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Dockworkers in America  

Peter Cole

The history of dockworkers in America is as fascinating and important as it is unfamiliar. Those who worked along the shore loading and unloading ships played an invaluable role in an industry central to both the U.S. and global economies as well as the making of the nation. For centuries, their work remained largely the same, involving brute manual labor in gangs; starting in the 1960s, however, their work was entirely remade due to technological transformation. Dockworkers possess a long history of militancy, resulting in dramatic improvements in their economic and workplace conditions. Today, nearly all are unionists, but dockworkers in ports along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts belong to the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), while the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) represents them in Pacific Coast ports as well as in Hawaii and Alaska (along with British Columbia and Panama). In the mid-1930s, the ILA and ILWU became bitter rivals and remain so. This feud, which has cooled slightly since its outset, can be explained by differences in leadership, ideology, and tactics, with the ILA more craft-based, “patriotic,” and mainstream and the ILWU quite left wing, especially during its first few decades, and committed to fighting for racial equality. The existence of two unions complicates this story; in most countries, dockworkers belong to a single union. Similarly, America’s massive economy and physical size means that there are literally dozens of ports (again, unlike many other countries), making generalizations harder. Unfortunately, popular culture depictions of dockworkers inculcate unfair and incorrect notions that all dockworkers are involved with organized crime. Nevertheless, due to decades of militancy, strikes, and unionism, dockworkers in 21st-century America are—while far fewer in number—very well paid and still do important work, literally making world trade possible in an era when 90 percent of goods move by ship for at least part of their journey to market.

Article

Domestic Workers in U.S. History  

Vanessa May

Domestic work was, until 1940, the largest category of women’s paid labor. Despite the number of women who performed domestic labor for pay, the wages and working conditions were often poor. Workers labored long hours for low pay and were largely left out of state labor regulations. The association of domestic work with women’s traditional household labor, defined as a “labor of love” rather than as real work, and its centrality to southern slavery, have contributed to its low status. As a result, domestic work has long been structured by class, racial, and gendered hierarchies. Nevertheless, domestic workers have time and again done their best to resist these conditions. Although traditional collective bargaining techniques did not always translate to the domestic labor market, workers found various collective and individual methods to insist on higher wages and demand occupational respect, ranging from quitting to “pan-toting” to forming unions.

Article

Employers’ Associations and Open Shops in the United States  

Chad Pearson

Employers began organizing with one another to reduce the power of organized labor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Irritated by strikes, boycotts, and unions’ desire to achieve exclusive bargaining rights, employers demanded the right to establish open shops, workplaces that promoted individualism over collectivism. Rather than recognize closed or union shops, employers demanded the right to hire and fire whomever they wanted, irrespective of union status. They established an open-shop movement, which was led by local, national, and trade-based employers. Some formed more inclusive “citizens’ associations,” which included clergymen, lawyers, judges, academics, and employers. Throughout the 20th century’s first three decades, this movement succeeded in busting unions, breaking strikes, and blacklisting labor activists. It united large numbers of employers and was mostly successful. The movement faced its biggest challenges in the 1930s, when a liberal political climate legitimized unions and collective bargaining. But employers never stopped organizing and fighting, and they continued to undermine the labor movement in the following decades by invoking the phrase “right-to-work,” insisting that individual laborers must enjoy freedom from so-called union bosses and compulsory unionism. Numerous states, responding to pressure from organized employers, begin passing “right-to-work” laws, which made union organizing more difficult because workers were not obligated to join unions or pay their “fair share” of dues to them. The multi-decade employer-led anti-union movement succeeded in fighting organized labor at the point of production, in politics, and in public relations.

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The Failure of Labor Unionism in the US South  

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

The First Red Scare  

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.

