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Early 20th century American labor and working-class history is a subfield of American social history that focuses attention on the complex lives of working people in a rapidly changing global political and economic system. Once focused closely on institutional dynamics in the workplace and electoral politics, labor history has expanded and refined its approach to include questions about the families, communities, identities, and cultures workers have developed over time. With a critical eye on the limits of liberal capitalism and democracy for workers’ welfare, labor historians explore individual and collective struggles against exclusion from opportunity, as well as accommodation to political and economic contexts defined by rapid and volatile growth and deep inequality. Particularly important are the ways that workers both defined and were defined by differences of race, gender, ethnicity, class, and place. Individual workers and organized groups of working Americans both transformed and were transformed by the main struggles of the industrial era, including conflicts over the place of former slaves and their descendants in the United States, mass immigration and migrations, technological change, new management and business models, the development of a consumer economy, the rise of a more active federal government, and the evolution of popular culture. The period between 1896 and 1945 saw a crucial transition in the labor and working-class history of the United States. At its outset, Americans were working many more hours a day than the eight for which they had fought hard in the late 19th century. On average, Americans labored fifty-four to sixty-three hours per week in dangerous working conditions (approximately 35,000 workers died in accidents annually at the turn of the century). By 1920, half of all Americans lived in growing urban neighborhoods, and for many of them chronic unemployment, poverty, and deep social divides had become a regular part of life. Workers had little power in either the Democratic or Republican party. They faced a legal system that gave them no rights at work but the right to quit, judges who took the side of employers in the labor market by issuing thousands of injunctions against even nonviolent workers’ organizing, and vigilantes and police forces that did not hesitate to repress dissent violently. The ranks of organized labor were shrinking in the years before the economy began to recover in 1897. Dreams of a more democratic alternative to wage labor and corporate-dominated capitalism had been all but destroyed. Workers struggled to find their place in an emerging consumer-oriented culture that assumed everyone ought to strive for the often unattainable, and not necessarily desirable, marks of middle-class respectability. Yet American labor emerged from World War II with the main sectors of the industrial economy organized, with greater earning potential than any previous generation of American workers, and with unprecedented power as an organized interest group that could appeal to the federal government to promote its welfare. Though American workers as a whole had made no grand challenge to the nation’s basic corporate-centered political economy in the preceding four and one-half decades, they entered the postwar world with a greater level of power, and a bigger share in the proceeds of a booming economy, than anyone could have imagined in 1896. The labor and working-class history of the United States between 1900 and 1945, then, is the story of how working-class individuals, families, and communities—members of an extremely diverse American working class—managed to carve out positions of political, economic, and cultural influence, even as they remained divided among themselves, dependent upon corporate power, and increasingly invested in a individualistic, competitive, acquisitive culture.

Article

Between 1880 and 1924, an estimated half million Arab migrants left the Ottoman Empire to live and work in the Americas. Responding to new economic forces linking the Mediterranean and Atlantic capitalist economies to one another, Arab migrants entered the manufacturing industries of the settler societies they inhabited, including industrial textiles, small-scale commerce (peddling), heavy machining, and migrant services associated with continued immigration from the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire enacted few policies to halt emigration from Syria, Mount Lebanon, and Palestine, instead facilitating a remittance economy that enhanced the emerging cash economies of the Arab world. After 1920, the French Mandate in Syria and Lebanon moved to limit new migration to the Americas, working together with increasingly restrictive immigration regimes in the United States, Argentina, and Brazil to halt Arab labor immigration. Using informal archives, the Arab American press, and the records of diasporic mutual aid and philanthropic societies, new research in Arab American migration illustrates how migrants managed a transnational labor economy and confronted challenges presented by American nativism, travel restriction, and interwar deportations.

