said. “Somehow, something mystical maybe tells me that when the vultures are circling, most out amongst the seagulls, that is the moment in which we are on the threshold of resurgence, revival and growth.”

The question for the labor movement, of course, is how resurgence, revival, and growth can be achieved. Since August 1982 the AFL-CIO Executive Council has been seeking answers to this question, with the assistance and advice of a host of labor historians, economists, sociologists, and other experts.

* In August 1983 a preliminary report was issued, titled “The Future of Work.” This report found that “the United States is a labor surplus society. ” It warned of a labor surplus of four to six million unemployed workers. “This labor surplus underclass,” it said, “threatens the stability of the nation’s economic, social, and political institutions and weakens the U.S. competitive position in the world economy.”

* A second report in February 1985, “The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions,” recommended “new approaches” to union problems. These included ways to increase membership participation in their unions, better communication with the public, and improving organizing techniques.

The new recommendations were predicated on old premises: the efficacy of the capitalist system and the sanctity of private ownership in the means of production. “Organized labor believes,” declared the report, “that each worker is entitled to a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. That pay should include a share in the profits the worker helps to create and, thus, unions seek a larger share of those profits than ’market forces’ might dictate. And we recognize that those profits can only be created in a well-managed enterprise, where both capital and labor contribute to the result.”

This summarizes the traditional class-collaborationist position of the union bureaucracy since the time of Gompers and the 1920s “prosperity era.”

* James L. Medoff, an economics professor at Harvard University and one of the many advisers to the AFL-CIO Executive Council in its search for solutions to its problems, noted in a New York Times Op-Ed page article last September that organized labor was in serious shape in the early 1930s and that it is equally bad off in the 1980s. He said, “Its image is tattered. Its organizing machinery is running poorly. . . . And management is resorting to increasingly aggressive tactics to weaken collective bargaining.” He offered “a prescription for our ailing unions,” consisting of an improved public image, regaining the lost political influence that unions once enjoyed, and “a willingness to work with management and owners who are sincere in their desire to cooperate.”

* Lance Compa, an official of the independent United Electrical Workers (UE), presented (in collaboration with Barbara Reisman, an experienced unionist and active environmentalist) “The case for adversarial unions.” Their arguments against the traditional class collaborationism of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy appeared in the May-June 1985 issue of Harvard Business Review. They reviewed the steady decline of the unions in the 1980s to demonstrate that all attempts to collaborate with the employers by accepting wage cuts and making other concessions had tarnished the image of the unions, contributed to their loss of political influence, and hampered their ability to organize. Compa/Reisman say, “American workers want an adversarial union, if they want a union at all. There is simply no other reason to have one.”

They answered the current labor-management “power sharing” fad by recalling that it is nothing more than a revival of similar schemes promoted in the 1920s, pointing out that the union movement declined steadily at that time and was not revitalized until the unions began fighting back in the early 1930s.

Compa/Reisman see signs of change. “The seeds of organization are taking root now with incipient organizing committees among high-tech, service, and clerical workers and in other sectors of the economy that many see as impossible to organize,” they say. Furthermore, “we can testify to a rising mood among the rank and file to fight back against concessions and collaboration.” They are convinced that “in the long run workers will organize to defend their jobs and improve their working conditions.” They warned the entrenched union bureaucracy and other interested parties that “workers will find other approaches and methods” if existing unions fail to satisfy their needs, as happened in 1935 with the formation of the CIO.

Comparison with 1920s

In the search for cures to the seemingly mysterious sickness that is stripping the unions of their vitality today, there is constant reference to the plague of the 1920s that sapped the strength of the union movement then, and to the subsequent revitalization of the movement in the 1930s.

This comparison of the labor movement today with that of the 1920s is as good as any other beginning. Along with that a better understanding of the transformation in the early 1930s will most certainly help in the organization now of a similar transformation.