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Gender Rights and American Employment  

Katherine Turk

Throughout American history, gender, meaning notions of essential differences between women and men, has shaped how Americans have defined and engaged in productive activity. Work has been a key site where gendered inequalities have been produced, but work has also been a crucible for rights claims that have challenged those inequalities. Federal and state governments long played a central role in generating and upholding gendered policy. Workers and advocates have debated whether to advance laboring women’s cause by demanding equality with men or different treatment that accounted for women’s distinct responsibilities and disadvantages. Beginning in the colonial period, constructions of dependence and independence derived from the heterosexual nuclear family underscored a gendered division of labor that assigned distinct tasks to the sexes, albeit varied by race and class. In the 19th century, gendered expectations shaped all workers’ experiences of the Industrial Revolution, slavery and its abolition, and the ideology of free labor. Early 20th-century reform movements sought to beat back the excesses of industrial capitalism by defining the sexes against each other, demanding protective labor laws for white women while framing work done by women of color and men as properly unregulated. Policymakers reinforced this framework in the 1930s as they built a welfare state that was rooted in gendered and racialized constructions of citizenship. In the second half of the 20th century, labor rights claims that reasoned from the sexes’ distinctiveness increasingly gave way to assertions of sex equality, even as the meaning of that equality was contested. As the sex equality paradigm triumphed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, seismic economic shifts and a conservative business climate narrowed the potential of sex equality laws to deliver substantive changes to workers.

Article

Globalization and the American City  

B. Alex Beasley

American cities have been transnational in nature since the first urban spaces emerged during the colonial period. Yet the specific shape of the relationship between American cities and the rest of the world has changed dramatically in the intervening years. In the mid-20th century, the increasing integration of the global economy within the American economy began to reshape US cities. In the Northeast and Midwest, the once robust manufacturing centers and factories that had sustained their residents—and their tax bases—left, first for the South and West, and then for cities and towns outside the United States, as capital grew more mobile and businesses sought lower wages and tax incentives elsewhere. That same global capital, combined with federal subsidies, created boomtowns in the once-rural South and West. Nationwide, city boosters began to pursue alternatives to heavy industry, once understood to be the undisputed guarantor of a healthy urban economy. Increasingly, US cities organized themselves around the service economy, both in high-end, white-collar sectors like finance, consulting, and education, and in low-end pink-collar and no-collar sectors like food service, hospitality, and health care. A new legal infrastructure related to immigration made US cities more racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse than ever before. At the same time, some US cities were agents of economic globalization themselves. Dubbed “global cities” by celebrants and critics of the new economy alike, these cities achieved power and prestige in the late 20th century not only because they had survived the ruptures of globalization but because they helped to determine its shape. By the end of the 20th century, cities that are not routinely listed among the “global city” elite jockeyed to claim “world-class” status, investing in high-end art, entertainment, technology, education, and health care amenities to attract and retain the high-income white-collar workers understood to be the last hope for cities hollowed out by deindustrialization and global competition. Today, the extreme differences between “global cities” and the rest of US cities, and the extreme socioeconomic stratification seen in cities of all stripes, is a key concern of urbanists.

