Labor Unions and History Essay

Labor Unions and History

Introduction

     Since humans have been engaged in work as an exchange for money or other things of value, there has been a quest for workers to be treated and compensated better for their efforts.  Ultimately, this has given rise to the organization of labor unions, parties and other alliances.  These organizations have not only changed the face of labor itself, but in other cases, have also shaped the course of human history. To gain a better understanding of these topics, within this research, each of these labor unions will be discussed and analyzed in terms of organizational strategies and ideologies, strengths and weaknesses.

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The Industrial Workers of the World

     Since the origin of what we would call intelligent human beings, which is to say people who have the ability to reason, differentiate between right and wrong and make changes to their own lives, there has been a natural yearning to mature and improve.  People always seek to live in better conditions, eat better food, provide more for their loved ones, etc.  This quest for advancement indeed began with the ancient trade guilds of Europe and came to the New World with the early colonists who in time became the first American citizens.  Emboldened by the rights granted by the Declaration of Independence and its counterparts the Constitution and Bill of Rights, even the most unskilled of workers and the lowest paid among them had an intense desire to join in numbers and use the power of their majority to demand better working conditions, wages and such.  An important example of this not only in American history but also in the chronicles of organized labor was conceived in 1905 Chicago by labor organizer William D. Haywood.

     Consisting mostly of unskilled, migratory type of workers, the Industrial Workers of the World, also known in time as the Wobblies.  Their founder, Haywood, was already well established as a labor leader, having organized labor unions from the thousands of miners who worked in Colorado and elsewhere.  For the miners, Haywood was able to gain wage increases and realistic working hours when he coordinated among the miners strategically scheduled work stoppages at key times, rendering management helpless and giving them little choice but to give into the demands placed before them (Greene, 1998).

As a basis of the organization itself, the I.W.W. supported the overthrow of the traditional system of wages for work performed, and giving workers more autonomy through the power of collective bargaining, which in its most simple form comes down to strength in numbers. These goals were accomplished by class warfare- the use of strikes, work slowdowns, and other forms of direct action to meet the goals of the IWW (Greene, 1998).

Haywood and the other leaders of the IWW saw unions as the best way to gain social change, seeing the IWW. As an offshoot of the Socialist Labor Party.  By 1910, the I.W.W. claimed a membership near 100,000, and was organizing factories in the eastern United States. By 1920 the I.W.W. had 100,000 members in the agricultural sector alone (Greene, 1998), alarming capitalists in the United States and abroad. Legislation was passed in the US aimed at making membership in the IWW and unions like it the legal equivalent of being involved in organized crime, and the possession of a union membership card was in it being considered a crime.

When World War I rocked the US, and indeed the entire civilized world, the IWW repeated its disdain for capitalism by categorizing the war as a fight among rich men who just wanted to grow richer at the expense, and death of the less privileged.  Enmasse, IWW members dodged the draft, and some were even accused of collaborating with German spies.  It was during this time that the first cracks in the IWW’s façade began to show.  During WWI, the IWW was successful in organizing industries vital to the war effort, which ultimately jeopardized the ability of the US to effectively fight the war.  American authorities responded through indictments of many of the IWW’s key leaders, with many of them fleeing the US to avoid prosecution and persecution.  Still others defected to the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, and other similar movements, leading to the ultimate demise of the IWW by the early 1920s (Greene, 1998).

The Socialist Party

     Even though the IWW eventually would become a feeder for the Socialist Party, the latter was already in existence since 1898, began by a group led by Eugene V. Debs who was a contemporary of the IWW’s Haywood and others.  In 1900, Debs unsuccessfully ran for president.  Even though he failed in the attempt, Debs’ attempt to reach the highest office in the land as an affirmed Socialist made the point that Socialism seemed to be a political force to be acknowledged.  By 1910-11, Socialist candidates were in fact able to win some state and local elections.  In 1912, Debs again ran for president, this time receiving nearly 1 million votes as the Socialist candidate; in that year, the party itself reached an all time of over 120,000 card carrying and dues paying members (Greene, 1998).

     In 1917 the Socialist Party opposed American involvement in World War I, much like the IWW did and like the IWW, Debs and a number of others were arrested for their opposition to the war, eventually being pardoned by President Warren G. Harding.   During this time, as the IWW began to lose its power and momentum, the Socialist Party was getting a boost from an unlikely source.  It is important when discussing the history of the Socialist Party that one considers what is probably one of the most pivotal, if not the most pivotal events in the history of the party, which came not from the US, but from thousands of miles away.  In 1917, the Bolshevik Russian Revolution gave birth to what would in time be considered the modern Communist party and the formation of the United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR).  Many of those newly minted Communists were in fact those who had either been members or supporters of the Socialist Party.  With the USSR and Communism firmly in place, it would seem that Socialists had gained a major social and political victory and added a certain level of credibility and clout to their cause (Busky, 2000).

