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Article

Stephen H. Norwood

Strikebreakers have been drawn from many parts of the American population, most notably the permanently and seasonally unemployed and underemployed. Excluded from a vast range of occupations and shunned by many trade unions, African Americans constituted another potential pool of strikebreakers, especially during the early decades of the 20th century. During the first quarter of the 20th century, college students enthusiastically volunteered for strikebreaking, both because of their generally pro-business outlook and a desire to test their manhood in violent clashes. A wide array of private and government forces has suppressed strikes. Beginning in the late 19th century, private detective agencies supplied guards who protected company property against strikers, sometimes assaulting them. During the early 20th century, several firms emerged that supplied strikebreakers and guards at companies’ request, drawing on what amounted to private armies of thousands of men. The largest of these operated nationally. On many occasions the state itself intervened to break strikes. Like some strikebreaking firms, state militiamen deployed advanced weaponry against strikers and their sympathizers, including machine guns. Presidents Hayes and Cleveland called out federal troops to break the 1877 and 1894 interregional railroad strikes. In 1905, Pennsylvania established an elite mounted force to suppress coal miners’ strikes modeled on the British Constabulary patrols in Ireland. Corporations directly intervened to break strikes, building weapons arsenals, including large supplies of tear gas, that they distributed to police forces. They initiated “back to work” movements to destroy strikers’ morale and used their considerable influence with the media to propagandize in the press and on the radio. Corporations, of course, discharged strikers, often permanently. In the highly bureaucratized society of the late twentieth and early 21st century that stigmatized public displays of anger, management turned to new “union avoidance” firms to break strikes. These firms emphasized legal and psychological methods rather than violence. They advised employers on how to blur the line between management and labor, defame union leaders and activists, and sow discord among strikers.

Article

Since the turn of the 20th century, teachers have tried to find a balance between bettering their own career prospects as workers and educating their students as public servants. To reach a workable combination, teachers have utilized methods drawn from union movements, the militant and labor-conscious approach favored by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), as well as to professional organizations, the tradition from which the National Education Association (NEA) arose. Because teachers lacked the federally guaranteed labor rights that private-sector workers enjoyed after Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, teachers’ fortunes—in terms of collective bargaining rights, control over classroom conditions, pay, and benefits—often remained tied to the broader public-sector labor movement and to state rather than federal law. Opponents of teacher unionization consistently charged that as public servants paid by tax revenues, teachers and other public employees should not be allowed to form unions. Further, because women constituted the vast majority of teachers and union organizing often represented a “manly” domain, the opposition’s approach worked quite well, successfully preventing teachers from gaining widespread union recognition. But by the late 1960s and early 1970s, thanks to an improved economic climate and invigoration from the women’s movement, civil rights struggles, and the New Left, both AFT and NEA teacher unionism surged forward, infused with a powerful militancy devoted to strikes and other political action, and appeared poised to capture federal collective bargaining rights. Their newfound assertiveness proved ill-timed, however. After the economic problems of the mid-1970s, opponents of teacher unions once again seized the opportunity to portray teacher unions and other public-sector unions as greedy and privileged interest groups functioning at the public’s expense. President Ronald Reagan accentuated this point when he fired all of the more than 10,000 striking air traffic controllers during the 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike. Facing such opposition, teacher unions—and public-sector unions in general—shifted their efforts away from strikes and toward endorsing political candidates and lobbying governments to pass favorable legislation. Given these constraints, public-sector unions enjoyed a large degree of success in the 1990s through the early 2000s, even as private-sector union membership plunged to less than 10 percent of the workforce. After the Great Recession of 2008, however, austerity politics targeted teachers and other public-sector workers and renewed political confrontations surrounding the legitimacy of teacher unions.

Article

When Chicago teachers went on strike in 2012, they highlighted an emergent militance among teachers in the United States. Led by the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), the Chicago Teacher Union (CTU) in the 2010s sought to use the collective bargaining process not only to fight for better salaries and working conditions, but also to dramatically improve the lives of their students through racial justice initiatives and more services such as school nurses and social workers. Other big city unions, some in dialogue with the CTU through the United Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (UCORE), embarked on similar campaigns. Elsewhere, teachers staged state-wide walkouts. In February 2018, teachers in all of West Virginia’s fifty-five counties went on strike to protest stagnant pay and escalating healthcare costs. Their efforts, which forced a Republican legislature to substantially increase education spending, inspired similar red-state walkouts in the months that followed. Strikes in Oklahoma and Arizona also won major funding hikes, for example. Then, in early 2019, militant teachers walked out in Los Angeles, Oakland, and Denver, and in the fall, the CTU was on strike again, this time with even broader demands than in 2012. Another year of militance might have occurred in 2020, but the global COVID-19 pandemic forced school districts and unions to focus on the immediate public health crisis. Unions pivoted to demanding that districts maintain protocols to ensure teachers, students, and their families were kept safe from the virus.

