This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article. On August 4, 1942, the Mexican and U.S. governments launched the bi-national guest worker program, most commonly known as the Bracero Program. An estimated five million Mexican men between the ages of 19 and 45 separated from their families for three-to-nine-month contract cycles at a time, in anticipation of earning the prevailing U.S. wage this program had promised them. They labored in U.S. agriculture, railroad construction, and forestry, with hardly any employment protections or rights in place to support themselves and 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 such goals. Instead, the labor exploitation and alienation that characterized this guest worker program and their program participation paved the way for, at best, fragile family relationships. This program lasted twenty-two years and grew in its expanse, despite its negative consequences, Mexican men and their families could not afford to settle for being unemployed in Mexico, nor could they pass up U.S. employment opportunities of any sort. The Mexican and U.S. governments’ persistently negligent management of the Bracero Program, coupled with their conveniently selective acknowledgement of the severity of the plight of Mexican women and men, consistently cornered Mexican men and their families to shoulder the full extent of the Bracero Program’s exploitative conditions and terms.
Ana Elizabeth Rosas
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.