U.S. Labor law and movement history 2

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U.S. Labor law and movement history 2

See U.S. Labor law and movement history

World War I

During World War I Gompers and the AFL were strong supporters of the war effort. They minimized strikes as wages soared and full employment was reached. The AFL unions strongly encouraged their young men to enlist in the military, and fiercely opposed efforts to reduce recruiting and slow war production by the anti-war IWW and left-wing Socialists. President Wilson appointed Gompers to the powerful Council of National Defense, where he set up the War Committee on Labor. The AFL membership reached 2.4 million in 1917.

Women telephone operators win strike in 1919

Moved to action by the rising cost of living, the president of the Boston Telephone Operator’s Union, Julia O’Connor, asked for higher wages from the New England Telephone Company. Wages of operators averaged a third less than women in manufacturing. In April 9000 women operators in New England went on strike, shutting down most telephone service. The company hired college students as strikebreakers, but they came under violent attack by men supporting the strikers. In a few days a settlement was reached giving higher wages. After the success O’Connor began a national campaign to organize women operators.

Coal Strike of 1919

The United Mine Workers under John L. Lewis called a strike for November 1, 1919 in all soft (bituminous) coal fields. They had agreed to a wage agreement to run until the end of World War I and now sought to capture some of their industry’s wartime gains. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer invoked the Lever Act, a wartime measure that made it a crime to interfere with the production or transportation of necessities. Ignoring the court order 400,000 coal workers walked out. The coal operators played the radical card, saying Lenin and Trotsky had ordered the strike and were financing it, and some of the press echoed that language. Lewis, facing criminal charges and sensitive to the propaganda campaign, withdrew his strike call. Lewis did not fully control the faction-ridden UAW and many locals ignored his call. As the strike dragged on into its third week, supplies of the nation’s main fuel were running low and the public called for ever stronger government action. Final agreement came after five weeks with the miners getting a 14% raise, far less than they wanted.

Weakness of organized labor 1920-1929

The US Supreme Court had been one of the major obstacles to wage-hour and child-labor laws. Among notable cases is the 1918 case of Hammer v. Dagenhart in which the Court by one vote held unconstitutional a Federal child- Labor law . Similarly in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital in 1923, the Court by a narrow margin voided the District of Columbia law that set minimum wages for women. During the 1930’s, the Court’s action on social legislation was even more devastating.

The 1920s marked a period of sharp decline for the labor movement. Union membership and activities fell sharply in the face of economic prosperity, a lack of leadership within the movement, and anti-union sentiments from both employers and the government. The unions were much less able to organize strikes. In 1919, more than 4 million workers (or 21 percent of the labor force) participated in about 3,600 strikes. In contrast, 1929 witnessed about 289,000 workers (or 1.2 percent of the labor force) stage only 900 strikes.

The economic prosperity of the decade led to stable prices, eliminating one major incentive to join unions.[36] Unemployment rarely dipped below 5 percent in the 1920s and few workers feared real wage losses.

The 1920s also saw a lack of strong leadership within the labor movement. Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor died in 1924 after serving as the organization’s president for 37 years. Observers said successor William Green, who was the secretary-treasurer of the United Mine Workers, “lacked the aggressiveness and the imagination of the AFL’s first president”.[38] The AFL was down to less than 3 million members in 1925 after hitting a peak of 4 million members in 1920.

Employers across the nation led a successful campaign against unions known as the “American Plan”, which sought to depict unions as “alien”to the nation’s individualistic spirit. In addition, some employers, like the National Association of Manufacturers, used Red Scare tactics to discredit unionism by linking them to Communist activities.

U.S. courts were less hospitable to union activities during the 1920s than in the past. In this decade, corporations used twice as many court injunctions against strikes than any comparable period. In addition, the practice of forcing employees (by threat of termination) to sign yellow-dog contracts that said they would not join a union was not outlawed until 1932.

Although the labor movement fell in prominence during the 1920s, the Great Depression would ultimately bring it back to life.

Organized labor 1929-1955

The Great Depression and organized labor

The stock market crashed in October 1929, and ushered in the Great Depression. By the winter of 1932-33, the economy was so perilous that the unemployment rate hit the 25 percent mark. Unions lost members during this time because laborers could not afford to pay their dues and furthermore, numerous strikes against wage cuts left the unions impoverished: “… one might have expected a reincarnation of organizations seeking to overthrow the capitalistic system that was now performing so poorly. Some workers did indeed turn to such radical movements as Communism, but, in general, the nation seemed to have been shocked into inaction.”

Though unions were not acting yet, cities across the nation witnessed local and spontaneous marches by frustrated relief applicants. In March 1930, hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers marched through New York City, Detroit, Washington, San Francisco and other cities in a mass protest organized by the Communist Party’s Unemployed Councils. In 1931, more than 400 relief protests erupted in Chicago and that number grew to 550 in 1932. The leadership behind these organizations often came from radical groups like Communists and Socialists, who wanted to organize “unfocused neighborhood militancy into organized popular defense organizations”.Workers turned to these radical groups until organized labor became more active in 1932, with the passage of the Norris-La Guardia Act.

The Norris-La Guardia Anti-Injunction Act of 1932

On March 23, 1932, President Herbert Hoover signed what became known as the Norris-La Guardia Act, marking the first of many pro-union Bills that Washington would pass in the 1930s. Also known as the Anti-Injunction Bill, it offered procedural and substantive protections against the easy issuance of court injunctions during labor disputes, which had limited union behavior in the 1920s.[47] Although the act only applied to federal courts, numerous states would pass similar acts in the future. Additionally, the act outlawed yellow-dog contracts, which were documents some employers forced their employees to sign to ensure they would not join a union; employees who refused to sign were terminated from their jobs.