Article

The Great Depression  

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

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877  

Matthew Stanley

The “Great Railroad Strike,” the first and largest nationwide series of labor uprisings in the United States’ history, occurred in July and August 1877. Backdropped by the Long Depression emanating from the Panic of 1873, the collapse of federal Reconstruction in the South, and the cooperation and consolidation among owners of major industries, what became known as the “Great Strike” or the “Great Upheaval” was in fact a sequence of dozens of simultaneous and overlapping strike actions in which some 500,000 workers across various industries walked off their jobs. Many couched their struggle in a language of freedom centered on economic independence, appealing to other workers and the public through the ideology of labor republicanism. In addition to general strikes in some cities, labor actions shut down the nation’s most valuable and important industry, the railroads. At the same time, cross-class urban crowds protested urban and industrial conditions, skirmished with soldiers, and destroyed corporate property. Strike conduct was specific to trunk line and locale. Local political, ethnic, cultural, and kinship networks impacted worker action, as did the newspaper media. Likewise, civic responses to the strikes varied widely and were both shaped by, and helped shape, municipal and regional politics. Community, cross-trade, and cross-class support proved critical in places where the strikes were most far-reaching. The roots of the 1877 strikes lay in cumulative antagonism between railroad workers and owners. In an era when workplace accidents killed tens of thousands of workers and maimed hundreds of thousands more every year, railroad companies refused to equip workplaces with readily available safety devices. Employee grievances also included long and irregular working hours, low pay, and the absence of collective bargaining rights. However, the strikes themselves and the accompanying crowd actions that began on July 16 were instigated by workers on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in response to a series of wage reductions. A wave of stoppages and protests quickly spread outward along the rail lines to Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Chicago, Kansas City, and San Francisco, transforming from a railway strike to a more general labor and urban uprising. The episode reached its most radical zenith in St. Louis, where the shutdown of nearly all of the city’s industry, largely coordinated by the Workingmen’s Party of the United States, made it the first truly general strike in U.S. history. Workers outside the railyards and non-wage workers also participated in urban uprisings and the destruction of railroad property. Cities saw violent clashes between crowds and private police forces and militias, National Guard units, and federal soldiers. In all, over one hundred men, women, and children were killed in the violence. The strikes had profound implications in the areas of labor management, civil–military relations, and popular attitudes regarding capitalism, socialism, and labor organization. The quelling of the strikes led to new approaches in how city and state governments handled civil unrest. In particular, the strikes expanded ownership’s labor management instruments and practices, as governments proved willing to deploy the military against workers during labor disputes on a major scale, expediting the rise of the “robber baron.” These repressive measures were augmented by popular anticommunist hysteria—the first of several major “red scares” throughout U.S. history. Whereas many workers viewed the walkouts as prefiguring a “second American Revolution” or a culminating “emancipation of labor,” building on the implicit promises of the Civil War, business elites and political authorities were frightened as perhaps no time in U.S. history. Economic crisis and scarcity fears enabled politicians and sensationalist newspapermen to create and exploit popular fears of foreign-born radicalism. Apprehensions concerning labor organization, tinged with xenophobia, permeated the upper and middle classes, furthering a sea change in national political priorities. Meanwhile, although organized labor, limited to “skilled” rail workers, had been in decline throughout the 1870s, the Great Strike’s lack of coordination alerted many workers to the need for expanded cooperation in the form of unionization. Occurring at the tail end of Reconstruction, the Great Railroad Strike helped shift the center of political gravity in the nation from questions of political rights in the post-emancipation South to those of capital and labor in the industrial North. Most historians view the Great Strike as a watershed event. As a cultural transit from Reconstruction to the Gilded Age, 1877 forced the “labor question” into the nation’s popular consciousness.

Article

Guest Workers in U.S. History  

David Griffith

Guest workers have been part of the economic and cultural landscapes of the United States since the founding of republics across the Americas, evolving from indentured servants to the use of colonial subjects to foreign nationals imported under a variety of intergovernmental agreements and U.S. visas. Guest worker programs became institutionalized with the Bracero Program with Mexico, which ran from 1942 to 1964, and with the British West Indies Temporary Alien Labor Program, which began in 1943. Both of these programs were established under the Emergency Farm Labor Supply Program to address real and perceived labor shortages in agriculture during World War II. Both programs were structurally similar to programs employed to import colonial subjects, primarily Puerto Ricans, for U.S. agriculture. Although the U.S. Departments of Labor and Agriculture oversaw the operation of the programs during the war, control over guest workers’ labor and the conditions of their employment increasingly became the responsibility of their employers and employer associations following the war. Nevertheless, U.S. government support for guest worker programs has been steady, if uneven, since the 1940s, and most new legislation addressing immigration reform has included some sort of guest worker provision. Under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, for example, H-2A and H-2B visas were created to import workers primarily from Latin America and the Caribbean for low-wage work in agricultural (H-2A) and non-agricultural (H-2B) seasonal employment. In the Immigration Act of 1990, H-1 visas were added to import guest workers, primarily from India and China, for work in computer programming, higher education, and other skilled occupations. Although an unknown portion of the guest worker labor force resists the terms of their employment and slips into the shadow economy as undocumented immigrants, the number of legal guest workers in the United States has increased into the 21st century.

