Segment descriptions
Topics in American History Series
Labor, Part 2    

         Description: Labor 4

Labor, Part 2
:     sampler  6-14    (70 lecture)

What is the wide range of ways workers respond to
the abysmal living and working conditions of the
Early Industrial Era in America?

                 play sampler




20th Century 1st Half


"Champion of Labor."  President Theodore Roosevelt is erroneously seen as champion of labor for his role in settling the violent and bitter anthracite coal strike of 1902 by forcing company hard liner George Bear to settle with the union.  The workers win only the restoration of cut wages.  Roosevelt's motivation is the need of coal by industries and for home heating, not the workers' cause. 


Post World War I.  The U.S. is very prosperous but unions are very weak.  There is large migration from farms in the South to cities in the North, hoping for a better life.  Blacks move into white areas, competing for jobs, and sometimes are used as strikebreakers. 


The Depression 30s.  Union organizing expected to be better in prosperous times and harder in the Depression, yet the 1930s sees great advances in labor unions.  Factors include the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt whose earlier efforts to help business are rebuffed, then in 1935 he turns to the working poor.  New legislation include a progressive income tax and social security insurance. 


Wagner Act (National Labor Relations Act) establishes workers the right to a union of their own choice, requires companies to bargain in good faith, ushering in a period of successful union growth. 


CIO Union is formed for industrial workers nationally, headed by John L. Lewis from the Coal Miners' Union. 


Auto and steel industry resistance. Henry Ford is fanatically anti-labor union, applies harsh methods to break strike.  The union uses tactic of the sit-down strike, occupying factories and preventing production.  Auto companies settle and sign contracts with the auto unions.  Main motivation is fear of damage to machines in factories. 


Republic Steel strike of 1937.  Workers on strike are having peaceful holiday picnic with families when police appear and shoot into the crowd.  This is recorded and shown in newsreels across the country causing negative public opinion, and becomes a major labor victory. 


Role of Communist Party in the labor movement in the 1930s.  In the excitement of the Russian Revolution some are blind to Stalin's brutal rule in the USSR in the 1930s.  Communists are disciplined, dedicated, are effective labor organizers in labor's ranks, and are accepted by non-communist labor leaders. 


First minimum wage law in 1938 shocked the nation because of the huge numbers of workers whose wages more than doubled as a result.  Federal agencies are created to promote employment for skilled workers, for unskilled industrial workers, for the creative professions, and for teenagers


World War II ends the Depression.  John Maynard Keynes' dictum that jobs is the answer because workers become consumers, the bottom-up theory of economics.  Full employment follows business' confidence in a war economy. 


World War II advances civil rights for blacks and women by opening many new job areas for them.  After the war they resist efforts to return them to pre-war status, leading to civil rights movements.


20th Century 2nd Half


Onset of the Cold War.  Republican congress under Democrat President Truman passes the Taft-Harley Bill which rolls back some labor gains from the Wagner Act.  It especially excludes communists from union leadership, aimed at effective union organizers.  War economy continues, with high prosperity in the 1940s and 1950s.  AFL and CIO unions merge in mid-1950s under leadership of George Meany. 


Industry moves away from the Northeast and the upper Midwest which have the most successful labor contracts.  The shift is to the South and Southwest where unions are less effective.  Legislators resist raising minimum wage.




21st Century


Real wages.  Wages in relation to the cost of living over the last 35 years decline. 


Work time.  Although industry automation is greatly increased, work time has not decreased but actually increased approximately 1 month per year on the average. 


Gender and race issues.  Men resist women in the workforce, possibly lowering the wage scale, still clinging to the idea of the man as the breadwinner, a concept irreversibly changed by the Depression and World War II.  From the 1960s on, it is unrealistic to expect a single wage earner to maintain a middle class family life.  Also women now expect the right to choose. 


State of labor movement today.  Labor is now weak in the U.S.  Only 10-20% of workforce is unionized.  Anti-union efforts of companies are very effective.  Workers' gains in wages and benefits are lost as givebacks as the price for keeping a job if the company will move elsewhere or hire younger workers in the same area at lower wages.  The global economy is part of this issue.  Companies are concerned with their bottom line not national loyalty. 


Unemployment figures are not realistic.  Not counted as unemployed are those whose unemployment benefits have run out, and the part-time employed. 


Immigrants.  Fears of lower wage scale.  Belief that immigrants will do work American workers do not want to do.  Belief that business needs them for cheap labor.


The nature of jobs.  In the post-industrial age industrial jobs have moved overseas to areas with low labor costs and weak pollution laws.  When the factory moves, no longer is there the tradition of a son moving into his father's job.  The son must look elsewhere.  Increased service economy but mostly low paying with little expectation of improvement. 


Unions. Some are dedicated to the rank & file, others are corrupt, close to management, with potential violence against reformers.  Pension plans are insecure.  Workers are at considerable risk of losing their jobs, psychologically insecure, with the prospect of becoming destitute close at hand.  The struggles for gains in the past come to today's uncertainty for labor's future.