Throughout the decade of the 1920s, as now, the union movement was in steady decline. One of the reasons for this was the wartime servility of the union leadership. During World War I the craft unions seemed to prosper. A series of strikes in 1917 prompted the Wilson administration to set up a Mediation Commission which in turn led to the establishment of the War Labor Board in early 1918. Samuel Gompers, as AFL president, endorsed the main objective of the board, which was to prevent strikes. In exchange the government tacitly recognized the AFL unions as collective bargaining agencies in the war industries. As a result the unions gained over a million new members, reaching a peak of more than five million in 1920. Union treasuries swelled commensurately as dues payments increased.

Gompers and other union leaders began to take an active part in affairs of state, serving the government in their capacity as representatives of labor. Gompers became president of the American Alliance for Labor and Democracy (AALD), a “labor front” sponsored by the Wilson administration to drum up prowar sentiment among working people. Later Gompers embarked on a mission to Europe, at the behest of the administration, to bolster the war effort when European workers were showing signs of war weariness. For these and other services to the U.S. ruling class Gompers gained a certain renown among heads of state and captains of industry, but the workers he claimed to represent and the unions he was supposed to serve gained nothing.

This ingratiating performance was repeated in almost exact replica during World War II by the successors of Gompers in the AFL and the CIO unions. Both William Green for the AFL and Philip Murray for the CIO welcomed Roosevelt’s War Labor Board, accepted the wartime no-strike pledge, and fully endorsed the imperialist war aims of the U.S. government. After the war they participated in the stabilization of capitalism in Europe and in the cold war against the Soviet Union. And, of course, the union movement appeared to benefit during and after World War II. When the two labor bodies merged and founded the AFL-CIO in 1955 the new organization boasted a membership of 15 million, and it was growing. Some of the big industrial unions had millions in their treasuries. All this had the appearance of a repeat performance of the unions in World War I, but with one important difference. In the post-World War II period the unions continued to grow and the membership continued to benefit for three decades, until about 1975.

After World War I labor-management cooperation did not last at all. The employers of that time made only modest objections to union representation and the collection of union dues in the war industries during the war, but tolerating unions in private industry during peacetime was another matter. The ruling class in this country in those years strongly favored what they called “the American plan,” meaning no unions allowed.

The AFL craft unions affiliated to the Chicago Federation of Labor sought to organize the packinghouse workers in 1917-18 with some limited success. This was due largely to the extraordinary talents of William Z. Foster, who was the AFL organizer in charge. When Foster, with the endorsement and backing of Gompers, attempted to organize the steel industry in 1919 through the AFL craft union setup, the effort failed. The steel strike was joined by a third of a million steelworkers, who closed the mills in 50 cities in ten states, and it lasted 108 days. But it was eventually crushed by the steel barons, who refused to negotiate, and compliant government agencies.

Thus the decade of the 1920s began. It soon became clear that the employers were determined to destroy the union movement in order to slash the wartime wage standard which was considered far too high, and to increase their already excessive profits. In some instances it appeared that the employers deliberately reduced wages to provoke strikes. They then invoked the police power of the government to break the strike and destroy the union.

What has been called “the greatest strike of the decade,” the railway shopmen’s strike, was provoked by a drastic wage cut in 1922. Almost from the beginning the federal government intervened on the side of the railroad companies. Attorney General Harry Daugherty secured a federal restraining order against the strike. Anyone who was in any way connected with the shop crafts was forbidden to do or say anything in furtherance of the strike. The legal basis of the injunction was the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Any striker or supporter of the strike could be charged with conspiracy against the free flow of trade and commerce. The railroads remained free to dictate wages and working conditions, and to hire strikebreakers and an army of private guards to herd them on the job. The strike was crushed and many strikers blacklisted, never able to get their jobs back. In this way one union after another was destroyed.

When Samuel Gompers died in 1924 his successor as AFL president, William Green, found himself in charge of an organizational structure that was hardly more than a shell. He sought to rebuild the organization through close cooperation with the employers. Less than a year in office, he announced his willingness to cooperate in any joint program to make production more efficient. “More and more,” he said in 1925, “organized labor is coming to believe that its best interests are promoted through concord rather than conflict.”