Article

On August 4, 1942, the Mexican and US governments launched the binational guest worker program most commonly known as the Bracero Program. An estimated 5 million Mexican men between the ages of nineteen and forty-five separated from their families for three to nine-month cycles at a time, depending on the duration of their labor contract, in anticipation of earning the prevailing US wage this program had promised them. They labored in US agriculture, railroad construction, and forestry with hardly any employment protections or rights in place to support themselves or the families they had left behind in Mexico. The inhumane configuration and implementation of this program prevented most of these men and their families from meeting this goal. Instead, the labor exploitation and alienation that characterized this guest worker program and their program participation paved the way for fragile transnational family relationships. The Bracero Program grew over the course of its twenty-two-year existence, and despite its negative consequences, Mexican men and their families could not afford to settle for unemployment in Mexico nor pass up US employment opportunities of any sort. The Mexican and US governments’ persistently negligent management of the program coupled with their conveniently selective acknowledgment of the severity of the plight of Mexican women and men consistently required Mexican men and their families to shoulder the full extent of the program’s exploitative conditions and terms.

Article

Ivón Padilla-Rodríguez

Child migration has garnered widespread media coverage in the 21st century, becoming a central topic of national political discourse and immigration policymaking. Contemporary surges of child migrants are part of a much longer history of migration to the United States. In the first half of the 20th century, millions of European and Asian child migrants passed through immigration inspection stations in the New York harbor and San Francisco Bay. Even though some accompanied and unaccompanied European child migrants experienced detention at Ellis Island, most were processed and admitted into the United States fairly quickly in the early 20th century. Few of the European child migrants were deported from Ellis Island. Predominantly accompanied Chinese and Japanese child migrants, however, like Latin American and Caribbean migrants in recent years, were more frequently subjected to family separation, abuse, detention, and deportation at Angel Island. Once inside the United States, both European and Asian children struggled to overcome poverty, labor exploitation, educational inequity, the attitudes of hostile officials, and public health problems. After World War II, Korean refugee “orphans” came to the United States under the Refugee Relief Act of 1953 and the Immigration and Nationality Act. European, Cuban, and Indochinese refugee children were admitted into the United States through a series of ad hoc programs and temporary legislation until the 1980 Refugee Act created a permanent mechanism for the admission of refugee and unaccompanied children. Exclusionary immigration laws, the hardening of US international boundaries, and the United States preference for refugees who fled Communist regimes made unlawful entry the only option for thousands of accompanied and unaccompanied Mexican, Central American, and Haitian children in the second half of the 20th century. Black and brown migrant and asylum-seeking children were forced to endure educational deprivation, labor trafficking, mandatory detention, deportation, and deadly abuse by US authorities and employers at US borders and inside the country.

Article

The US working class and the institutional labor movement was shaped by anticommunism. Anticommunism preceded the founding of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, and this early history affected the later experience. It reinforced conservative positions on union issues even in the period before the Cold War, and forged the alliances that influenced the labor movement’s direction, including the campaign to organize the South, the methods and structures of unions, and US labor’s foreign policy positions. While the Communist Party of the USA (CP) was a hierarchical organization straitjacketed by an allegiance to the Soviet Union, the unions it fostered cultivated radical democratic methods, while anticommunism often justified opposition to militancy and obstructed progressive policies. In the hottest moments of the postwar development of domestic anticommunism, unions and their members were vilified and purged from the labor movement, forced to take loyalty oaths, and fired for their association with the CP. The Cold War in the working class removed critical perspectives on capitalism, reinforced a moderate and conservative labor officialdom, and led to conformity with the state on foreign policy issues.

Article

Communist activists took a strong interest in American trade unions from the 1920s through the 1950s and played an important role in shaping the nature of the American union movement. Initial communist trade union activism drew upon radical labor traditions that preceded the formation of the American Communist Party (CPUSA). Early communist trade unionists experimented with different types of structures to organize unorganized workers. They also struggled with international communist factionalism. Communist trade unionists were most effective during the Great Depression and World War II. In those years, communist activists helped build the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and bring industrial unionism to previously unorganized workers. Throughout the history of communist involvement in the US labor movement, international communist policy guided general organizing strategies. Shifts in international policy, such as the announcement of a Soviet non-aggression pact with Germany, proved politically difficult to navigate on the local level. Yet, Left-led unions proved to be more democratically run and focused on racial and gender equality than many of those without communist influence. Their leadership supported social justice and militant action. The Cold War years witnessed CIO purges of Left-led unions and federal investigations and arrests of communist trade unionists. Repression from both within and without the labor movement as well as the CPUSA’s own internal policy battles ultimately ended communist trade unionists’ widespread influence on American trade unions.

