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The Battles of Organized Labor in the United States

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A mural from the Pullman National Monument

A mural from the Pullman National Monument

From 1794 to Today: Labor Unions in the United States

Organized labor in the United States has a long, proud history. In 1794, the first union was established in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and named the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers. The Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers were shoemakers who organized with the goal of protecting their wages.

A pay dispute in 1805 led to a strike of almost seven weeks, and the issue was taken to court. The Commonwealth v. Pullis case dealt a very serious blow to the union as eight workers were fined and indicted of criminal conspiracy to increase wages. This abruptly ended the strike and made attempts to control prices and set wages illegal. The courts continued to rule against organized labor until the Commonwealth v. Hunt Massachusetts Supreme Court case of 1842. The court ruled unions were good for stimulating competition and allowed to seek concessions from employers.

Labor Unions Today

Labor unions have had a profound impact on the workplace to this day, but their influence has been greatly diminished. The United States Department of Labor announced that, in 2019, union membership was 14.6 million, equaling 10.3% of the workforce. Those numbers were down 0.2% from 2018.

History of Organized Labor

Notable events in labor union history include the following.

Knights of Labor

In 1869, the first major national union was founded, called the Knights of Labor. The goals of the Knights of Labor were an eight-hour workday, ending child labor, and equal pay for equal work. The union accepted skilled and unskilled workers. In 1886, there were over 1,600 strikes, and membership in the union grew to 700,000. Some of the strikes were violent, such as the Haymarket Riot in Chicago. Dissatisfaction within members of the Knights of Labor, along with an increased backlash against unions, led to the gradual end of the union.

American Federal of Labor

The American Federal of Labor was founded in December 1886, comprising 25 national trade unions with over 316,000 members. The AFL’s goals were increased wages and shorter hours, and members were encouraged to support politicians sympathetic to labor.

Pullman Community and Labor Day

In 1880, the country’s first planned industrial community was built near Chicago in Pullman, Illinois. The community included a factory, housing, schools, shops, schools, and a hotel. Workers were allowed to rent homes but never buy them. In 1894, following a nationwide depression, wages were cut for workers, but the cost of rent remained the same. Pullman Palace Car Company workers became frustrated and went on strike. The American Railway Union got involved, and there was a nationwide boycott on Pullman cars.

The boycott disrupted rail service and mail delivery, prompting federal intervention. Train cars were torched, and rioting ensued. Lives were lost during the widespread violence. In an attempt to quell the deep unrest, Congress created Labor Day, a federal holiday celebrated on the first Monday in September to honor the contributions of organized labor. The two-month-long strike was unsuccessful, as workers returned to their jobs on the condition they would never join a union.

In two years, workers claimed a victory as the Illinois Supreme Court ruled against the Pullman Palace Car Company that owning all non-industry properties was illegal. The ruling established private ownership for all residential properties. Shortly after the ruling, the town of Pullman became annexed by the City of Chicago.

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

The Pullman Palace Car Company was a large employer of African-Americans, and in 1925 The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was organized under the leadership of Asa Phillip Randolph. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was the first African-American labor union in the United States.

National Labor Relations Act

The Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was instrumental in the resurgence of organized labor. In 1920, there were over 5 million union members, and by the decade’s end, there were 1.5 million fewer. The trend continued with the Great Depression, and aggressive action needed to be taken to save the economy. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932 and began his presidency with a strong Democratic majority.

In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act became law, guaranteeing collective bargaining at the federal level. Private employers could no longer interfere with employees interested in unionizing or discriminate hiring and firing based upon union status, and they had to accept a union negotiating in good faith. The National Labor Relations Act also created an independent board to oversee, enforce, and administer penalties for those in violation of labor law.

Fair Labor Standards Act

The Fair Labor Standards Act, signed in 1938, established the five-day, 40-hour work week, overtime pay, and a minimum wage, and it ended child labor. In the subsequent years that followed, union membership increased.

Labor Activity During the Truman Administration

In 1945, early into the Presidency of Harry S. Truman, the United States was affected by a wave of strikes. World War II was over, and unions were eager to revisit their previous demands that were put on hold during the war for the sake of national security and country pride. Coal, oil, steel, auto, railroad, electrical, and other workers participated in a series of strikes through 1946.

President Truman threatened to draft rail workers into the army, took the United Mine Workers to court, and intervened in many disputes. He was supportive of labor but was concerned all the strike activity would hurt the economy. Unions were successful in increasing wages but alienated the general public, and President Truman’s approval rating took a big hit. In the 1946 midterm elections, Democrats lost control of both Chambers of Congress.

