Growth of Modern Unions

Growth of Modern Unions


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Blacks, Unions, & Organizing in the South, 1956-1996


Compiled by Rudolph Lewis



The Growth of Modern Unions


By the time of the Civil War, several national unions had come into existence, including national organizations of printers, molders, stone cutters, machinists and locomotive engineers.

Important economic considerations led to the development of these national unions. Workers in one city might form a union, engage in collective bargaining, and win good working conditions and then be frustrated by one of two things. In some industries, it was relatively easy to send the work to other cities where working conditions were not as good and where the work might therefore be done cheaper.

On the other hand there were industries like house construction in which the work itself could not be moved to another city, but in these industries the good working conditions negotiated by unions frequently attracted workers from other cities, thus resulting in a surplus of labor that made it impossible for the local union to maintain the standards which it had won.

Local unions therefore discovered that if they were to maintain good working conditions in their own cities, it was essential that similarly good working conditions prevail in other cities. National unions were born out of the realization that real collective bargaining cannot take place in any industry if a substantial part of that industry is non-union.

The development of railroads, welding the country together into a more unified whole, speeded up this process and made the development of national unions more urgent. By 1869 there were twenty-four national unions in the nation. In that year there was established the first truly national organization of workers. It was the Knights of Labor, an organization which eventually reached a membership of 700,000.

Like most labor organizations of the time, the Knights were originally a secret society. Since the Commonwealth of Massachusetts vs. Hunt case, employers had been more limited in their ability to use the courts to crush unions and they had therefore turned to new devices including the use of labor spies and blacklists. As a result, union members seeking work often found that the prospective employer was well informed about their union record and that he would therefore refuse to hire them. Secrecy was the best defense against these tactics and at least in the early years, it became a basic feature of the Knights of Labor.

The tremendous growth of the Knights of Labor is dramatic evidence of the need which American workers continued to feel for collective strength. At first the Knights were primarily concerned with broad political and economic reforms, but eventually economic necessity forced them to engage in strikes and collective bargaining.

“The Knights, however, never succeeded in developing an organizational structure that could permit effective collective bargaining, and it was this very failure which led to the formation of the American Federation of Labor. The Federation, established in 1881 as the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions and renamed the American Federation of Labor in 1886, was an organization of national unions including the carpenters, the printers, the iron and steel workers, and the molders. It concentrated its attention upon developing a structure and a program fitted to the necessities of collective bargaining. There was at last a national organization of unions, each capable of bargaining with employers on a basis approximating equality.

Those who are opposed to organized labor have never ceased to regret that economic necessity eventually shaped such a union movement as today exists. Behind the campaigns which occasionally spring up demanding legislation to outlaw the union shop or to outlaw industry-wide bargaining there is a nostalgic yearning for a return to the ‘good old days’ when what the carpenters in one place might do had no reference to what the carpenters in another place might do. Those people yearn for a system of industrial relations which never has been effective and which never could be effective.

At no time did the employers slacken their resistance to organized labor. The Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor were both ruthlessly opposed. Union workers continued to be plagued by blacklists. After the Homestead steel strike of 1892, strike leaders names were circulated throughout the entire steel industry, and wherever they sought work, they found that they had been effectively blacklisted. This device became commonplace as a weapon to keep worker from organizing.

Court injunctions nullified the hopes that unions found in the Commonwealth vs. Hunt decision. Employers, in most cases, found it an easy matter to go to court and persuade a friendly judge to issue an injunction preventing workers from organizing, striking, picketing, or even meeting with union officials.

Increasing numbers of workers were required to sign “yellow dog” contracts as a condition of employment. The yellow dog contract is a signed statement by the worker that he is not a member of any union, that he will not join any union while employed in the establishment, and that he will make no effort to induce other employees to join a union. These yellow dog contracts were legally enforceable by the courts, and when a union tried to organize workers who had been forced to sign the contracts, it was subject to court injunction.

In this way employers, managed to get around the difficulties presented by the Commonwealth vs. Hunt decision holding that it is not illegal to organize a union. These yellow dog contracts remained legally enforceable by the courts until they were finally outlawed by the Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932.