Article

James R. Barrett

The largest and most important revolutionary socialist organization in US history, the Communist Party USA was always a minority influence. It reached considerable size and influence, however, during the Great Depression and World War II years when it followed the more open line associated with the term “Popular Front.” In these years communists were much more flexible in their strategies and relations with other groups, though the party remained a hierarchical vanguard organization. It grew from a largely isolated sect dominated by unskilled and unemployed immigrant men in the 1920s to a socially diverse movement of nearly 100,000 based heavily on American born men and women from the working and professional classes by the late 1930s and during World War II, exerting considerable influence in the labor movement and American cultural life. In these years, the Communist Party helped to build the industrial union movement, advanced the cause of African American civil rights, and laid the foundation for the postwar feminist movement. But the party was always prone to abrupt changes in line and vulnerable to attack as a sinister outside force because of its close adherence to Soviet policies and goals. Several factors contributed to its catastrophic decline in the 1950s: the increasingly antagonistic Cold War struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States; an unprecedented attack from employers and government at various levels—criminal cases and imprisonment, deportation, and blacklisting; and within the party itself, a turn back toward a more dogmatic version of Marxism-Leninism and a heightened atmosphere of factional conflict and purges.

Article

Cody R. Melcher and Michael Goldfield

The failure of labor unions to succeed in the American South, largely because national unions proved unable or unwilling to confront white supremacy head on, offers an important key to understanding post–World War II American politics, especially the rise of the civil rights movement. Looking at the 1930s and 1940s, it is clear that the failure was not the result of a cultural aversion to collective action on the part of white workers in the South, as several histories have suggested, but rather stemmed from the refusal of the conservative leadership in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to organize an otherwise militant southern workforce composed of both whites and Blacks. These lost opportunities, especially among southern woodworkers and textile workers, contrasts sharply with successful interracial union drives among southern coal miners and steelworkers, especially in Alabama. Counterfactual examples of potentially durable civil rights unionism illustrate how the labor movement could have affected the civil rights movement and transformed politics had the South been unionized.

Article

Adam J. Hodges

The first Red Scare, which occurred in 1919–1920, emerged out of longer clashes in the United States over the processes of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization as well as escalating conflict over the development of a labor movement challenging elite control of the economy. More immediately, the suppression of dissent during World War I and shock over a revolution in Russia that energized anti-capitalist radicals spurred further confrontations during an ill-planned postwar demobilization of the armed forces and economy. A general strike in Seattle in February 1919 that grew out of wartime grievances among shipbuilders raised the specter of Bolshevik insurrection in the United States. National press attention fanned the flames and continued to do so throughout the year. In fact, 1919 became a record strike year. Massive coal and steel walkouts in the fall shook the industrial economy, while a work stoppage by Boston police became a national sensation and spread fears of a revolutionary breakdown in public order. Ultimately, however, much of the union militancy of the war era was crushed by the end of 1919 and the labor movement entered a period of retrenchment after 1922 that lasted until the 1930s. Fall 1919 witnessed the creation of two competing Communist parties in the United States after months of press focus on bombs, riots, and strikes. Federal anti-radical investigative operations, which had grown enormously during World War I and continued into 1919, peaked in the so-called “Palmer Raids” of November 1919 and January 1920, named for US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who authorized them. The excesses of the Department of Justice and the decline of labor militancy caused a shift in press and public attention in 1920, though another Red Scare would escalate after World War II, with important continuities between the two.

Article

Erik Gellman and Margaret Rung

From the late 1920s through the 1930s, countries on every inhabited continent suffered through a dramatic and wrenching economic contraction termed the Great Depression, an economic collapse that has come to represent the nadir of modern economic history. With national unemployment reaching well into double digits for over a decade, productivity levels falling by half, prices severely depressed, and millions of Americans without adequate food, shelter or clothing, the United States experienced some of the Great Depression’s severest consequences. The crisis left deep physical, psychological, political, social, and cultural impressions on the national landscape. It encouraged political reform and reaction, renewed labor activism, spurred migration, unleashed grass-roots movements, inspired cultural experimentation, and challenged family structures and gender roles.