The passage of the Norris-La Guardia Act signified a victory for the American Federation of Labor, which had been lobbying Congress to pass it for slightly more than five years.[39] It also marked a large change in public policy. Up until the passage of this act, the collective bargaining rights of workers were severely hampered by judicial control.

FDR and the National Industrial Recovery Act

President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office on March 4, 1933, and immediately began implementing programs to alleviate the economic crisis. In June, he passed the National Industrial Recovery Act, which gave workers the right to organize into unions.[50] Though it contained Other provisions , like minimum wage and maximum hours, its most significant passage was, “Employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representative of their own choosing, and shall be free from the interference, restraint, or coercion of employers.”This portion, which was known as Section 7(a), was symbolic to workers in the United States because it stripped employers of their rights to either coerce them or refuse to bargain with them. While no power of enforcement was written into the law, it “recognized the rights of the industrial working class in the United States”.

Although the National Industrial Recovery Act was ultimately deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935 and replaced by the Wagner Act two months after that, it fueled workers to join unions and strengthened those organizations.

In response to both the Norris-La Guardia Act and the NIRA, workers who were previously unorganized in a number of industries-such as rubber workers, oil and gas workers and service workers-began to look for organizations that would allow them to band together.

The NIRA strengthened workers’ resolve to unionize and instead of participating in unemployment or hunger marches, they started to participate in strikes for union recognition in various industries.” In 1933, the number of work stoppages jumped to 1,695, double its figure from 1932. In 1934, 1,865 strikes occurred, involving more than 1.4 million workers.

The elections of 1934 might have reflected the “radical upheaval sweeping the country “, as Roosevelt won the greatest majority either party ever held in the Senate and 322 Democrats won seats in the United States House of Representatives versus 103 Republicans. It is possible that “the great social movement from below thus strengthened the independence of the executive branch of government.”

Despite the impact of such changes on the United States’ political structure and on workers’ empowerment, some scholars have criticized the impacts of these policies from a classical economic perspective. Cole and Ohanian (2004) find that the New Deal’s pro-labor policies are an important factor in explaining the weak recovery from the Great Depression and the rise in real wages in some industrial sectors during this time.

Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 for a Minimum Wage

On Saturday, June 25, 1938, to avoid pocket vetoes 9 days after Congress had adjourned, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed 121 Bills . Among these bills was a landmark law in the Nation’s social and economic development — Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA). Against a history of judicial opposition, the depression-born FLSA had survived, not unscathed, more than a year of Congressional altercation. In its final form, the act applied to industries whose combined employment represented only about one-fifth of the labor force. In these industries, it banned oppressive child labor and set the minimum hourly wage at 25 cents, and the maximum workweek at 44 hours.

Main Source: Wikipedia and Academic publications

Bibliography and other resources

First Facts of American Labor: A Comprehensive Collection of Labor Firsts in the United States. Edited by Philip Foner. New York, Holmes & Meier, 1984. Include an alphabetical arrangement plus index.

American Labor Sourcebook. Bernard and Susan Rifkin. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1979.
Includes historical information on labor unions, legislation, and court decisions.

American Federation of Labor: History, Encyclopedia, Reference Books. Washington, D.C., AFL, 1919-60. Historical essay, photographs, AFL organizers and unions, etc.

Labor Conflict in the United States: An Encyclopedia. Edited by Ronald L. Filippelli. New York, Garland, 1990. Signed entries, with brief bibliographies, on major labor disputes involving the use of force.


Eileen Silverstein, Collective Action, Property Rights and Law Reform: The
Story of the Labor Injunction, 11 HOFSTRA LAB. L.J. (1993).

FOUNDATIONS OF LABOR AND EMPLOYMENT LAW (Samuel Estreicher & Stewart J. Schwab eds., 2000);

HUMAN RIGHTS (Philip Alston ed., 2005).

WOLFGANG ABENDROTH, A SHORT HISTORY OF THE EUROPEAN WORKING CLASS (Nicholas Jacobs & Brian Trench trans., New Left Books 1972) (1965).

Rediscovering union democracy: Processes of union revitalization and renewal
P Fairbrother – Labour History, 2012 – researchbank.rmit.edu.au

Farm Workers and the Churches: The Movement in California and Texas. By Alan J. Watt
JG Moreno – Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies, 2012 – UCLA

“Go to the Worker”: America’s Labor Apostles (review)
D O’Brien – The Catholic Historical Review, 2012 – muse.jhu.edu

Review: Cosecha Triste: El Programa Bracero/Harvest of Loneliness: The Bracero Program F Barajas – Pacific Historical Review, 2012 – JSTOR

The International Handbook of Labour Unions: Responses to Neo-liberalism
G Gall, A Wilkinson… – 2012

American violence: A documentary history, R Hofstadter – 2012 – Knopf

Three generations in the New World: labour market outcomes of Swedish Americans in the USA, 1880-2000. DO Rooth… – Scandinavian Economic History Review, 2012 – Taylor & Francis


Social Networks and the Dynamics of Labour Market Outcomes: Evidence from Refugees Resettled in the US. LA Beaman – The Review of Economic Studies, 2012 – restud.oxfordjournals.org

Gender and the Personal Shaping of Public Administration in the United States: Mary Anderson and the Women’s Bureau, 1920-1930. JT McGuire – Public Administration Review, 2012 – Wiley



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Mentioned in these Entries

Attorney General, Bills, History of Industrial Councils, History of Labor Legislation, History of Trade Unions, History of Working Time, History of the International Labour Organization, Labor law, Other provisions, Refugees, U.S. Labor law and movement history, country.

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