The employing class was of a different mind. They saw no reason to collaborate with unions. They sought other ways to increase efficiency and improve profits. The textile industry is an example. This industry had been highly organized in New England. In the early 1920s the employers began moving their mills to the South where they found the complete collaboration of local and state officials in the discouragement of all attempts to unionize far more profitable than the proffered cooperation of AFL union officials.

By 1927 67 percent of all U.S. cotton textile production was concentrated in the South where sporadic strikes were frequent but union contracts unknown. Because of overproduction the textile industry was already listed among the “sick industries.” Competition forced wages below subsistence levels. In 1929, as the “open shop decade” came to a close, the average mill wage in the South was $12.83 for a 60-hour week. This condition tended to depress wages in that sector of the industry that remained in the North.

The best organized and most nearly successful strike of the decade was the textile strike at the Botany mills in Passaic, New Jersey, which began in January 1926 as a result of a 10 percent wage cut The AFL United Textile Workers (UTW) and other textile unions had no presence in Passaic at the time. But an organizing committee, calling itself the United Front Committee of Textile Workers, began agitation against the wage cut and soon recruited 1,000 members. When the committee presented demands to the employers to rescind the wage cut, for time-and-a-half for overtime, and no discrimination against union members, the bosses fired all 45 members of the committee. That was when the strike began. Five thousand Botany workers walked out and spread the strike to the other mills in Passaic. Soon more than 15,000 workers were on strike, tying up the whole Passaic textile industry.

The Passaic strike was organized and led from the beginning by a member of the Communist Party, Albert Weisbord. It was endorsed and supported by the CP-controlled Trade Union Educational League. William Z. Foster, who was in charge of CP trade union work at the time, later described the strike in the following way:

In his well-documented book on U.S. workers in the 1920s and early 󈧢s, The Lean Years, Irving Bernstein summarizes what happened to the AFL. “A significant feature of labor’s decline in the twenties,” he says, “is that it struck especially hard at organizations that were either wholly or predominantly industrial in structure. This was true of the coal miners, of Mine Mill, of the Textile Workers, of the ILGWU, and of the Brewery Workers. At the same time many craft unions either held their own or made gains. The building trades, for example, advanced from a membership of 78,950 in 1923 to 919,000 in 1929, the printing trades from 150,900 to 162,500, and the railway organizations declined modestly from 596,600 to 564,600. This shift in membership strength was reflected increasingly within the American Federation of Labor. Craft organizations, with their conservative outlook on both internal and general matters, came to dominate both the Executive Council and the conventions of the AFL, with the inevitable impact upon policy.”

Similarities and Differences

In comparing the state of the unions in our decade with what happened to the unions more than half a century ago the first question is “What are the similarities and differences?”

The one similarity most harped on is the unions were in decline then and they are in decline now. True.

The reasons for this state of affairs, then and now, are also similar. In both instances— for the period following World War I and the longer period following World War II—capitalism on a world scale achieved an uneasy stability and the U.S. economy benefited. The employers launched an antiunion offensive, which caught the unions by surprise both times.

As in the 1920s so in the 1980s the employing class has acquired a false sense of self-confidence and imagines that it is no longer dependent on the working class. This illusion is propagated so assiduously by all agencies of government, by the educational system, and by the capitalist press that the worker-employer relationship seems to be reversed. Instead of employers being dependent upon workers to produce goods and profits, the workers are said to be dependent upon their employers for their means of livelihood. They are told their future must be bleak unless they can find a kind employer who will give them a job and pay at least the minimum wage required by law. This is not much. But it beats government welfare and charity.

The long time lapse after World War II until the employing class launched its present antiunion offensive is different from the post-World War I period. After World War I the employers launched their antiunion offensive almost immediately. They waited 34 years after World War II before finally reaching a consensus to move against the unions.