Article

Perhaps the most important radical labor union in U.S. history, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) continues to attract workers, in and beyond the United States. The IWW was founded in 1905 in Chicago—at that time, the greatest industrial city in a country that had become the world’s mightiest economy. Due to the nature of industrial capitalism in what, already, had become a global economy, the IWW and its ideals quickly became a worldwide phenomenon. The Wobblies, as members were and still are affectionately known, never were as numerically large as mainstream unions, but their influence, particularly from 1905 into the 1920s, was enormous. The IWW captured the imaginations of countless rebellious workers with its fiery rhetoric, daring tactics, and commitment to revolutionary industrial unionism. The IWW pledged to replace the “bread and butter” craft unionism of the larger, more mainstream American Federation of Labor (AFL), with massive industrial unions strong enough to take on ever-larger corporations and, ultimately, overthrow capitalism to be replaced with a society based upon people rather than profit. In the United States, the union grew in numbers and reputation, before and during World War I, by organizing workers neglected by other unions—immigrant factory workers in the Northeast and Midwest, migratory farmworkers in the Great Plains, and mine, timber, and harvest workers out West. Unlike most other unions of that era, the IWW welcomed immigrants, women, and people of color; truly, most U.S. institutions excluded African Americans and darker-skinned immigrants as well as women, making the IWW among the most radically inclusive institutions in the country and world. Wobbly ideas, members, and publications soon spread beyond the United States—first to Mexico and Canada, then into the Caribbean and Latin America, and to Europe, southern Africa, and Australasia in rapid succession. The expansion of the IWW and its ideals across the world in under a decade is a testament to the passionate commitment of its members. It also speaks to the immense popularity of anticapitalist tendencies that shared more in common with anarchism than social democracy. However, the IWW’s revolutionary program and class-war rhetoric yielded more enemies than allies, including governments, which proved devastating during and after World War I, though the union soldiered on. Even in 2020, the ideals the IWW espoused continued to resonate among a small but growing and vibrant group of workers, worldwide.

Article

Donna T. Haverty-Stacke

The first Labor Day parade was held on September 5, 1882, in New York City. It, and the annual holiday demonstrations that followed in that decade and the next, resulted from the growth of the modern organized labor movement that took place in the context of the second industrial revolution. These first Labor Day celebrations also became part of the then ongoing ideological and tactical divisions within that movement. By the early 1900s, workers’ desire to enjoy the fruits of their labor by participating in popular leisure pursuits came to characterize the day. But union leaders, who considered such leisure pursuits a distraction from displays of union solidarity, continued to encourage the organization of parades. With the protections afforded to organized labor by the New Deal, and with the gains made during and after World War II (particularly among unionized white, male, industrial laborers), Labor Day parades declined further after 1945 as workers enjoyed access to mass cultural pursuits, increasingly in suburban settings. This decline was indicative of a broader loss of union movement culture that had served to build solidarity within unions, display working-class militancy to employers, and communicate the legitimacy of organized labor to the American public. From time to time since the late 1970s unions have attempted to reclaim the power of Labor Day to make concerted demands through their display of workers’ united power; but, for most Americans the holiday has become part of a three-day weekend devoted to shopping or leisure that marks the end of the summer season.

Article

On the afternoon of May 30, 1937, the Chicago Police killed or mortally wounded ten men who were among a large group of unionists attempting to picket a mill operated by the Republic Steel Corporation. Scores of demonstrators were injured, some critically, in this shocking episode. The “Memorial Day Massacre” occurred during the Little Steel Strike, a sprawling and protracted conflict that arose out of the Committee for Industrial Organization’s (CIO) attempt to overcome the strident resistance of a coalition of power companies and to organize the basic steel industry. The strike evolved into a contest to decide how much the Second New Deal and its legislative centerpiece, the Wagner Act, would alter the landscape of American labor relations. This was evident in Chicago, where the unionists’ efforts to engage in mass picketing at Republic’s plant were an attempt to wrest from the Wagner Act’s ambiguous terms an effective right to strike, and where the violence of the police, who were doing Republic’s bidding, was intended to prevent this. Ultimately, the use of violence against the unionists not only defeated this bid to engage in mass picketing but served, along with similar clashes elsewhere during the strike, to justify government intervention that ended the walkout and secured the companies’ victory. Later, the strike and the massacre were invoked to justify political and legal changes that further limited the right to strike and that endorsed much of what the police, the steel companies, and their allies had done during the conflict. While the CIO did eventually organize steel, this success was primarily the result of the war and not the strike or the labor law. And although the National Labor Relations Board prosecuted the steel companies for violating the Wagner Act, this litigation took years and ended with Republic facing only modest penalties.

