United States Labor Movement Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 22 November 2016

United States Labor Movement

The Labor Movement in the United States of America started in the formative years of our nation. Its purpose being to organize workers to strive for better working conditions, reasonable pay and better treatment in the workplace. From it’s beginnings in the early to mid nineteenth century during the Industrial Revolution to the modern era of today, the labor movement has fought hard forming labor parties and labor laws to give the American worker the rights they deserve.

One of the earliest and more influential of labor organizations came to be in 1860; The Knights of Labor. The Knights of Labor mission was to “inform, and support working families, and to organize them to better represent their rights” (The Knights of Labor, 2011, ¶1) By the end of the 1800s the Knights had become a national fixture and included all workers into the group such as lawyers, doctors, gamblers and bankers. The main focus of the Knights of Labor were to push for an eight-hour work day; to rid child labor from existence, to do away with convict contract labor as they opposed the source of cheap labor taking jobs away from workers who needed a job; and equal pay for all their workers. In the early goings, they were opposed to the use of strikes however that trend changed and work stoppages had become a very good tool to use. The Knights of Labor had reached its apex in 1886 with over 700,000 members however their organizational structure was not up to the task and the movement was all but abandoned. They remained a fixture in the labor movement until 1949 when the remaining members dropped their affiliation (The Knights of Labor, 2011).

The Labor Movement in the late 1800s experienced a number of incidents that escalated into violence. In 1877; railroad workers in West Virginia protested a ten percent wage cut leveled by Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The strike occurred during a time of economic depression and spread westward across the country. Attempts to control unruly crowds just made the worker protest stronger and ignited violence. To add to the walkouts and protests by the rail workers, sympathetic actions by other wage workers brought Chicago close to a state of general strike. As the tensions continued and the violence started to escalate between the workers and police, the mayor relied on the assistance of six companies from the U.S. Army infantry to quell the protests. Quiet was restored but only after eighteen people had died from the protest violence. (Foner, 1977) The Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 resulted in violence as well. This particular strike came about during a time of conflict between labor and management throughout the entire country.

Workers belonging to the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers went on strike to protest a wage cut implemented by Andrew Carnegie’s Steel Company in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Henry Frick, the plants General Manager, was given unwavering support by Carnegie to do what he deemed fit, which was to cut wages and try to break the Amalgamated Association union. Of the 3,800 workers at the plant, only 750 belonged to the union; but 3,000 employees voted together for a workers strike. Henry Frick got word of the vote and built a fence around the steelworks plant with holes in the fence to fit rifles through and topped it with barbed wire and Frick had hired 300 Pinkerton detectives for protection of the plant. When workers got word of the newly hired police force, they mobilized and a fire fight between the two groups erupted.

3 detectives and 9 workers were laid to rest from the fighting. After the fighting stopped, the Governor ordered a state militia into Homestead. Four months after the strike started, the workers resources were severely depleted and they all returned to work. When the dust settled, the strike leaders were charged with murder while hundreds of others were charged with lesser crimes. Sympathetic jurors didn’t convict any of the men; however this incident allowed Carnegie to sweep unions out of Homestead dealing a major blow to the labor movement and weakened unionism in the steel industry up until the 1930’s. (The Homestead Strike, 1999) The last significant labor movement incident in the 1800s occurred in 1894 with the first national strike in the United States.

The Pullman Strike wreaked havoc on the nation’s railway system as an entire labor force walked from their jobs with the notion that workers were to receive several pay cuts and the increase rent of company owned homes in Pullman. President Grover Cleveland sent in federal troops to fire on and kill United States citizens against the wishes of the states. The federal courts outlawed striking by passing the Omnibus indictment which was a massive blow to unionized labor. During the strike, national guardsmen fired into a crowd of protesters; killing four and wounding twenty. The strike showed the power of unified national unions but also showed the willingness of the government to intervene and support the capitalists against unified labor. The results of the strike were disastrous as the union workers never did get their rents lowered (The Pullman Strike, 1998)

As the 20th Century came about, the labor movement sought to gain strength with new unions and tactics. The International Workers of the World was formed in an attempt to overthrow capitalism and replace it with the socialist system. The United States government helped out the movement with the implementation of the Department of Labor, which protected the rights of workers. The Clayton Antitrust Act legalized nonviolent strikes and boycotts. One of the more important Acts to come about in the early 1900s was that of the Wagner Act.

