A Short Course in Labor History
I ran across a good summary of over a century of labor union history, with comparisons between the US and European countries.
The author of this summary, Gerald Friedman of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, sees continual union decline since WWII, though simultaneously — and perhaps inconsistently — referring to 1950-75 as a ‘golden age’ for American unions.
A thumbnail sketch, selected from among many interesting points:
- Unions have typically grown in rapid spurts, very “short periods of social upheaval punctuated by major demonstrations and strikes.”
- These periods of rapid union growth end because the social upheaval provokes a hostile backlash.
- “Entering the twentieth century, the AFL appeared to have a winning strategy. Union membership rose sharply in the late 1890s, doubling between 1896 and 1900 and again between 1900 and 1904.”
- But, “[d]ependent on skilled craftsmen’s economic leverage, the AFL was poorly organized to battle large, technologically dynamic corporations.”
- The 1920s were an especially dark period for U.S. labor. Membership fell by a third between 1920 and 1924. “Unions survived only in the older trades.” By 1924, they were almost completely eliminated from the newer industries, including steel, automobiles, consumer electronics, chemicals and rubber.
- During the Great Depression, following passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), workers rushed into unions. “The greatest increase came among the unskilled, including coal miners, southern textile workers, northern apparel workers, Ohio tire makers, Detroit automobile workers, aluminum, lumber and sawmill workers.”
- Management resistance and divided union leadership killed this early New Deal union surge.
- Then came the Wagner Act and the Roosevelt landslides of 1934 and 1936. “Liberal Democratic governors and mayors gave crucial support to the early CIO, refusing to send police to evict sit-down strikers. This state support allowed the minority of workers who actively supported unionization to use force to overcome the passivity of the majority of workers and the opposition of the employers. The Open Shop of the 1920s was overwhelmed by an aggressive, government-backed labor movement.”
- After WW II, the U.S. was the advanced, capitalist democracy with the weakest labor movement — with unions going into prolonged decline right after World War II. At 35 %, the unionization rate in 1945 was the highest in American history, but even then it was lower than in most other advanced capitalist economies — and it’s been falling since.
- The post-war strike wave in 1945 and 1946 was the largest in American history, but it did little to enhance labor’s position. Instead, it provoked a powerful reaction among employers and others suspicious of growing union power.
- The quarter century after 1950 formed a ‘golden age’ for American unions.
- Union decline since WW II has brought the U.S. private-sector labor movement down to early twentieth century levels. “As a share of the nonagricultural labor force, union membership fell from its 1945 peak of 35 percent down to under 30 percent in the early 1970s. From there, decline became a general rout. In the 1970s, rising unemployment, increasing international competition, and the movement of industry to the nonunion South and to rural areas undermined the bargaining position of many American unions, leaving them vulnerable to a renewed management offensive.”
EH.Net [Economic History] Encyclopedia: “Labor Unions in the United States.”
This is a topic that is far from the practically oriented materials I normally try to post.
I guess I put it up here because I think it’s a fascinating topic; I wish I could take a college course on it.
Wikipedia: “Labor unions in the United States”