Article

Margaret Garb

Housing in America has long stood as a symbol of the nation’s political values and a measure of its economic health. In the 18th century, a farmhouse represented Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of a nation of independent property owners; in the mid-20th century, the suburban house was seen as an emblem of an expanding middle class. Alongside those well-known symbols were a host of other housing forms—tenements, slave quarters, row houses, French apartments, loft condos, and public housing towers—that revealed much about American social order and the material conditions of life for many people. Since the 19th century, housing markets have been fundamental forces driving the nation’s economy and a major focus of government policies. Home construction has provided jobs for skilled and unskilled laborers. Land speculation, housing development, and the home mortgage industry have generated billions of dollars in investment capital, while ups and downs in housing markets have been considered signals of major changes in the economy. Since the New Deal of the 1930s, the federal government has buttressed the home construction industry and offered economic incentives for home buyers, giving the United States the highest home ownership rate in the world. The housing market crash of 2008 slashed property values and sparked a rapid increase in home foreclosures, especially in places like Southern California and the suburbs of the Northeast, where housing prices had ballooned over the previous two decades. The real estate crisis led to government efforts to prop up the mortgage banking industry and to assist struggling homeowners. The crisis led, as well, to a drop in rates of home ownership, an increase in rental housing, and a growth in homelessness. Home ownership remains a goal for many Americans and an ideal long associated with the American dream. The owner-occupied home—whether single-family or multifamily dwelling—is typically the largest investment made by an American family. Through much of the 18th and 19th centuries, housing designs varied from region to region. In the mid-20th century, mass production techniques and national building codes tended to standardize design, especially in new suburban housing. In the 18th century, the family home was a site of waged and unwaged work; it was the center of a farm, plantation, or craftsman’s workshop. Two and a half centuries later, a house was a consumer good: its size, location, and decor marked the family’s status and wealth.

Article

Wendy L. Wall

The New Deal generally refers to a set of domestic policies implemented by the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to the crisis of the Great Depression. Propelled by that economic cataclysm, Roosevelt and his New Dealers pushed through legislation that regulated the banking and securities industries, provided relief for the unemployed, aided farmers, electrified rural areas, promoted conservation, built national infrastructure, regulated wages and hours, and bolstered the power of unions. The Tennessee Valley Authority prevented floods and brought electricity and economic progress to seven states in one of the most impoverished parts of the nation. The Works Progress Administration offered jobs to millions of unemployed Americans and launched an unprecedented federal venture into the arena of culture. By providing social insurance to the elderly and unemployed, the Social Security Act laid the foundation for the U.S. welfare state. The benefits of the New Deal were not equitably distributed. Many New Deal programs—farm subsidies, work relief projects, social insurance, and labor protection programs—discriminated against racial minorities and women, while profiting white men disproportionately. Nevertheless, women achieved symbolic breakthroughs, and African Americans benefited more from Roosevelt’s policies than they had from any past administration since Abraham Lincoln’s. The New Deal did not end the Depression—only World War II did that—but it did spur economic recovery. It also helped to make American capitalism less volatile by extending federal regulation into new areas of the economy. Although the New Deal most often refers to policies and programs put in place between 1933 and 1938, some scholars have used the term more expansively to encompass later domestic legislation or U.S. actions abroad that seemed animated by the same values and impulses—above all, a desire to make individuals more secure and a belief in institutional solutions to long-standing problems. In order to pass his legislative agenda, Roosevelt drew many Catholic and Jewish immigrants, industrial workers, and African Americans into the Democratic Party. Together with white Southerners, these groups formed what became known as the “New Deal coalition.” This unlikely political alliance endured long after Roosevelt’s death, supporting the Democratic Party and a “liberal” agenda for nearly half a century. When the coalition finally cracked in 1980, historians looked back on this extended epoch as reflecting a “New Deal order.”