     By the 1930s, the Socialist Party was slowly beginning to fade, largely due to the rollout of the New Deal, which was able to deliver, because of the vast resources of the US government many of the benefits and programs that Socialists had desired, advocated, but had never been able to enact to any substantial degree because of the lack of financial resources, precise organization and such.  In the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections the Socialist candidate received fewer than 2,500 votes in either contest.  In 1960, the Socialist Party 1960 chose to withdraw from national politics and focus on education.  By the early 1970s, the Socialist Party of America, in an effort to rehabilitate its image, changed its name to the Social Democrats, hoping to give the party more of a flavor of patriotism.

     In the present day, the Social Democrats oppose the war in Iraq, bailouts of Wall Street financial firms, and claim to be the voice of the working person, as evidenced by this quote from their Website:

“THE SOCIALIST PARTY strives to establish a radical democracy that places people’s lives under their own  control – a non-racist, classless, feminist socialist society… where working people own and control the means of production and distribution through democratically-controlled public agencies; where full employment is realized for everyone who wants to work; where workers have the right to form unions freely, and to strike and engage in other forms of job actions; and where the production of society is used for the benefit of all humanity, not for the private profit of a few. We believe socialism and democracy are one and indivisible. The working class is in a key and central position to fight back against the ruling capitalist class and its power. The working class is the major force worldwide that can lead the way to a socialist future – to a real radical democracy from below. The Socialist Party fights for progressive changes compatible with a socialist future. We support militant working class struggles and electoral action, independent of the capitalist controlled two-party system, to present socialist alternatives. We strive for democratic revolutions – radical and fundamental changes in the structure and quality of economic, political, and personal relations – to abolish the power now exercised by the few who control great wealth and the government. The Socialist Party is a democratic, multi-tendency organization, with structure and practices visible and accessible to all members” (Socialist Party USA Website, 2008).

The American Federation of Labor

Standing in stark contrast to the belief systems that formed the bedrock of the Socialist Party, and ultimately the Communist Party, The American Federation of Labor (AFL) founded in 1881 as the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions. Trade union leaders representing some fifty thousand members in the United States and Canada formed the group in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1886, the AFL took a major step that, unknown to the membership, would change the future of the organization for the better when Samuel Gompers was elected president of the union. For nearly four decades, Gompers led the AFL with one very important principle guiding his leadership decisions-he was a staunch advocate of autonomy for the members of the union, which was very different from what the Socialists and Communists had experienced, and indeed were still experiencing during Gompers’ tenure as president (Greene, 1998) .

The AFL had other key differences beyond autonomy; the organization decided to organize by craft or industry, which was vastly different from other unions of that same time. This new way of organizing proved to be a benefit to the union, especially since a vast majority, up to 150,000 members by some estimates, were in fact skilled laborers anyway (Greene, 1998). Similarly, the AFL stayed away from establishing long-term, hard to measure goals and instead put an intense focus on measurable, short-term goals such as higher wages, shorter working hours, and the right to collective bargaining, which gave management the right to negotiate with workers directly, which would ultimately lead to more progress and benefits for both sides of the negotiation in less time.  This was something which would attract new members, keep the established members satisfied, and make the AFL more palatable to shop owners and managers (George ; Wilcox, 1992).

The impression should not be given that all was perfect with the AFL, however.  Occasionally, the union was racked by violent outbursts which made the public somewhat skeptical about labor unions overall.  For example, an 1892, strike at a Pennsylvania Carnegie Steel plant became a riot between angry steelworkers and plant security guards. Ultimately, the AFL had to back down from the strike, representing a painful setback for the union. However, the union overall was not adversely affected- by the beginning of the 20th century; over 1 million members swelled the ranks, and nearly 3 million by the early 1920s, consisting of over 100 national unions and approximately 25,000 local union chapters (Greene, 1998).

