American Labor Movement in the Early 20th Century: Turmoil, Achievements, and Struggle

The Early 20th Century Was a Time of Great Turmoil for America’s Labor Movement

The early 20th century was a time of great turmoil for America’s labor movement. Despite this, there were important achievements. Congress established a new Department of Labor and enacted legislation that addressed the most pressing problems facing working men and women.

The AFL disavowed its earlier antagonisms with black trade unionists and, when the AFL and CIO merged in 1955, included black workers.

The Industrial Revolution

As industrialization progressed, society changed dramatically. Agrarian societies gave way to cities and factories centered on steam power and machine tools. The new factory life spelled bad news for the poor and working class people who were pushed into these factory jobs with low wages.

Workers resorted to collective groups and unions as weapons in their struggle against demeaning work conditions. Although these unions grew in number, they struggled for support because of the negative publicity surrounding labor strikes.

Factory owners also sought to suppress union activity with a variety of tactics. Courts would grant injunctions to stop union activities, and striking workers where often fired or replaced by scabs (people hired to do manual labor). A strong capitalist ethos existed at the time which stressed the sanctity of private property and viewed union activity as an infringement on that right. This ideological stance provided motivation for many managers to resist unions. Slowly, this hands off policy began to change as public opinion shifted.

The Gilded Age

As America shifted from an agricultural society to an industrial economy, it created many jobs and expanded the opportunities for women. But it also increased the gap between wealthy magnates like Rockefeller, Carnegie and Morgan and their workers. These wealthy entrepreneurs dominated the era with their massive monopolies, which often crushed any small business that got in their way. They had a hand in city, state and national politics and were often portrayed as robber barons by the first investigative journalists known as “muckrakers.”

In contrast, many laborers struggled for survival in this new world. They worked long hours in unsafe and unhealthy conditions for very low pay. Many of them were unable to afford housing or medical care. In an attempt to fight these working conditions, workers organized into collective groups and unions. These groups would fight for their rights in the form of strikes and boycotts, but they rarely were successful as bosses used intimidation and violence to squash their efforts.

The Progressive Era

Despite the ebbing of organized labor’s power since World War I, the ethos of solidarity and questioning managerial authority still resonates in a culture that venerates self-reliance and individualism. The recent resurgence of Occupy Wall Street and renewed efforts to combat income inequality suggest that many Americans remain concerned about the corrosive effects of inequality on society and the economy.

In the early 20th century, Progressive reformers sought to stabilize and rationalize labor relations with new legislation and federal regulatory agencies. For instance, the National Labor Relations Act of 1913 upgraded the Department of Labor to cabinet rank and established industrial commissions to mediate and arbitrate labor disputes.

Small groups of domestic workers, dock workers in Galveston and Houston, sugar harvesters, phosphate miners, railroad car cleaners and firemen, and timber workers began to organize their own local unions. These groups formed what would become a significant black labor tradition, albeit one that was largely isolated from white unions and the larger American worker movement.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression found the nation and much of the world sliding down a steep slope of economic disaster. Businesses failed by the thousands, production plunged and unemployment skyrocketed. Many workers blamed Wall Street speculators and bankers. They demanded a higher standard of living and better working conditions.

Workers in various trades and industries formed unions, such as railroad and dockworkers in numerous African countries, and miners in South Africa, Chile and Argentina. Some of these groups criticized the legal system and sought to bypass it with direct action like strikes.

One of the more ambitious labor organizations was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). It attempted to unite workers of all industries into a single industrial union for the revolutionary purpose of overthrowing capitalism.

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