Article

The decades from the 1890s into the 1920s produced reform movements in the United States that resulted in significant changes to the country’s social, political, cultural, and economic institutions. The impulse for reform emanated from a pervasive sense that the country’s democratic promise was failing. Political corruption seemed endemic at all levels of government. An unregulated capitalist industrial economy exploited workers and threatened to create a serious class divide, especially as the legal system protected the rights of business over labor. Mass urbanization was shifting the country from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one characterized by poverty, disease, crime, and cultural clash. Rapid technological advancements brought new, and often frightening, changes into daily life that left many people feeling that they had little control over their lives. Movements for socialism, woman suffrage, and rights for African Americans, immigrants, and workers belied the rhetoric of the United States as a just and equal democratic society for all its members. Responding to the challenges presented by these problems, and fearful that without substantial change the country might experience class upheaval, groups of Americans proposed undertaking significant reforms. Underlying all proposed reforms was a desire to bring more justice and equality into a society that seemed increasingly to lack these ideals. Yet there was no agreement among these groups about the exact threat that confronted the nation, the means to resolve problems, or how to implement reforms. Despite this lack of agreement, all so-called Progressive reformers were modernizers. They sought to make the country’s democratic promise a reality by confronting its flaws and seeking solutions. All Progressivisms were seeking a via media, a middle way between relying on older ideas of 19th-century liberal capitalism and the more radical proposals to reform society through either social democracy or socialism. Despite differences among Progressives, the types of Progressivisms put forth, and the successes and failures of Progressivism, this reform era raised into national discourse debates over the nature and meaning of democracy, how and for whom a democratic society should work, and what it meant to be a forward-looking society. It also led to the implementation of an activist state.

Article

Paul Michel Taillon

Railroad workers occupy a singular place in United States history. Working in the nation’s first “big businesses,” they numbered in the hundreds of thousands, came from a wide range of ethnic and racial groups, included both men and women, and performed a wide range of often esoteric tasks. As workers in an industry that shaped the nation’s financial, technological, and political-economic development, railroaders drove the leading edge of industrialization in the 19th century and played a central role in the nation’s economy for much of the 20th. With the legends of “steel-driving” John Henry and “Cannonball” Casey Jones, railroad workers entered the national folklore as Americans pondered the benefits and costs of progress in an industrial age. Those tales highlighted the glamor and rewards, the risks and disparities, and the gender-exclusive and racially hierarchical nature of railroad work. They also offer insight into the character of railroad unionism, which, from its beginnings in the 1860s, oriented toward craft-based, male-only, white-supremacist forms of organization. Those unions remained fragmented, but they also became among the most powerful in the US labor movement, leveraging their members’ strategic location in a central infrastructural industry, especially those who operated the trains. That strategic location also ensured that any form of collective organization—and therefore potential disruption of the national economy—would lead to significant state intervention. Thus, the epic railroad labor conflict of the late 19th century generated the first federal labor relations laws in US history, which in turn set important precedents for 20th-century national labor relations policy. At the same time, the industry nurtured the first national all-Black, civil-rights-oriented unions, which played crucial roles in the 20th-century African American freedom struggle. By the mid-20th century, however, with technological change and the railroads entering a period of decline, the numbers of railroad workers diminished and with them, too, their once-powerful unions.

Article

The rise of the southern textile industry in the early 1900s shifted the center of American textile production from the northeast to the Piedmont and created a new class of southern industrial workers: the “cotton mill people.” Throughout the 20th century, larger economic and political forces changed the industry and its people. Technological innovations, wars, and the diversification of the southern economy affected how textiles were made, the consumer demand for them, and mill workers’ wages and working conditions. The labor, civil rights, and women’s movements produced federal laws and legal victories that desegregated the mills, drew attention to the particular vulnerabilities of women workers, and provided protections for all workers against exploitation and poverty. Continuity, however, was as significant as change for mill workers. Women’s labor was always crucial in the mills, and women were key leaders in strikes and organizing drives. Unionization efforts were consistently undermined by technological innovations that replaced human labor, the global movement of capital, and the united power of mill owners and political leaders. Throughout the 20th century, cotton mill people struggled to resist the dehumanizing aspects of industrialization and insist on the dignity and value of their labor. The story of their struggles reveals important dimensions of 20th-century southern labor and life. With the movement of textile manufacturing from the American South to the Global South, their 20th-century struggles offer insights into the 21st-century struggles of textile workers worldwide.

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

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.