Industrial spies flourished, infesting union meetings and reporting the proceedings to employers. Such espionage agencies as Pinkerton and Burns provided thousands of spies for employers, paid their union dues, and in many cases even elected them to local union offices. The LaFollette Committee, investigating industrial espionage reported as late as 1937 that its census of working labor spies from 1933 to 1937 total 3,871 for the entire period.

In its report the Committee declared: ‘Such a spy system . . . places the employer in the very heart of the union council from the outset of any organizing effort. News of organizers coming into a town, contacts the organizers make among his employees, the names of employees who join the union, all organization plans, all activities of the union–these are as readily available to the employer as though he himself were running the union’.

Employers hired the services not only of professional labor spies, but professional strikebreakers as well. These strikebreakers operated as efficiently trained and well armed troops whose sole business was industrial warfare.

Perhaps the most deceptive weapon of all against bargaining was the ‘company union’. Recognizing the strong desire of workers to form a union, many employers responded by organizing unions which they themselves controlled. Thus the employers were able to create the illusion of collective bargaining, even though it was a collective bargaining in which the employer sat on both sides of the bargaining table. The first employer-dominated union on record was organized in Boston in 1898. The device became increasingly popular among employers, especially in the years following the first World War. In 1928, the peak year of company unionism, more than one and a half million workers were ‘represented’ by company unions.

Yet despite this determined opposition, unionism grew and collective bargaining spread throughout industry. It spread because it fulfilled a critical need on the part of workers. Where there were no unions, to be a worker was often scarcely more than to be a slave. In 1885, for example, the work rules of the Northern Pacific Coal Company stated:

As the Company has gone to the expense and trouble of establishing a store, butcher shop, and saloon for the accommodation and convenience of its employees, all employees will be expected to patronize these places to the exclusion of all other similar establishments.

Each employee will be required to keep his house neat and clean, both inside and out.

Any employee joining an secret labor organization or in any way taking part in any strike . . . will at once   be discharged.

Under such rules as these, a worker was responsible to his employer not only for the time that he was on the job, but for his entire life. It was the employer’s business what he did in the privacy of his home or where he went to seek relaxation after he had finished work. Yet exactly such work rules as these were in force in hundreds of mining towns, lumber towns, steel towns, and other company towns.

In these company towns, the employer was am absolute rule. He owned the houses in which his workers lived and he owned the business establishments in which they were required to trade. In addition, he also owned the municipal government, the police force, the courts, the churches and, such as they were, the schools.

To workers in such places as these, the promise of unionism was the promise of freedom and dignity. It was the promise of democracy to those who were living and working under conditions of absolute dictatorship. And despite the blacklists and industrial spies, American workers persisted in seeking their freedom through democratic unionism.

The development of orderly and democratic ways of settling industrial disputes was a matter of national interest as much as a matter of interest to the workers immediately involved. Yet it was not until the enactment of the National Industrial Recovery act and the Wagner Act in the early days that the acceptance of collective bargaining became a matter of public policy. Previous court decisions and legislative victories had been hailed by union leaders as providing a legal sanction for collective bargaining, but the actual results always proved disappointing.

Although the court decision in the Commonwealth vs. Hunt case in 1842 had upheld the legality of unionism, the effects of the decision were soon nullified by court injunctions. AFL leaders believed that the Clayton Act of 1914 was ‘Labor’s Magna Carta’. The Clayton Act, declaring that ‘the labor of a human being is not a commodity’, exempted unions from the provisions of the Sherman Anti-Trust Law.

But the Clayton Act did not stop court injunctions, industrial spies, and company-dominated unions. The Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932, regulating court injunctions against unions, was an outstanding legislative victory for labor. Employers responded, however, by stepping up their hiring of labor spies and professional strike breakers.

The National Industrial Recovery Act and the Wagner Act finally declared, as a matter of public policy, ‘that employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing’. The impact was beyond all expectations. In the five years between 1933 and 1938, union membership in the United States jumped from slightly over two million members to more than seven and a half million members.

Source: “Collective Bargaining: Democracy on the Job” (AFL-CIO Pamphlet, Chapter 3; n.d.)

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