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The Battles of Organized Labor 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 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 lead to a strike of almost seven weeks and the issue was taken to court. The Commonwealth v. George 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 have had a profound impact in the workplace to this today but their influence has been greatly diminished. The United States Department of Labor earlier this year announced that in 2016 union membership was 14.6 million equaling 10.7% of the workforce. Those numbers are down 0.4% from 2015 with 240,000 less members.

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, famously the Haymarket Riot in Chicago. Dissatisfaction within members of the Knights of Labor along with an increased backlash against unions led to gradual end of the union. The American Federal of Labor was founded in December 1886 compromising of 25 national trade unions with over 316,000 members. The AFL’s goals were increased wages, shorter hours, and members were encouraged to support politicians sympathetic to labor.

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 are cut for workers but the cost of rent remains the same. Pullman Palace Car Company workers became frustrated and went on strike. The American Railway Union gets involved and there is a nationwide boycott on Pullman cars. The boycott disrupts rail service and mail delivery prompting federal intervention. Train cars are torched and rioting ensues. Lives are lost during the widespread violence. In an attempt to quell the deep unrest Congress created Labor Day, a Federal holiday celebrated 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 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.

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 was 1.5 million less. 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, discriminate hiring and firing based upon union status, and 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 violations of labor law. The Fair Labor Standards Act signed in 1938 established the five day 40 hour work week, overtime pay, a minimum wage, and ended child labor. In the subsequent years that followed union membership increased.

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 increasing wages but alienated the general public and the President Truman’s approval rating took a big hit. The 1946 midterm elections Democrats lost control of both Chambers of Congress. The next year Republicans passed the Labor Management Relations Act over Truman’s veto restricting 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 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.

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.

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 5 weeks of intense negotiations a onetime back payment was arranged establishing a health and pension plan, and residuals for all productions from 1960 on. 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 20.1% 17.7 million of the workforce was union and that number has only continued to decline.

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 now 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.

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 non union 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. Earlier this year, 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.

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 rich and poor.

Angel Guzman


Philadelphia Encyclopedia


United States Department of Labor

Bureau of Labor Statistics




Law JRank


Historic Pullman Foundation


National Park Service U.S. Department of Interior

Pullman National Monument Illinois brochure


The Law That Changed the American Workplace


UVA Miller Center

Harry S. Truman: Domestic Affairs


American History USA

The Postwar Strike Wave of 1945-46



50th Anniversary: Executive Order 10988


The Atlantic

What Reagan Did for Hollywood



Reagan fires 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, Aug. 5, 1981


New York Times

Victory for Unions as Supreme Court, Scalia Gone, Ties 4-4


Mother Jones

In a Big Loss for Labor, Mississippi Nissan Workers Reject Unionization


Crain’s Chicago Business

New Supreme Court challenge to labor unions follows 4-4 split


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.


Kari Poulsen from Ohio on October 07, 2017:

Angel, this is a very interesting article. I worked as a registered nurse for years. None of the hospitals I was employed by were unionized. I did work in one unionized hospital as a travel nurse. I noticed the employees were happier than most places I had worked.

When I first moved to NM in 1993 the hospital would make the nurses pay for any equipment that was accidentally thrown out or broken. I told the staff that this was illegal. I encouraged the staff to think about getting a union. As soon as I mentioned the word union, people walked out of the conversation. They told me they would be fired if they were heard discussing unions. I told them that this was illegal also, but I could not change their minds.

I know many people feel unions are a thing of the past, but I think that they are genuinely needed. It was the unions who changed the working conditions to what we have now (as you show in your article). :)

Angel Guzman (author) from Joliet, Illinois on September 08, 2017:

Thank you Jo Miller and FlourishAnyway for reading and commenting on my article :) My father was a union laborer 37 years and other family/friends of mine have been/are union so I will always be loyal. I wish I had a union job, lol :(

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 08, 2017:

Years ago I was involved from the company side in a decertification election of a very large union and then a union election in which the employees decided by one vote not to be represented. I've answered NLRB interrogatorries and sat in the hearings. I'm familiar with the company propaganda and used to fully believe it, heart and soul. Now, however, with two decades more of experience in industry and age, I'm much more supportive of unions. I see their value.

Jo Miller from Tennessee on September 06, 2017:

I think many people just don't realize what labor unions have added to our country and what it was like before they had any power. I agree with you that we are going backwards in this respect and wages are stagnant. I also believe, though, that labor unions themselves share some of the blame for this. They have also had their share of corruption and unfairness to their members.

Great article. All it needs is a you tube video of Pete Seeger singing "Talking Union".

Angel Guzman (author) from Joliet, Illinois on September 03, 2017:

Thank you Howard for stopping by. Happy Labor Day weekend buddy!

Howard Schneider from Parsippany, New Jersey on August 31, 2017:

Excellent historical Hub on the history of labor, Angel. Organized labor greatly helped to fuel the generation of wealth in this country and level the economic playing field. They certainly at times overstepped their bounds but nowhere close to the organized industrial barons in America. We would certainly return to that condition with the demise of unions.

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