It is true that some politically important sectors of the ruling class wanted to repeat in 1946 the union-smashing history of 1919 and all that followed. But the 1946 strike wave led by the CIO unions convinced the employers that head-on union busting was out of date. They decided to use different tactics, to entangle the unions in legal restrictions defined by the 1947 Taft-Hartley law, and in this way tame the unions and live with them as manageable house pets. As history has demonstrated, this worked to the satisfaction of the employers for more than three decades, largely because of U.S. domination in the world system of capitalist economy. That was not the case, certainly not to such an extent, after World War I. And it is no longer the case. The relationship of forces, as well as the world structure of capitalism, had shifted drastically by the early 1970s when the Nixon administration introduced the “new economic policy” of U.S. imperialism.

By 1978 the ruling class had made the necessary adjustment and adopted a new labor policy, their present anti-union policy. The first overt response from the union movement came from Douglas Fraser, then president of the United Auto Workers.

Fraser had served, along with AFL-CIO president George Meany and six other top union officials of that time, on a nongovernmental committee headed by former secretary of labor John Dunlop, known as the Labor-Management Group. It was a very top-level committee, consisting of an equal number of union officials and representatives of the corporate elite. It met regularly to make deals on how each side would handle important social issues of the day, such as energy problems, inflation, unemployment, rising health costs, and other matters, including labor legislation.

The union movement had expected Congress and the midterm Carter administration to enact the Labor Law Reform Bill, and the union officials thought they had agreement with their management counterparts. Instead, the financial and political resources of big business launched an antiunion campaign and defeated the bill.

Fraser then resigned from the Labor-Management Group (July 1978), charging that the capitalists had “chosen to wage a one-sided class war . . . a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society.”

He said, “General Motors Corp. is a specific case in point. GM, the largest manufacturing corporation in the world, has received responsibility, productivity and cooperation from the UAW and its members. In return, GM has given us a Southern strategy designed to set up a non-union network that threatens the hard-fought gains won by the UAW. We have given stability and have been rewarded with hostility. Overseas, it is the same. General Motors not only invests heavily in South Africa, it refuses to recognize the black union there.

“My message,” said Fraser, “should be very clear: if corporations like General Motors want confrontation, they cannot expect cooperation in return from labor.”

For more than seven years now since Fraser’s resignation from the Labor-Management Group, the giant corporations of this country have received nothing but cooperation from the AFL-CIO top officialdom, and from all members of the UAW executive committee including Fraser and his successor as UAW president Owen Bieber.

The long period of labor-management collaboration—from the outbreak of World War II in 1939 until 1978 when the employers openly expressed their innate antiunion nature—may influence the manner of transformation within the unions. When the unions are revitalized, the process may be somewhat different from the transformation of the union movement in the 1930s. At that time an unexpected split occurred within the old AFL bureaucracy and a group led by John L. Lewis formed the Committee for Industrial Organization in 1935.

The present crop of entrenched AFL-CIO officials doesn’t know anything different from what they were taught during the long years of union-management collaboration. By this time they are a second- and third-generation of housebroken “labor representatives.” They think the unions are social institutions created to arbitrate worker grievances. They are supposed to represent the interests of union members but they habitually function as “impartial” arbitrators. They have learned to see both sides of every dispute between workers and employers, and they usually see the employers’ side more clearly because of their training.

Many of them never worked in actual production a day in their lives. Some are lawyers and accountants and the only work they ever did was as employees of some union. Lane Kirkland once belonged to the Masters, Mates & Pilots union because he got a wartime license as a ship’s officer, but he never stood a dogwatch at sea. His interests lay elsewhere, and he got a fill-in job at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, eventually doing speech-writing for Meany and becoming his assistant. Even if these people wanted to lead a fight, they wouldn’t know how. It is not in their experience. They have no idea of how to organize a class-struggle defense of workers’ rights.

This does not apply to the hundreds of present-day local strike leaders. In the past year alone there have been many militantly fought strikes, organized by local leaders.

* The hotel strike in New York registered partial successes. But there is little hope among the workers involved that their top officials will follow up on the gains.

