The Past as Prologue? A Brief History of the Labor Movement in the United States

Article excerpt

Any overview of the growth of unions in the sector of the United States must take into account the historical antecedents of private sector collective bargaining. Indeed, the history of our nation is replete with the rise and eventual fall of a number of major labor organizations. During the period as a colony of England, and continuing well after the founding of the United States, employers used legal and extra legal tactics to weaken or eliminate the power of unions to have any input in the setting of wages, hours and other employment conditions. More recently, we have witnessed the rapid decline of the strength of unions in the private sector and the almost mirror image rise in the strength of unions in the public sector. Following the enactment of the National Labor Relations Act (1935) until the early 1970s, unions represented more than one-third of the workers in the private sector; today they represent less than 10 percent. At the same time, union membership or representation in the public sector grew from less than 10 percent to more than 45 percent of local government and 35 percent of state government employees. 1 Unions that once defined the power of industrial America, such as United Auto Workers, Steelworkers, Rubber workers, etc., are shadows of their former selves, while unions representing some or all public employees have seen robust growth. An historical analysis of the cyclical nature of labor's development in the United States places current developments in a more proper context, and begs the question "is growth and domination of public sector unions a permanent feature of public administration and public human resource management?"

I. Historical Context

A. The Emergence of National Unions in the United States.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution and the interests they represented may have wanted to "form a more perfect union," but that desire did not extend to organizations of workers and skilled trade associations. As the new country began to grow, it saw the rise of merchant capitalists and the factory system. Workers sought to protect their earning power and their marketable skills by forming worker associations, mechanic societies, and fledgling unions of skilled craft workers. Employers fought back with every method available, often finding a sympathetic ear in the halls of power and in the judiciary. English common laws against the restraint of trade were used to weaken and in many cases to eliminate these early unions and worker organizations. Confrontation between labor and management came about early in the development of industrial America. Ballot, writing about this period, states, "What is striking is that the antagonisms and adversarial spirit between the workers and merchant capitalists emerged early in the industrialization process. In protesting long hours, low pay, loss of autonomy, and inhuman working conditions, laborers organized, conducted strikes, and slowdowns, and engaged in other activities involving resistance to authority." (2) Employers used all available methods to crush these fledgling unions including the full weight of a hostile legal system.

Rapid industrialization and the creation of a national economy in the United States during the mid 1860s led to the efforts to create unions that were national in scope. In 1866, the National Labor Union (NLU) was formed. It was a confederation of skilled craft unions. In addition to advocating for higher wages, the NLU fought to establish an eight-hour day and to abolish convict labor, demanded equal rights for women and minorities, and wanted reforms in the nation's monetary policy. Over time, the leadership of the NLU became more interested in political reforms involving taxation, banking, and federal land policy and lost its base of skilled craft workers. (3)

The second national union in the United States was the Knights of Labor (KOL), formed in 1869. The Knights believed in one big union and admitted all types of workers--skilled and unskilled--including immigrants, women and minorities. …