Article

During the latter half of the 20th century, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) represented the labor organization most readily recognized by the American public. Rooted in the vital sectors of transportation, warehousing, and distribution, the Teamsters became one of the largest unions in the United States, wielded considerable economic leverage, and used this leverage to improve the lives of low-wage workers across a broad swath of occupations and industries. The union’s reputation for militancy and toughness reached its apotheosis in the controversial career of Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters’ most prominent post-World War II leader. Under the leadership of Hoffa and his immediate predecessor Dave Beck, the union (with some notable exceptions) embraced a business ethos, often engaged in collusive and corrupt practices, and came to symbolize the labor movement’s squandered potential as a transformational social force. Fear of Hoffa and his associations with underworld figures provoked an intense backlash, resulting in the IBT’s 1957 expulsion from the AFL-CIO, concerted legal and legislative action aimed at curbing Teamster influence, and a lingering public perception that the union was a hopelessly corrupt and malign force. Hoffa’s unsolved disappearance in 1975 cemented the Teamsters’ image as a suspect institution, and analysts of the IBT have often offered either superficial or sensational accounts of the organization’s history and operations. With the deregulation of the trucking industry in the 1980s, the IBT suffered serious losses in market share and membership that eclipsed many of the union’s crowning collective bargaining achievements. A series of lackluster, corrupt leaders who followed Hoffa as union president proved unable to counter these developments, triggering the rise of an aggressive internal reform movement (Teamsters for a Democratic Union), federal intervention and monitoring, and the election of a reform slate in 1991 that assumed leadership of the union. However, since the union’s victory in an epic strike against United Parcel Service in 1997, the Teamsters have struggled to regain their ability to assert working-class power, especially within the private sector transportation industry, where they once exercised nearly unchallenged hegemony.

Article

A remarkably large number of nonstate actors played important and often unheralded roles in the creation of the state of Israel. The American labor movement was one such actor, assisting the Jewish community in Palestine to develop a political and social infrastructure in the “Yishuv” years before statehood, and then continuing to do so afterward. This movement, consisting of various labor federations, unions, and fraternal orders, aided the Zionist cause through a unique combination of financial and political resources. American labor organizations, especially those in the Jewish labor movement, helped lay the groundwork for the formation of a Jewish state by nurturing a labor movement in Palestine and influencing the US policymaking apparatus. They aided this process through land purchases for Jewish worker cooperatives in Palestine, the construction of trade schools and cultural centers there, and massive economic aid to the Histadrut, the General Federation of Jewish Workers in Palestine. American labor organizations also lobbied congressional allies, the White House, and local officials to generate policies assisting the Yishuv. They even pressured the British government during its mandate over Palestine and lobbied United Nations (UN) member states to vote for the partition of Palestine in 1947 and Israel’s recognition in 1948. Jewish labor leadership within the American garment industry played the key role in mobilizing the larger labor movement to support a Jewish state. Initially, however, most Jewish labor leaders did not support this effort because many descended from the “Bund” or General Jewish Workers’ Union of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia, a Jewish socialist party founded in 1897. Like any other nationalist movement, Bundists viewed Zionism as a diversion of the labor movement’s fight against capitalism. Instead, Bundists emphasized Jewish culture as a vehicle to spread socialism to the Jewish masses. Yet, in time, two practical concerns developed that would move Bundists to embrace assistance to the Yishuv and, ultimately, to the state of Israel. First, finding Jewish refugees a haven from persecution and, second, a commitment to assisting a burgeoning trade union movement in Palestine.

Article

Matthew Hild

Founded in Philadelphia in 1869, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor became the largest and most powerful labor organization that had ever existed in the United States by the mid-1880s. Recruiting men and women of nearly all occupations and all races (except Chinese), the Knights tried to reform American capitalism and politics in ways that would curb the growing economic and political abuses and excesses of the Gilded Age. Leaders of the organization viewed strikes as harmful to workers and employers alike, especially after the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, but a series of railroad strikes in 1884 and 1885 caused the Knights’ membership rolls to reach a peak of at least 700,000 in 1886. The heyday of the Knights of Labor proved brief though. Two major events in May 1886, the Haymarket riot in Chicago and the failure of a strike against Jay Gould’s Southwestern Railway system, began a series of setbacks that caused the organization to decline about as rapidly as it had arisen. By 1893, membership dropped below 100,000, and the Knights’ leaders aligned the organization with the farmers’ movement and the Populist Party. The Knights increasingly became a rural organization, as urban skilled and semi-skilled workers joined trade unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL, however, proved less inclusive and egalitarian than the Knights of Labor, although some of the latter’s ideals would be carried on by later organizations such as the Industrial Workers of the World and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Article