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Haymarket Riot and Conspiracy  

Timothy Messer-Kruse

The Haymarket Riot and Conspiracy of 1886 is a landmark in American social and political history. On May 4, 1886, during an open-air meeting near Haymarket Square in Chicago, someone threw a dynamite bomb into a squad of police, sparking a riot that resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and at least four rioters. Eight anarchists were brought to trial. Though the bomb-thrower was never apprehended, the eight radical leaders were charged as accessories before the fact for conspiring to murder the police. After the longest criminal trial in Illinois history up to that time, seven men were convicted and condemned to death and one to a long prison term. After all appeals were exhausted, four were executed, one cheated the hangman with a jail cell suicide, and the death sentences of two others were commuted to life imprisonment (all three incarcerated men were later pardoned by Governor John Peter Altgeld in 1892). The Haymarket bombing and trial marked a pivotal moment in the history of American social movements. It sparked the nation’s first red scare whose fury disrupted even moderately leftist movements for a generation. It drove the nation’s labor unions onto a more conservative path than they had been heading before the bombing. The worldwide labor campaign for clemency for the convicted men became the foundation for the institution of International Workers’ Day on May 1, a holiday ironically observed in most countries except for the United States. It also began a tradition within the American left of memorializing the Haymarket defendants as the first martyrs to their cause.

Article

Home-Based Labor  

Eileen Boris

Home-based labor has persisted over time and space but has varied in processes performed, earnings gained, and working conditions. Women and men have made and assembled goods, copied and manipulated data, minded dependents, and conducted enterprises in their residences or entered other people’s homes as domestic workers and caregivers. They have done so as unwaged family laborers and slaves, as employees, and as the self-employed. From rural outworkers in early America to urban immigrant homeworkers into the 20th century, from New England to the South and Puerto Rico, mothers and daughters sought to generate income along with engaging in unpaid work for the family. Most found it impossible to combine caring and earning without lengthening the workday into the night. Concentrated in seasonal and fashion industries, in which workers were paid by the piece, homeworkers were at the mercy of national and global markets. Though a family survival strategy, home-based labor challenged the ideology of separate spheres, the separation of home from work that made such labor invisible. Trade unionists joined women reformers to campaign against the home sweatshop for violating domesticity and undermining the male breadwinner wage. The resulting protective laws—minimum wages, maximum hours, and limits on child labor—rarely included home-based work, while the tenement location complicated enforcement of labor standards. New Deal reforms banned the most pervasive forms of industrial homework but excluded the often home-based domestic and agricultural sectors in which African Americans predominated. By the 1990s, new campaigns against the sweatshop linked the local and the global, while domestic workers organized to fight for inclusion in standards related to wages, working hours, and health and safety. Emerging after World War II, white-collar, home-based labor only expanded with the COVID-19 pandemic. Adding new forms of surveillance, such remote work continued to extend the working day, especially for women with care responsibilities.

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Indentured Servitude in Colonial America  

Anna Suranyi

Indentured servitude was a constitutive factor in the development of colonial America and helped shape patterns of immigration, labor relationships, citizenship, and the economy of the colonies. During the 16th through the 18th centuries, about 320,000 indentured servants, primarily from England but also from Scotland, Ireland, and elsewhere, crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the British colonies in the Americas, making up about 80 percent of white immigrants. About three-quarters of them were male, a quarter were female, and approximately a tenth were children. Most indentured servants were impoverished individuals, aged 18 to 25, who had agreed to a term of four to seven years of servitude with a payment of “freedom dues” at the end, but some were shipped or “transported” overseas involuntarily by the government, as vagrants or to serve criminal sentences, or were trafficked into servitude by kidnappers. Even those servants who had nominally agreed to indentured servitude had little understanding of what awaited them on the North American continent, because the indenture relationship gave their masters and mistresses much greater control over servants’ lives than employers had in Britain. Once indentured servants began their term of labor, many found themselves in abusive situations, with women and children particularly vulnerable to mistreatment. However, their circumstances were better than that of enslaved people of African ancestry, as a consequence of the limited duration of indentured servitude as opposed to lifelong enslavement and because indentured servants possessed legally and culturally defined rights as members of British society that were unavailable to the enslaved, including guidelines regulating their terms of labor, protections against abuses, and the ability to sue in court if mistreatment occurred. After servitude was completed, indentured servants were expected to join colonial society, and while many remained in dire poverty, some prospered.

