Labor Movement History

A brief history of the labor movement

The roots of the American labor movement go back to colonial times. As companies grew larger and more powerful, they hired growing numbers of workers. Workers in turn began to organize trade unions to balance their power, bargain collectively with their employers, and pursue other common interests. An ethic of solidarity — embodied in the classic labor slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all” — helped workers stick together in a highly individualistic society.


The 1955 merger of the AFL under President George Meany and the CIO, headed by Walter Reuther, strengthened the efforts of union members. (Photo Credit: AFL-CIO)

With the rapid expansion of American industry after the Civil War, local unions joined together nationally. The separate unions came together in a series of national federations. The largest, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was founded in 1886; a split in 1936 produced the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO); the two merged in 1955 to form the AFL-CIO. Individual national unions have always been strongly autonomous however; the AFL-CIO and the local and state labor councils affiliated with it have limited power over the policies of their member unions.

Until the 1930s, US courts often issued injunctions against union activities as conspiracies and “unlawful combinations in restraint of trade.” The 1936 National Labor Relations Act, known as “labor’s Magna Carta,” established the right of workers to organize unions and bargain collectively. Millions of workers joined unions and most of America’s major industrial corporations recognized and bargained with unions representing their workers. At the peak in the late 1950’s about one-third of all workers and about half of all manufacturing workers were union members. Unions addressed a wide range of concerns of working people, including not only wages, hours, and working conditions, but, to varying degrees, such issues as housing, health, full employment, education, social welfare, and the environment. Union power, and contracts negotiated in large manufacturing industries like auto, steel, and electronics, built the middle class.

While large corporations begrudgingly accepted the existence of unions following WWII, there was an on-going push back against union power. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act outlawed many of the means by which workers supported each other, such as sympathy strikes and secondary boycotts (attempts to influence the actions of one business by exerting pressure on another business) as well as outlawing “closed shops” that only hired union members and allowing states to pass “right-to-work” laws that outlawed union security language in labor contracts. In 1980, President Ronald Reagan fired and permanently replaced thirteen thousand air traffic controllers who had struck primarily to improve the high-stress jobs that were leading to an epidemic of stress-related diseases. Other employers followed suit and the threat of permanent replacements led to a substantial decline in strikes and in bargaining power for other unions. Meanwhile, economic globalization led to deindustrialization, decimating the major manufacturing industries that were the primary location of union membership and power. Technological change and automation further eroded union membership and jobs in manufacturing.

Starting around 1960, however, there was rapid growth of unions in white-collar occupation and the public sector. Teachers, hospital workers, other medical personnel, and government employees of many kinds grew to outnumber factory workers. At the same time, women, African Americans, Latinos, and immigrants became a growing proportion of the labor movement. In 2011, 12 percent of wage and salary workers — 14.7 million people — were members of unions, including 36 percent of public sector employees and 7 percent of private sector employees. This decline in density mirrors the decline of the middle class.

Samuel Gompers

What Does Labor Want? Samuel Gompers, First President, American Federation of Labor (AFL), 1893

“It wants the earth and the fullness thereof. There is nothing too precious, there is nothing too beautiful, too lofty, too ennobling, unless it is within the scope and comprehension of labor’s aspirations and wants. We want more school houses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more constant work and less crime; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures, to make manhood more noble, womanhood more beautiful and childhood more happy and bright. These in brief are the primary demands made by the Trade Unions in the name of labor. These are the demands made by labor upon modern society and in their consideration is involved the fate of civilization.”


Walter Reuther on social unionism

Walter Reuther, first president of the United Auto Workers union, and the second president of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) had a broad vision of trade unions being at the heart of the progressive movement – a social unionism vision. He had a wonderful way of linking shop floor issues with broader social issues. This quote is from a speech he delivered in 1962 in an effort to convince unionists that the struggle, and ultimately the real victory may emanate from the shop floor, but it extends far beyond: “The labor movement is about that problem we face tomorrow morning. Damn right! But to make that the sole purpose of the labor movement is to miss the main target. I mean, what good is a dollar an hour more in wages if your neighborhood is burning down? What good is another week’s vacation if the lake you used to go to is polluted and you can’t swim in it and the kids can’t play in it? What good is another $100 in pension if the world goes up in atomic smoke?”


Environmentalist Barry Commoner on labor and environmentalism, 1972

“Labor has much to gain from the effort to survive the environmental crisis, which can, in turn, succeed only insofar as labor achieves its long-standing goal of improving conditions in the work place, and its share of the wealth generated by the nation’s enormous productive capacity. To a considerable extent, the environmental crisis represents an extension into the community of problems which were once confined to the work place, and an extension to the population as a whole of the resultant burden, which was once borne almost exclusively (and still most heavily) by the worker. . . . The need for a new alliance is clear. Neither worker nor environmentalist can reach their separate goals without joining in a common one; to reconstruct the nations’ productive system so that it conforms to the imperatives of the environment which supports it, meets the needs of the workers who operate it, and secures the future of the people who have built it.”


UAW President Leonard Woodcock, 1972

“One big hope . . . lies in a new political awareness, essential if we are to make the transition from a frontier “cowboy” psychology and economy to a sense of the world compatible with indefinite human survival on spaceship earth. That new political awareness would direct the attention of environmentalists to the need to give the quality and equity of life in human communities at least equal billing with the need to protect the quality and integrity of the natural environment. For if the transition from a polluted to an ecologically viable environment is attempted at the cost of democracy and brotherhood, our grandchildren will never make it. It is difficult to believe that a society that loses its sense of human solidarity, or never gains it, can make the radical adjustments in time to enable human life to survive on the planet.”