Political and Social Movements


When did the U.S. labor movement begin?

It began in the early 1800s, when skilled workers, such as carpenters and blacksmiths, banded together in local organizations with the goal of securing better wages. By the time fighting broke out in the Civil War (1861–65), the first national unions had been founded—again, by skilled workers. However, many of these early labor organizations struggled to gain widespread support and soon fell apart. But by the end of the century, several national unions, including the United Mine Workers (1890) and the American Railway Union (1893), emerged. In the last two decades of the 1800s, violence accompanied labor protests and strikes while opposition to the unions mounted. Companies shared blacklists of the names of workers suspected of union activities; hired armed guards to forcibly break strikes; and retained lawyers to successfully invoke the Sherman Anti-Trust Act (of 1890) to crush strikes—lawyers argued that strikes interfered with interstate commerce, which was declared illegal by the Sherman legislation (which had not been the intent of the lawmakers).

In the early decades of the 1900s, unions made advances, but many Americans continued to view organizers and members as radicals. The climate changed for the unions during the Great Depression (1929–39). With so many Americans out of work, many blamed business leaders for the economy’s failure and began to view the unions in a new light—as organizations to protect the interests of workers. In 1935 the federal government strengthened the unions’ cause in passing the National Labor Relations Act (also called the Wagner Act), protecting the rights to organize and to bargain collectively (when worker representatives, usually labor union representatives, negotiate with employers). The legislation also set up the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which still works today to penalize companies that engage in unfair labor practices. The constitutionality of the act was challenged in court in 1937, but the Supreme Court upheld the legislation.

The unions grew increasingly powerful over the next decade: By 1945 more than one-third of all nonagricultural workers belonged to a union. Having made important gains during World War II (1939–45), including hospital insurance coverage, paid vacations and holidays, and pensions, union leaders continued to urge workers to strike to gain more ground—something leaders felt was the worker’s right amidst the unprecedented prosperity of the postwar era. But strikes soon impacted the life of the average American: Consumers faulted the unions for shortages of consumer goods, suspension of services, and inflated prices. Congress responded by passing the LaborManagement Relations Act (or the Taft-Hartley Act) in 1947, which limits the impact of unions by prohibiting certain kinds of strikes, setting rules for how unions could organize workers, and establishing guidelines for how strikes that may impact the nation’s health or safety are to be handled.


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