Labor Management Relations Act (Taft-Hartley Act)

The next year, Republicans passed the Labor Management Relations Act over Truman’s veto, which restricted the union’s ability to strike, allowed the president to intervene in strikes, limited union participation in politics, and banned the requirement that employers only hire union members and/or require new hires to become a union. The Labor Management Relations Act, also known as the Taft-Hartley Act, opened the door for the spread of right-to-work laws throughout the country.

Executive Order 10988

John F. Kennedy is one of the most celebrated presidents of the United States, and he issued one of the most famous executive orders in regards to organized labor. On January 17, 1962, Executive Order 10988 was issued by President John F. Kennedy, awarding Federal employees the right of collective bargaining and being in a union. The executive order was expanded under Republican presidents Richard Nixon in 1969 and Gerald Ford in 1975.

Reagan's SAG Presidency

In 1980, organized labor would encounter an administration they would deeply despise with the election of Ronald Reagan. Reagan was a former president of the Screen Actor’s Guild and accomplished major victories for those in the performing arts. Ronald Reagan was able to secure and establish a system of royalties for television actors when their episodes were re-broadcast. Film actors felt left out and desperately wanted to be included. In 1959, SAG members voted to reinstate Ronald Reagan back as president after his successful 1947–1952 tenure.

In March of 1960, Reagan led an industry-wide strike suspending production at all the major studios. The studios soon caved, and after five weeks of intense negotiations, a one-time back payment was arranged, establishing a health and pension plan and residuals for all productions from 1960 on.

Reagan's U.S. Presidency

In 1962, he switched political parties and now identified as a Republican. Early on in President Reagan’s tenure, his union allegiance was tested. The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization was seeking an across-the-board $10,000 wage increase for its members and a 4-day, 32-hour work week over the current 5-day, 40 hours in the summer of 1981. Talks between the Federal Aviation Administration and PATCO over contract negotiations were unsuccessful, and almost 13,000 controllers walked out on the job, resulting in 7,000 flights cancelled across the country. President Reagan called the strike illegal and ordered the striking workers to return to work within 48 hours, or they would be terminated.

On August 5th, 1981, President Reagan fired 11,000 air traffic controllers. In two months, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization union was decertified. When it came time for the president to fill vacancies at the National Labor Relations Board, he chose candidates that were considered deeply anti-union. In 1983, there were 17.7 million union workers, and that number has only continued to decline.

Obama's Presidency

Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008, and like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he had the deep challenge of an economic downturn. Early in his presidency, the attempt to strengthen unions was put forth in the Employee Free Choice Act, but all 41 Republican Senators and 6 Democrats were opposed. The bill would have removed the need for a ballot if a majority of employees signed expressing union interest, negotiations as soon as 10 days upon union certification, and fines for discriminatory practices by employers.

In the 2010 midterm elections, Democrats had substantial losses at the Federal and State level. Unions were about to incur great losses as well. Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and West Virginia all became Right-to-Work states during the Obama Presidency. There are currently 28 Right-to-Work states. The National Labor Relations Board, since 2013, has fought back against the tide of anti-union legislators with pro-union rulings, but now with President Donald Trump, the NLRB will likely return to its pro-business ways of recent Republican Administrations.

Supreme Court Rulings

The biggest threat to Organized Labor is currently the Supreme Court. In late March 2016, the Supreme Court ruled 4-4 in the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, No. 14-915 case that would have severely hurt labor unions. During arguments in January, it appeared a majority of the judges were ready to issue a devastating ruling, but the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia changed everything. The tie left in place current California law that nonunion public employees pay a fee equivalent to dues to cover the cost of collective bargaining.

A new case may potentially be heard by the Supreme Court by an Illinois man who claims the law violates his free speech in requiring him to financially support an organization he doesn’t support, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He is seeking to overturn a 1977 Supreme Court decision that stated public employees that refused to join unions were still obligated to pay bargaining fees.

President Donald Trump filled the empty seat in the Supreme Court with Neil Gorsuch, tipping the balance of the court with 5 of 9 judges nominated by Republicans.

The Future of Organized Labor

Organized Labor is in an uncomfortable state right now in trying to expand and fight for survival. In Canton, Mississippi, over 60% of the workers at the Nissan plant voted no in unionizing joining the United Automobile Workers in early August of this year. The United Automobiles Workers union stated Nissan broke labor laws leading up to the vote. The National Labor Relations Board has charged Nissan with illegally threatening to close the plant if it became union. In 2001, there was another effort to organize another Nissan plant in Tennessee, and it failed easily as well.

The future of Organized Labor in the United States is uncertain. The majority of union members today are government employees, and seven states combine for over half of members. From its humble beginnings, its peak membership in the 1950s, and up to today, workers have sought better working conditions, increased wages, and job security. Labor unions helped foster a strong middle class, and it is no coincidence that as they have declined in influence, the income gap has grown between the rich and poor.


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.