The Wagner Act, also called National Labor Relations Act, of 1935 was created to protect workers’ right to unionization. The Act guarantees un-supervised employees the right to self-organize, choose their own representatives, and bargain collectively (National Labor Relations Act, n.d.). The NLRA and the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) are still going strong today in 2012 as my employment, the IUE-CWA GE & Aerospace Conference Board, have asked for their assistance when organizing a new Local union shop on numerous occasions.

In 1938 an act was passed that benefited the labor movement in monumental ways. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was enacted in 1938 and thus protected the rights of workers and supported economic fair play between management and labor. The Act also proposed a national minimum wage. An amendment to the FLSA in 1948 outlawed child labor in the United States. As the nation moved from industrial production to information management, many aspects of the FLSA became ineffective and outdated (Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) History, 2006). The Fair Labor Standards Act is still relevant in today’s world, just not in the scope it was when it was created. The establishment of the minimum wage rate and the outlawing of child labor was a huge success for the labor movement and its affects can be felt in today’s modern age.

In 1955 the largest United States labor organization, the AFL (American Federation of Labor) merged with the CIO (Committee for Industrial Organization). The AFL was a federation that organized only unions of skilled workers while the CIO carried on the effort for industrial unionism, which are unions that organize an entire industry regardless of their sill set. With the merger of the AFL and the CIO, it brought about eliminating jurisdictional disputes between unions which would now help the labor movement like never before. They placed a new priority on organizing workers in areas, industries and plants where there was no system of labor representation. (The Labor Union Movement in America, 2012)

The AFL-CIO saw many decades of prosperity for unions and workers but was tested in 2005 when the Service Employees (SEIU), Teamsters (IBT), and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) departed ways from the AFL-CIO. Chris Kutalik states that the split has generated a great deal of focus, attention, and talk about the depth of the crisis of U.S. unions (¶3) and asks important questions regarding the split in the AFL-CIO such as if the union leaders will be open to local members’ efforts to democratize and revitalize their unions? Will new programs build enough power and leverage to fight concessions and how serious are leaders about pushing the pace and scale of change? (¶10).

It’s no surprise to anyone working within a union, such as myself, the challenges we face to stay relevant, to expand, to win the hearts and minds of the American people when so many see the unions as a problem rather than a solution. More and more businesses are trying to keep it a union-free workplace, and while it’s promising to see President Obama working towards getting more manufacturing plants back in the states, these plants are mostly set up as a right-to-work plant and will stop at nothing to keep outside forces from organizing the workers at these plants.

When I started working for the IUE-CWA ten years ago, we represented over 90 locals from General Electric, Lockheed Martin, British Aerospace Engineering, Momentive Performances, and Bechtel. Ten years later we are down to around 50 locals due to plant shutdowns and outsourcing of the plants. The labor movement must stay strong and work harder than ever just to keep its head above the water, but from the experiences I’ve had in the decade of being employed within a union, I feel this is a battle that may not be won in the end.


Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) History, (2006) Retrieved from: http://www.resource4flsalaw.com/historyoffairlaborstandardsact.html

Foner, Phillip S. (1977) The Great Labor Uprising of 1877. New York, New York: Pathfinder Books

The Homestead Strike (1999) Retrieved from: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/carnegie/peopleevents/pande04.html

The Knights of Labor (2011) Retrieved from: http://www.knightsoflabor.com

Kutalik, Chris (2005) What Does the AFL-CIO Split Mean? Retrieved from: http://labornotes.org/node/776

The Labor Union Movement in America (2012) Retrieved from: http://www.socialstudieshelp.com/eco_unionization.htm

The National Labor Relations Act (n.d.) Retrieved from: https://www.nlrb.gov/national-labor-relations-act

The Pullman Strike: Chicago, 1894 (1998) Retrieved from: http://www.kansasheritage.org/pullman/index.html

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