     The AFL should also be properly credited with other advances in the area of labor unions.  By collecting dues directly from members, the union created a war chest of funds that were used to aid striking workers, thereby increasing the loyalty of members and making strikes more effective by allowing them to continue for longer periods of time, the equivalent of having enough ammunition to fight an effective war.  The avoidance of party politics made it possible for the AFL to gain support from elected leaders at the highest levels of power, regardless of party affiliation, which ultimately opened up many more opportunities for the union as well.  In fact, the AFL played a key role in the establishment of the United States Department of Labor in 1913.  In turn, the DOL was able to create and enforce regulations which benefitted workers and promoted safer workplaces, better wages and working hours, mirroring the platform of the AFL itself.   Following in 1914, the AFL supported the passage of the Clayton Anti–Trust Act.  The Act protected organized labor through the prohibition by law of price fixing, the management/ownership of competing companies by the same individual(s), and the ownership of stock of one company by a competing company.

Labor Unions, Parties and the Issue of Civil Rights

     As the research indicates, labor unions have been part of the American experience, in one form or another, quite literally since the birth of the nation.  The union members, taking advantage of their First Amendment Constitutional right to free speech, have created a conflict with the members of the management and/or ownership of the firms for which the union members work.  On one hand, the union member can rightly lay claim to the right to the exercise of free speech, including their union activities in the workplace, such as striking, collective bargaining and the like.  On the other hand, owners/managers of the workplaces in which the unions exist possess the right to protect their property and investment, and as such likewise have rights.  Therefore, the tricky question to be considered is where the balance lies between union members’ civil rights and those of ownership/management.

     Traditionally, the right to free speech has been narrowly interpreted in the realm of workplace communication; for example, case law has upheld the right of employers to terminate workers who express political or union views in the workplace without being guilty of the violation of First Amendment rights of the workers because a workplace is not considered a public place or an extension of the state.  Therefore, individuals have no expectation of the right of free speech within the confines of private employment on private property.  Conversely, the National Labor Relations Act stands as a protection for workers to be able to express themselves in the workplace and to exercise their right to advocate union activity.  However, an important distinction between the NLRA and Constitutional rights is the fact that the NLRA, while existing as law, is not a Constitutional amendment or mandate.  Therefore, the law, when challenged in the past by employers, has been defeated in appellate courts of law, as it has been ruled that the right to free speech is not absolute, but does in fact have its limits, and within those limits exist places where free speech is appropriate and where it is not (Andrias, 2003).

     Civil rights challenges in the workplace, as a matter of fact make one point abundantly clear- unions may still have a place in the modern world of work.  With this possibility in mind, the future of organized labor in America is worthwhile to explore.

The Future of Organized Labor in America

     In the early days of America, unions came forward to organize, protect and enrich workers who, individually, had very little voice in employment matters, if any voice at all. As skills of workers increased, and the quality of jobs improved with the evolution of the American labor market from mostly blue collar to mostly white collar, unions seemed to lose some of their value.  This raises the question of what the future holds for organized labor in America.  On one hand, it is safe to argue that unions will always be needed to defend against abuses of workers by unsavory employers.  Conversely, free will and the protection of advanced labor laws in the present day may make unions obsolete one day.  In any case, the future for labor unions will be a challenging one.

Conclusion

     Labor unions have played a key part in the history of America, and have made it possible for many Americans to have a better standard of living.   In the most basic sense, the pursuits of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that the Declaration of Independence promises all hinge on the ability of an individual to be engaged in meaningful labor that provides him or her the ability to earn the money that is needed to obtain the proper food, clothing, shelter, medical care and the other trappings of a comfortable and pleasant life.  Moreover, in the pursuit of that living, on the most basic level, the individual American deserves nothing less than the privilege of not having to work an excessive amount of consecutive hours, to have to work in a place which is unsafe or unhealthy, or to be mistreated in any way.  Unions have come to the rescue of the average American worker by fighting-literally and figuratively- for those rights on behalf of members, as well as supporting those members in their quest to gain equality in the workplace.  For these reasons alone, the labor union may continue to play a part in the fabric of the nation.  In closing, whatever the case, one fact it clear-unions have helped to shape the development of a great nation.

Works Cited

Andrias, K. E. (2003). A Robust Public Debate: Realizing Free Speech in Workplace Representation Elections. Yale Law Journal, 112(8), 2415+.

Busky, D. F. (2000). Democratic Socialism: A Global Survey. Westport, CT: Praeger.

George, J., ; Wilcox, L. (1992). Nazis, Communists, Klansmen, and Others on the Fringe: Political Extremism in America. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Greene, J. (1998). Pure and Simple Politics: The American Federation of Labor and Political Activism, 1881-1917. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Socialist Party USA Website.  Retrieved October 9, 2008 from the World Wide Web: http://www.sp-usa.org/