American Populism of the 1880s and 1890s marked the political high-water mark of the social movements of farmers, wage earners, women, and other sectors of society in the years after the Civil War. These movements forged the People’s Party, also known as the Populist Party, which campaigned against corporate power and economic inequality and was one of the most successful third parties in US history. Populist candidates won gubernatorial elections in nine states and gained some forty-five seats in the US Congress, including six seats in the Senate, and in 1892 the Populist presidential candidate, James B. Weaver of Iowa, received over a million votes, more than 8 percent of the total. The Populist Party was not a conventional political party but a coalition of organizations, including the Farmers’ Alliances, the Knights of Labor, and other reform movements, in what the Populists described as a “congress of industrial orders.” These organizations gave the People’s Party its strength and shaped its character as a party of working people with a vision of egalitarian cooperation and solidarity comparable to the labor, farmer-labor, and social-democratic parties in Europe and elsewhere that took shape in the same decades. Despite their egalitarian claims, however, the Populists had at best a mixed attitude towards the struggles for racial equality, and at worst accommodated Indian dispossession, Chinese exclusion, and Jim Crow segregation. In terms of its legacy, veterans of the Populist movement and many of its policy proposals would shape progressive and labor-farmer politics deep into the 20th century, partly by way of the Socialist Party, but mainly by way of the progressive or liberal wings of the Democratic and Republican Parties. At the same time, the adjective “populist” has come to describe a wide variety of political phenomena, including right-wing and nationalist movements, that have no particular connection to the late 19th-century Populism.

Article

One of the pervasive myths about the United States is that it has never had a socialist movement comparable to other industrialized nations. Yet in the early 20th century a vibrant Socialist Party and socialist movement flourished in the United States. Created in 1901, the Socialist Party of America unsurprisingly declared its primary goal to be the collectivization of the means of production. Yet the party’s highly decentralized and democratic structure enabled it to adapt to the needs and cultures of diverse constituencies in different regions of the country. Among those attracted to the movement in its heyday were immigrant and native-born workers and their families, tenant farmers, middle-class intellectuals, socially conscious millionaires, urban reformers, and feminists. Party platforms regularly included the reform interests of these groups as well as the long-term goal of eradicating capitalism. By 1912, the Socialist Party boasted an impressive record of electoral successes at the local, state, and national levels. U.S. Socialists could also point with pride to over three hundred English and foreign-language Socialist periodicals, some with subscription rates that rivaled those of the major urban daily newspapers. Yet Socialists faced numerous challenges in their efforts to build a viable third-party movement in the United States. On the one hand, progressive reformers in the Democratic and Republican parties sought to coopt Socialists. On the other hand, the Socialist Party encountered challenges on the left from anarchists, syndicalists, communists, and Farmer-Labor Party activists. The Socialist Party was particularly weakened by government repression during World War I, by the postwar Red Scare, and by a communist insurgency within its ranks in the aftermath of the war. By the onset of the Great Depression, the Communist Party would displace the Socialist Party as the leading voice of radical change in the United States.

Article

Lou Martin

In the early 20th century, West Virginia coal miners and mine operators fought a series of bloody battles that raged for two decades and prompted national debates over workers’ rights. Miners in the southern part of the state lived in towns wholly owned by coal companies and attempted to join the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) to negotiate better working conditions but most importantly to restore their civil liberties. Mine operators saw unionization as a threat to their businesses and rights and hired armed guards to patrol towns and prevent workers from organizing. The operators’ allies in local and state government used their authority to help break strikes by sending troops to strike districts, declaring martial law, and jailing union organizers in the name of law and order. Observers around the country were shocked at the levels of violence as well as the conditions that fueled the battles. The Mine Wars include the Paint Creek–Cabin Creek Strike of 1912–1913, the so-called 1920 Matewan Massacre, the 1920 Three Days Battle, and the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain. In this struggle over unionism, the coal operators prevailed, and West Virginia miners continued to work in nonunion mines and live in company towns through the 1920s.