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Industrial Workers of the World  

Peter Cole

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.

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Irish American Working Class  

David Brundage

Between the 1790s and the 1990s, the Irish American population grew from some 500,000 to nearly 40 million. Part of this growth was due to immigration, especially in the years of the Great Irish Famine, though significant emigration from Ireland both preceded and followed the famine decade of 1846–1855. For much of this 200-year period, Irish-born men and women and their descendants were heavily concentrated in working-class occupations and urban communities. Especially in the years around the opening of the 20th century, Irish Catholic immigrants and their descendants put a distinctive stamp on both the American labor movement and urban working-class culture and politics as a whole. Their outsized influence diminished somewhat over the course of the 20th century, but the American Irish continued to occupy key leadership positions in the U.S. labor movement, the Democratic Party, and the American Catholic Church, even as the working-class members or constituents of these institutions became increasingly ethnically diverse. The experience of Irish American working people thus constitutes an important dimension of a larger story—that of the American working class as a whole.

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The Italian Immigrant Working-Class Experience in the United States  

Marcella Bencivenni

Close to seventeen million people in the United States, approximately 6 percent of the total population, identified themselves as Italian Americans in the 2016 census. Constituting the nation’s fifth largest ancestry group, they are the descendants of one of the greatest diasporas in human history. Since 1860, twenty-nine million Italians have left their homeland for better opportunities worldwide. Close to six million of them have settled in the United States with about five million arriving prior to World War I. Along with other European groups of the great transatlantic migrations of 1870–1920—Jews, Poles, Croatians, and Finns—they became an essential part of the American working class, building, shaping, and enriching its life and culture. Among the most ubiquitous of the early foreigners, Italians were initially confined to unskilled and manual jobs but gradually made their way into the ranks of semi-skilled operatives in mass-production manufacturing. By 1910, they constituted a vital segment of the American multinational workforce in the mining, garment, and steel industries and played key roles in the labor struggles of the early 20th century, providing both key leadership and mass militancy. Like other ethnic groups, Italian immigrant workers lived deeply transnational lives. Their class consciousness was continually informed by their ethnic identity and their complicated relationship to both Italy and the United States, as they sought to transform, and were transformed by, the political events, industrial conditions, and cultures of the two countries. The story of how Italian immigrant workers became “American” sheds light not only on their experience in the United States but also on the transnational character of the labor movement and the interplay of class, race, gender, and ethnic identities.

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Labor and Black Power  

Austin McCoy

From the early 1960s through the 1970s, Black workers in various economic sectors organized and were inspired by Black Power principles such as community control, self-determination, and racial solidarity. This Black Power unionism utilized an array of strategies and tactics, ranging from direct action and radical class struggle to negotiation and lawsuits, to combat racial discrimination in employment. Black workers in sectors such as construction and auto and steel industries also utilized strikes, shutdowns, and other forms of protest to combat the intransigence of labor unions that failed to address segregation at the workplace, poor treatment of Black workers, and seniority policies that made work more precarious for them. While Black Power unionism enjoyed some successes—albeit often incomplete—their efforts to enact “affirmative action from below” encountered stiff opposition from employers and unions in the context of the economic and political crises of the 1970s. Ultimately, Black Power unionism exposed the limits of post-Jim Crow desegregation policy in US racial capitalism. Black Power unionism was a political movement that was as salient for Black workers as the Black Panther Party. Although its achievements were limited, its influence far outlived the Black Panther Party itself.