* The well organized UAW strike against General Dynamics, the nation’s largest defense contractor, for catch-up wages equivalent to pay scales in the auto industry was compromised by top UAW leaders. After eight weeks the strike was settled on terms generally favorable to GD and at least $1.50 per hour below wages in auto. Strikers at the big GD tank plant in Warren, Michigan, were maneuvered into narrowly accepting the agreement on the grounds that other smaller UAW locals had already accepted the company’s terms. James Coakley, president of UAW local 1200 in Warren and the local strike leader, urged a no vote on the contract against pressure from UAW top negotiators.

* After a three-month strike against the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp., 8,000 steelworkers returned to work at wages $5 per hour below the average scale in basic steel. W-P, the nation’s seventh-largest steelmaker, declared bankruptcy in April to scuttle its contract with the United Steelworkers. The strikers returned to work at the urging of top officials of the Steelworkers union.

The best organized strike of 1985, the strike of United Food and Commercial Workers Local P-9 against wage cuts at the Hormel flagship plant in Austin, Minnesota, was opposed from the beginning by UFCWA president William Wynn and his local representative. After five months, the strikers faced a company sponsored back-to-work movement in January of this year. Their ranks remained solid. The company’s December offer containing wage cuts was rejected. Jim Guyette, Local P-9 president, vowed to continue the strike until the company agrees to restore union wages and conditions.

Similar examples of militancy at the local level in contrast to top leadership willingness to give up can be multiplied several times from the record of 1985 strikes alone. It is a long list. This is different from strikes in the 1920s. The bosses were stronger then, and they were able to crush most strikes quickly. Today, even when strikes are lost or settled on unfavorable terms, the workers begin almost immediately to reorganize their ranks.

This is a measure of how the AFL-CIO looks today in contrast to the AFL unions of the 1920s. In proportion to the working class the old AFL was numerically smaller than the AFL-CIO. It was also financially more impoverished. The leadership today may appear more sophisticated but the capitalist-oriented worker-management ideologies of Samuel Gompers and Lane Kirkland are identical. On balance the AFL-CIO would appear to be better off because of its 13.1-million members, plus its other resources. It remains a potentially powerful social and political force. But its future at this juncture is no different from that of the old AFL 60 years ago. It will undergo radical transformation or it will continue to decline and eventually go under.

When comparisons are made between the weakened state of the AFL-CIO unions and the old decrepit AFL craft union structure of the early 1930s it should be remembered that it was the radical wing of the labor movement that initiated the reorientation of the unions and made the struggle for industrial unionism a reality in 1934.

The Decisive Influence

In this connection, two indisputable facts in the history of organized labor must be recognized: 1) Working class radicals, the anticapitalist political wing of the movement, organized the unions initially to involve masses of workers in defense of their elementary legal rights and to raise their standard of living under capitalism, and the revolutionary socialists of each succeeding generation have worked within the labor movement to convert the unions into instruments of struggle against capitalism and for socialism. 2) The scientific laws of capitalist development as first discovered by Karl Marx have provided the basic guidelines for radicals, and the successes and failures of the class-struggle left wing are indicators of the fluctuations in the health of the union movement. When the left wing prospers and wins positions of leadership, the entire labor movement comes to life. But when the left wing suffers defeats, the unions become quiescent and decline. This is the history of organized labor from its earliest beginnings to the present.

The class-struggle left wing in the union movement from World War I to the present will be the subject of a future article.

Four Reasons For The Decline In Union Membership

The percentage of workers in the private sector who belong to labor unions has shrunk to 6.9 percent. Labor historians report that this is the lowest rate of union membership in America since 1910. Despite the expenditure of vast amounts of money, effort and government influence by the labor movement, this trend shows every prospect of continuing. How did union membership decline so much?

Simply put, American workers now see the unions as part of the problem, not part of the solution. There are a number of reasons that account for this negative perception.

