Kathryn O’Donnell Howard Besser

Background on the American Labor Movement

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Background on the American Labor Movement

The labor movement is defined “as an organized attempt by workers to improve their status by united action (particularly via labor unions) or the leaders of this movement” (WordNet 3.0).

A Wall Street Journal article published on Jan 23, 2010 states that in 2009, “Private-sector unions lost 834,000 members, bringing membership down to 7.2% of the private-sector work force, from 7.6% the year before. The broader drop in U.S. employment and a small gain by public-sector unions helped keep the total share of union membership flat at 12.3% in 2009. In the early 1980s, unions represented 20% of workers. […] The manufacturing sector and construction industries […] were hit particularly hard in the recession by the credit crisis and global downturn, which damped demand for industrial goods” (Maher).

This is not the first rise and dip in union membership. During World War I, membership in the American Federation of Labor (AFL) grew to nearly four million, because, “the AFL under President Gompers’ leadership worked in close cooperation with President Wilson to ensure industrial peace and a steady flow of military equipment and armaments for the American Expeditionary Force in Europe” (American Labor Studies Center). After the war, wages dropped due to an economic depression. The National Association of Manufacturers worked to bring down unions and the labor movement fell under suspicion during the first Red Scare. Between 1920-1923, unions lost a million members (American Labor Studies Center).

When FDR came to power, “Congress passed the National Recovery Administration; the NRA’s Section 7a specifically placed on the statute books the right of unions to exist and to negotiate with employers. […] The Supreme Court soon declared NRA unconstitutional” (American Labor Studies Center). But in 1936, the Wagner Act was passed. “It went beyond “7a” to establish a legal basis for unions; set collective bargaining as a matter of national policy required by the law; provided for secret ballot elections for the choosing of unions; and protected union members from employer intimidation and coercion” (American Labor Studies Center). Both the AFL and CIO became stronger and “the national social security program, unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation, and a federal minimum wage-hour law,” were enacted (American Labor Studies Center). In the 1930s, many elected governors and mayors were Democrats who, “refused to send police to evict sit-down strikers who had seized control of factories. This state support allowed the minority of workers who actively supported unionization to use force to overcome the passivity of the majority of workers and the opposition of the employers” (Friedman).

World War Two, “helped unions both by eliminating unemployment and because state officials supported unions to gain support for the war effort. […] After growing from 3.5 to 10.2 million members between 1935 and 1941, unions added another 4 million members during the war” (Friedman). But once the war ended, union membership began to drop. In 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act was passed. It gave, “employers and state officials new powers against strikers and unions. The law also required union leaders to sign a non-Communist affidavit as a condition for union participation in NLRB-sponsored elections. This loyalty oath divided labor during a time of weakness. With its roots in radical politics and an alliance of convenience between Lewis and the Communists, the CIO was torn by the new Red Scare. Hoping to appease the political right, the CIO majority in 1949 expelled ten Communist-led unions with nearly a third of the organization's members. […] In 1955 it merged with the AFL to form the AFL-CIO” (Friedman).

During the 1950s and early 1960s, “Wages rose steadily, by over 2 percent per year and union workers earned a comfortable 20 percent more than nonunion workers of similar age, experience and education. […] Unions also won a growing list of benefit programs, medical and dental insurance, paid holidays and vacations, supplemental unemployment insurance, and pensions” (Friedman).

This period did not last for long. “In the 1970s, rising unemployment, increasing international competition, and the movement of industry to the nonunion South and to rural areas undermined the bargaining position of many American unions leaving them vulnerable to a renewed management offensive. […] By the early 1980s, union avoidance had become an industry. Anti-union consultants and lawyers openly counseled employers how to use labor law to evade unions. […] By the 1990s, the unionization rate in the United States fell to under 14 percent, including only 9 percent of the private sector workers and 37 percent of those in the public sector” (Friedman).

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