Article

From the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861 until the Confederacy surrendered in the spring of 1865, workers—North and South—labored long hours under often trying conditions at wages that rarely kept pace with wartime inflation. Though many workers initially voiced skepticism of plans for sundering the nation, once Southern states seceded most workers rallied round their rival flags and pledged to support their respective war efforts. The growing demand for war material opened employment opportunities for women and men, girls and boys, across the Union and Confederacy. Yet workers were not always satisfied with a job and appeals to back the boys in blue and gray without question. They often resisted changes pressed on them in the workplace—new technology, military discipline, unskilled newcomers—as well as wages that always lagged behind rising prices. Protests and strikes began in 1861 and increased in number and intensity from 1863 to the war’s conclusion. Labor unions, in decline since the depression of 1857, sprung back to life, especially in the war’s later years. Employers sometimes countered their employees’ increasing organization and resistance with industry associations that tried to break strikes and blacklist those who walked off their jobs. While worker discontent and resentment of “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” were common across the sectional divide, Northern workers exercised greater coordination of their resistance through citywide trade assemblies, national trade unions, traveling organizers, and labor newspapers. Southern workers tended to fight their labor battles in isolation from shop to shop and town to town, so they rarely built a broader labor movement that could survive the hardships of the postwar era.

Article

Working women and their issues played a central role in the women’s movement in the decades following World War II. Feminists lobbied, litigated, and engaged in direct action for workplace fairness. Working women, especially those in unions, joined feminist organizations and established their own organizations as well. There were fault lines within the women’s movement over the issues, strategies, and level of commitment to the causes of working women. In the first two decades after 1945, the unionists and liberal reformers who constituted the so-called Women’s Bureau Coalition (named after the U.S. Women’s Bureau) opposed the mostly affluent and conservative members of the National Woman’s Party for their support of the Equal Rights Amendment, supporting instead protective laws and policies that treated women differently from men in the workplace. With the arrival of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, “labor feminists” clashed with the middle-class professional women at the helm of newly formed feminist organizations. As support for gender equality transformed employment practices, some labor feminists sought to retain (or extend to men) selected protective measures introduced in the early 20th century to shield women workers from the worst aspects of wage labor. In the face of harsh economic conditions in the 1970s, labor feminists again opposed other feminists for their efforts to modify the union practice of “last hired, first fired” as a way of retaining affirmative-action hiring gains. In recent decades feminists have focused on equity measures such as comparable worth and pregnancy leave as means of addressing the unique challenges women face. In addition they have expanded their concern to lesbian and transgender workers, and, increasingly, to the needs of immigrant workers who make up an increasingly percentage of the working population.

Article

Dana M. Caldemeyer

Unlike the anti-unionism that runs through the ranks of employers, worker anti-unionism describes the workers who are opposed to or who work against unionization. Anti-union actions can be seen throughout the United States from the early industrial age forward and include anything from refusing to join the union or follow union orders, to fighting against the union, such as with strikebreaking. Workers’ reasons for acting against the union, however, are far more complex, including the economic gains that come from remaining outside the union, moral opposition to unionism, and spite against the union. The variations between workers’ reasons for rejecting the union, then, provide insight into how workers define their place in society as well as their relationship with the union.

Article

“Working-Class Environmentalism in America” traces working Americans’ efforts to protect the environment from antebellum times to the present. Antebellum topics include African American slaves’ environmental ethos; aesthetic nature appreciation by Lowell, Massachusetts “mill girls” working in New England’s first textile factories; and Boston’s 1840s fight for safe drinking water. Late-19th-century topics include working-class support for creating urban parks, workers’ early efforts to confront urban pollution and the “smoke nuisance,” and the exploration of conservationist ideas and policies by New England small farmers and fishermen in the late 1800s. In the early 20th century, working-class youth, including immigrants and African Americans, participated in the youth camping movement and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, while working-class adults and their families, enjoying new automobility and two-day weekends, discovered picnicking, car-camping, and sport hunting and fishing in newly created wilderness preserves. Workers also learned of toxic dangers to workplace safety and health from shocking stories of 1920s New Jersey “radium girls” and tetraethyl lead factory workers, and from 1930s Midwestern miners who went on strike over deadly silicosis. The 1930s United States rediscovered natural resource conservation when the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) employed millions of working-class youth. Lumber workers advocated federal regulation of timber harvesting. Postwar America saw the United Auto Workers (UAW), United Steelworkers (USWA), Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW), American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), and other labor unions lobbying for wilderness and wildlife preservation, workplace and community health, and fighting air and water pollution, while the United Farmworkers (UFW) fought reckless pesticide use, and dissidents within the United Mine Workers (UMW) sought to ban surface coal mining. Radical organizations explored minority community environmentalism and interracial cooperation on environmental reform. Following post-1970s nationwide conservative retrenchment, working-class activists and communities of color fought toxic wastes and explored environmental justice and environmental racism at places like Love Canal, New York and Warren County, North Carolina and formed the Blue-Green Alliance with environmentalists.