1. Unions often seem irrelevant. In good times, workers don&rsquot need unions to secure increases in wages and benefits because everybody profits from economic prosperity. In bad times, unions can&rsquot protect their members from layoffs, wage and benefit reductions and tougher working conditions. In fact, union contracts often seem to make things worse. The high cost of union labor is often cited as a contributing factor to the demise of many companies. Whole industries have fled the United States, attracted by the lure of cheap foreign labor. Other industries struggle to remain competitive.

2. Unions have a poor public image as being bloated, inefficient and often downright corrupt. Stories about labor racketeering, mob influence and trials of union officials for embezzlement and bribery are common fare on the evening news. Employers are often able to use this aura of greed and corruption to blunt union organizing campaigns.

3. Workers are often &ldquoout of sync&rdquo with union politics. The labor movement is perceived as being a vassal the Democratic Party and a champion of liberal causes. These most recently include immigration reform and national healthcare. Vast amounts of money and manpower have devoted to support labor-approved candidates and issues. Yet many workers, particularly in the South, are deeply conservative and simply do not support these causes. They do not want their union dues going to support issues and politicians with which they disagree.

4. Most Americans now turn to government, not unions, for basic protections. Workers rely on the government for pensions, healthcare, protection against discrimination and a whole variety of other benefits that were formerly provided exclusively by unions.

What Caused the Decline of Unions in America?

Welcome to State of the Unions Week, where we look at the past, present, and future of organized labor in America.

The second half of the 20th century brought big, bold changes to the economic status quo in countries all over the world. Globalization and the invention of new technologies meant that companies in developed nations could produce goods for much less money in far-away factories or at home with the help of sophisticated machinery.

These forces undoubtedly explain part of the decline in union density and influence in the United States fewer workers employed in the union-dominated manufacturing sector meant fewer union workers. But this decline has not been replicated to the same extent in many European countries. In Iceland, for example, 92 percent of workers are still members of a union, according to the most recent edition of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development&aposs Economic Outlook, an annual publication reviewing economic conditions and trends in developed countries. In the Scandinavian countries—Sweden, Denmark, and Finland—union density hovers around 65 percent.

Even in those European countries where union membership is lower, a much higher percentage of workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements. While union membership is only around 10 percent in France (much lower than the OECD average), almost 100 percent of workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements. In most of Europe, collective bargaining agreements are sector or industry-wide, covering vast groups of workers who aren&apost union members.

The diverging experiences of European and American unions raises a puzzling question: Why has the decline of American unions been so much more dramatic and precipitous than that of their European counterparts, given that both sets of countries have faced a similar set of economic challenges?

Often, when academics discuss the decline of unions in America, they point to the 1970s, a decade of sharp declines in union density, as the turning point.

Joseph McCartin, the executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University, has spent much of his career studying the history of organized labor in the U.S. McCartin believes that, to truly understand the roots of the decline of unions in America, you have to go back farther, to the post-World War II years.

That era brought two notable failures for unions: the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act and the failure of a coordinated campaign to unionize the South.

The passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 placed significant restrictions on unions, most of which still exist. It prohibited secondary boycotts and "sympathy" boycotts and opened the door to the right-to-work laws—which prohibit employers from hiring only union employees—that now exist in 27 states around the country. The legislation also required that union leaders sign affidavits swearing they weren&apost Communist sympathizers refusal to sign meant they would lose many of the protections guaranteed by the Wagner Act, the landmark 1935 labor law that established the National Labor Relations Board and guaranteed workers the right to organize.

The Taft-Hartley Act came at a particularly inopportune time. Labor unions were in the middle of "Operation Dixie," a campaign to organize the non-unionized textile industry in the South. Anti-union business leaders in the region used the accusation that the leadership of some of the industrial unions were Communists, or Communist-leaning, to whip up opposition to Operation Dixie. Union foes also relied on another particularly powerful bogeyman�segregation—to increase opposition to the industrial unions among white workers in the Jim Crow South. In one publication, typical of the time, distributed by the Southern States Industrial Council, one article asked "Shall We Be Ruled by Whites or Blacks?" and others alluded to the creeping threat of communism to traditional values.