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Labor and Chinese Exclusion in US History  

Justin F. Jackson

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, white working-class activists and their allies in the United States acted as a political vanguard in efforts to limit the entry, naturalization, and civil rights of Chinese migrants, especially laborers. First in California in the 1850s, and then throughout the North American West and the nation at large, a militant racist-nativist minority of trade unionists and labor reformers assailed Chinese as an economic, cultural, and political threat to white workers, their living standards, and the republic itself. Uniting with Democrats and independent antimonopoly parties, workers and their organizations formed the base of a cross-class anti-Chinese movement that, by the 1880s, eroded Republicans’ support for Chinese labor migrants and won severe legal restrictions against them. Organized labor, especially the American Federation of Labor and its leadership, played a key role, lobbying Congress to refine and extend Chinese exclusion and erect similar barriers against other Asian migrants, including Japanese and Filipinos. Anti-Chinese labor advocates also influenced and coordinated with parallel pro-exclusion movements abroad, leading a global white working-class reaction to the Chinese labor diaspora across parts of Asia, Africa, and the Americas. In many ways, anti-Asian working-class nativism prefigured early-20th-century measures placing unprecedented constraints on white European migration. Yet organized labor barely opposed the demise of anti-Chinese and national-quota restrictions during World War II and the Cold War, as diplomatic demands, economic expansion, and a changing international system weakened domestic political support for exclusion.

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Labor and the Catholic Church  

Steve Rosswurm

The US Catholic Church was for most of its history—and, in many places, still is—a working-class church. The choice for worship by successive waves of immigrants, from the Irish to the Polish to the Mexican, the Church, once it had created an institutional presence, welcomed “these strangers in a strange land.” These immigrants play a major role in creating and sustaining parishes that served both as a soul-sustaining refuge and, in many cases, a way station to the outside world. James Cardinal Gibbons, having learned from the central role that Irish workers played in the Knights of Labor and protests against the excommunication of the radical New York priest, Edward McGlynn, persuaded the Vatican to take a relatively liberal stance toward the “social question” in the United States. Rerum Novarum, the 1891 papal encyclical, condemned socialism and competitive capitalism, but more significantly asserted the “natural” right of workers to form unions as well as to have a living wage. It was within this religious legitimation of unionism that Irish Catholics came to prominence in the American Federation of Labor, that Monsignor John A. Ryan created a US Catholic social justice intellectual tradition, and that US bishops adopted the 1919 Program for Social Reconstruction. The Catholic labor moment came when the Church, led by the National Catholic Welfare Conference’s Social Action Department, midwestern bishops, and labor priests, not only supported the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), but consistently pushed the New Deal to implement the 1919 program. Philip Murray, the CIO’s Catholic president, led the expulsion of the Communist-led unions when the Communist Party, in the Wallace campaign, threatened both the country and everything the CIO had built. On the one hand, this Catholic labor moment dissolved in an overdetermined mixture of complacency, capitalist growth, and anti-Communism. On the other, a direct line can be traced from California’s labor priests to the Spanish Mission Band to Cesar Chavez and the formation of the United Farm Workers. It took time for the official Church to support the farm workers, but once that happened, it was all in: the support the Church, at all levels, gave them far exceeded anything it had done previously to implement Rerum Novarum.

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Labor and Unions since 1960  

Erik Loomis

The American labor movement has declined significantly since 1960. Once a powerful part of American life, bringing economic democracy to the nation, organized labor has become a shell of itself, with numbers far lower than a half-century ago. The 1960s began with a powerful movement divided on race but also deeply influenced by the civil rights movement. Deindustrialization and capital mobility cut into labor’s power after 1965 as factories closed. The rise of public sector unionism in the 1970s briefly gave labor new power, but private sector unions faced enormous internal dissension throughout that decade. The Reagan administration ushered in a new era of warfare against organized labor when the president fired the striking air traffic controllers in 1981. Soon, private sector employers engaged in brutal anti-union campaigns. Reforms within labor in the 1990s sought to renew the movement’s long tradition of organizing, but with mixed success at best. Since the 1980s, we have seen more attacks on organized labor, especially Republican-led campaigns against public sector union rights beginning in 2011 that culminated in the 2019 Supreme Court ruling that declared required dues for non-union members unconstitutional. Labor’s decline has led to a new era of income inequality but also brought a stronger class-centric politics back into American life as everyday people seek new answers to the tenuousness of their economic lives.