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For African Americans, the Great Depression and the New Deal (1929–1940) marked a transformative era and laid the groundwork for the postwar black freedom struggle in the United States. The outbreak of the Great Depression in 1929 caused widespread suffering and despair in black communities across the country as women and men faced staggering rates of unemployment and poverty. Once Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), a Democrat, was inaugurated as president in 1933, he launched a “New Deal” of ambitious government programs to lift the United States out of the economic crisis. Most African Americans were skeptical about benefiting from the New Deal, and racial discrimination remained rampant. However, a cohort of black advisors and activists critiqued these government programs for excluding African Americans and enacted some reforms. At the grassroots level, black workers pressed for expanded employment opportunities and joined new labor unions to fight for economic rights. As the New Deal progressed a sea change swept over black politics. Many black voters switched their allegiance from the Republican to the Democratic Party, waged more militant campaigns for racial justice, and joined interracial and leftist coalitions. African Americans also challenged entrenched cultural stereotypes through photography, theater, and oral histories to illuminate the realities of black life in the United States. By 1940, African Americans now wielded an arsenal of protest tactics and were marching on a path toward full citizenship rights, which remains an always evolving process.

Article

Iliana Yamileth Rodriguez

Mexican American history in the United States spans centuries. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Spanish Empire colonized North American territories. Though met with colonial rivalries in the southeast, Spanish control remained strong in the US southwest through the 19th century. The mid-1800s were an era of power struggles over territory and the construction of borders, which greatly impacted ethnic Mexicans living in the US-Mexico borderlands. After the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), the passage of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo allowed the United States to take all or parts of California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. Ethnic Mexicans living in newly incorporated regions in the mid- through late 19th century witnessed the radical restructuring of their lives along legal, economic, political, and cultural lines. The early 20th century witnessed the rise of anti-Mexican sentiment and violence. As ethnic Mexican communities came under attack, Mexican Americans took leadership roles in institutions, labor unions, and community groups to fight for equality. Both tensions and coalition-building efforts between Mexican Americans and Mexican migrants animated the mid-20th century, as did questions about wartime identity, citizenship, and belonging. By the late 20th century, Chicana/o politics took center stage and brought forth a radical politics informed by the Mexican American experience. Finally, the late 20th through early 21st centuries saw further geographic diversification of Mexican American communities outside of the southwest.

Article

Matthew Hild

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

Article

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.

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

The patterns of urban slavery in North American and pre-Civil War US cities reveal the ways in which individual men and women, as well as businesses, institutions, and governmental bodies employed slave labor and readily adapted the system of slavery to their economic needs and desires. Colonial cities east and west of the Mississippi River founded initially as military forts, trading posts, and maritime ports, relied on African and Native American slave labor from their beginnings. The importance of slave labor increased in Anglo-American East Coast urban settings in the 18th century as the number of enslaved Africans increased in these colonies, particularly in response to the growth of the tobacco, wheat, and rice industries in the southern colonies. The focus on African slavery led most Anglo-American colonies to outlaw the enslavement of Native Americans, and urban slavery on the East Coast became associated almost solely with people of African descent. In addition, these cities became central nodes in the circum-Atlantic transportation and sale of enslaved people, slave-produced goods, and provisions for slave colonies whose economies centered on plantation goods. West of the Mississippi, urban enslavement of Native Americans, Mexicans, and even a few Europeans continued through the 19th century. As the thirteen British colonies transitioned to the United States during and after the Revolutionary War, three different directions emerged regarding the status of slavery, which would affect the status of slavery and people of African descent in cities. The gradual emancipation of enslaved people in states north of Delaware led to the creation of the so-called free states, with large numbers of free blacks moving into cities to take full advantage of freedom and the possibility of creating family and community. Although antebellum northern cities were located within areas where legalized slavery ended, these cities retained economic and political ties to southern slavery. At the same time, the radical antislavery movement developed in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. Thus, Northern cities were the site of political conflicts between pro- and antislavery forces. In the Chesapeake, as the tobacco economy declined, slave owners manumitted enslaved blacks for whom they did not have enough work, creating large groups of free blacks in cities. But these states began to participate heavily in the domestic slave trade, with important businesses located in cities. And in the Deep South, the recommitment to slavery following the Louisiana Purchase and the emergence of the cotton economy led to the creation of a string of wealthy port cities critical to the transportation of slaves and goods. These cities were situated in local economic geographies that connected rural plantations to urban settings and in national and international economies of exchange of raw and finished goods that fueled industries throughout the Atlantic world. The vast majority of enslaved people employed in the antebellum South worked on rural farms, but slave labor was a key part of the labor force in southern cities. Only after the Civil War did slavery and cities become separate in the minds of Americans, as postwar whites north and south created a mythical South in which romanticized antebellum cotton plantations became the primary symbol of American slavery, regardless of the long history of slavery that preceded their existence.

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

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.