In the face of this opposition, Operation Dixie ultimately failed—the Southern textile industry remained un-unionized.

"If there&aposs any one moment that set the stage for later developments, I think it was that failure in the post-war years to continue the union growth that happened in the &apos30s and during the war," McCartin says. "Once there became a region of the country that wasn&apost unionized, it became a lot harder. When you compare us to France or Germany, there wasn&apost really a region of one of those countries where unions were just totally frozen out. The union movement was geographically hemmed in in this country—that turned out to be really, really costly."

Against this backdrop of vulnerability, the larger economic forces of the 1970s and &apos80s were devastating. The high inflation of the 1970s prompted Chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker to pursue a course of aggressive interest rate increases that increased the value of the dollar and decreased U.S. exports, decimating the manufacturing sector. Unemployment skyrocketed, reaching 10.8 percent in 1982. Layoffs were common�.2 percent of blue-collar workers experienced an involuntary job loss between 1981 and 1983.

In the face of such instability, companies found that workers in the manufacturing sector were both more willing to accept lower wages than they might have previously been, and more receptive to warnings that unionization campaigns could jeopardize their job security.

Meanwhile, popular sentiment in the country around economic policy was shifting. In the face of wage stagnation, Americans started to demand lower taxes, and resentment for public-sector workers grew. Politicians of both parties threw their support behind deregulation and free market reforms, arguing that only the forces of the free market could end stagflation and unleash the kind of innovation needed to improve living standards for all.

There have, over the years, been legislative efforts to restore unions to a measure of their former glory.

In 1965, labor groups mounted an effort to repeal the section of the Taft-Hartley Act that allowed state-level right-to-work laws, with the support of President Lyndon B. Johnson. It was successfully filibustered in the Senate. In 1978, another effort to reform labor law and institutions was also successfully filibustered. Likewise, a 1994 effort to pass legislation blocking employers from hiring permanent replacements for striking workers also died in the Senate. In anਊrticle in The American Prospect published in 2010, Harold Myerson argued that even President Barack Obama (widely viewed as the most labor-friendly president in years) abandoned the labor movement by not fighting hard enough for the Employee Free Choice Act in 2009, which would have made it easier for workers to form unions and increased fines on employers who violate labor law.

Labor leader David Dubinsky delivers a speech against the Taft-Hartley bill on May 4th, 1947.

These failures highlight another difference between European and American unions. In many of the Western European countries where unions have maintained their strength, the relationship between organized labor and political parties takes two forms: unions either enjoy broad-based support from politicians across the political spectrum, or they have an extremely close relationship with one political party that consistently advances their priorities.

Consider, for example, the experience of Germany as compared to that of the U.S., where Republicans have been fiercely opposed to unions since the &apos70s.

"In Germany, the [German Trade Union Confederation, a trade union, also known as] DGB is non-partisan, their leaders talk with [Chancellor Angela] Merkel, they are not seen as a political enemy of the conservative party," says Richard Freeman, an economics professor at Harvard University who has studied unions for decades. "At one point, Republicans were not anti-union, but now the Republican Party sees unions as political enemies. And that means that whenever the Republicans get in power, they do everything possible to weaken the unions."

Why did labor unions decline in the 1920s?

Click to read full detail here. Herein, why did early labor unions fail?

Their problems were low wages and unsafe working conditions. These unions used strikes to try to force employers to increase wages or make working conditions safer. These unions did not have enough power to dominate business owners, so workers formed national unions.

One may also ask, why are trade unions declining? Trade union membership has been reduced over the years may be because of family commitment like divorce has been occurred and the employee could not attend to work anymore, or there's a change in job preferences, the employee got a new job somewhere else and maybe the employee left his job because of unfavored working

Herein, why were labor unions unsuccessful in the late 19th century?

Unsuccessful Strikes Labor unions during the late 1800s and the early 1900s were unsuccessful in improving work conditions because of government intervention.

How did immigration affect labor unions?

That would limit the effectiveness of labor unions to bargain, thereby reducing the wages and working conditions of American workers. Proponents of that argument also opposed organizing immigrants into American labor unions, as doing so would raise their wages, encouraging even more immigration into the country.

GRAPH: As Union Membership Has Declined, Income Inequality Has Skyrocketed In The United States

Across the country, right-wing legislators continue their attack on labor unions, claiming that they are saving their states money. Yet in waging these anti-labor campaigns, these politicians are ignoring one very simple fact: unions were a major force in building and sustaining the great American middle class, and as they declined, so has the middle class. As CAP&rsquos Karla Waters and David Madland showed in a report they first published this past January, as union membership has steadily declined since 1967, so too has the middle class&rsquos share of national income, as the super-rich have taken a larger share of national income than any time since the 1920s:

This is not to say that declining union membership is the only factor that led to the growth of income inequality over the past 35 years. Yet, the correlation does show that the presence of strong labor unions tends to co-exist with a strong and vibrant middle class. That is why a Main Street Movement all over the country is fighting to protect collective bargaining and the middle class wages, benefits, and protections it promotes.


The Progressive Change Campaign Committee is currently running a campaign to run a TV spot where ordinary Wisconsinites explain the value of collective bargaining to their livelihoods. Watch it:

Competition and the Need to Continue Operations

Corporations began shutting down work unions' resistance movements around the late 1970s when international and domestic competition drove the need to continue operations in order to survive in the cutthroat marketplace that was developing in the 1980s.

Automation also played a key role in breaking up union efforts by developing labor-saving automated processes including state of the art machinery, replacing the role of swathes of workers at every factory. Unions still fought back though, with limited success, demanding guaranteed annual incomes, shorter workweeks with shared hours, and free retraining to take on new roles associated with the upkeep of machinery.

Strikes have also notably declined in the 1980s and '90s, especially after President Ronald Reagan fired Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers who issued an illegal strike. Corporations have since been more willing to hire strikebreakers when unions walk out, too.

What went wrong?

By the mid-1950s, unions in the US had successfully organized approximately one out of every three non-farm workers. This period represented the peak of labor’s power, as the ranks of unionized workers shrank in subsequent decades.

The decline gained speed in the 1980s and 1990s, spurred by a combination of economic and political developments. The opening up of overseas markets increased competition in many highly organized industries. Outsourcing emerged as a popular practice among employers seeking to compete in a radically changed environment. The deregulation of industries not threatened by overseas competition, such as trucking, also placed organized labor at a disadvantage as new nonunion firms gained market edge through lower labor costs.

Simultaneously, US employers developed a set of legal, semi-legal and illegal practices that proved effective at ridding establishments of existing unions and preventing nonunion workers from organizing. Common practices included threatening union sympathizers with dismissal, holding mandatory meetings with workers warning of the dire consequences (real or imagined) of a unionization campaign and hiring permanent replacements for striking workers during labor disputes.

A sharp political turn against labor aided these employer efforts. President Reagan’s public firing of striking air traffic controllers vividly demonstrated to a weakened labor movement that times had changed. Anti-union politicians repeatedly blocked all union-backed efforts to re-balance the playing field, most recently in 2008-2009, with the successful Senate filibuster of the Employee Free Choice Act. EFCA would have made private sector organization efforts somewhat easier. The last major piece of federal legislation aiding unions in their organization efforts passed in 1935.

The Wagner Act helped reverse decades of labor racism and allowed African Americans and others to unionize. Rail workers from www.shutterstock.com

Supplemental Sites

AFL, The Challenge Accepted, 1921, full text (Google Books, but search for American Federationist, Vol. 28, Pt. 1, in Google, not Google Books)

AFL, Labor's Reward, discussion (Rochester [NY] Labor Council History)

Labor resources in Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929 (Library of Congress, American Memory)

  • - "A. F. of L. delegates," illustration, New Masses, Nov. 1926
  • - Conduct a search in Many Pasts for 19 th - and early 20 th -century AFL-related primary sources.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.


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