The History of Early Labor organizations in the United States

The History of Early Labor organizations in the United States

The history of the labor movement in the United States is one of the most violent of any other Labor_1 industrialized nation. On the other hand, labor conditions were oppressive and cruel. The working person was at the mercy of the employer. The story is one of bravery and violence. This entry is much longer then normal, but is only a tiny summary of a long history.

In the 1900’s a sixteen hour six day work week was common. Across the industrial parts of the country men, women and children lived, slept and even died by the machinery where they worked. The rich got richer and the poor, poorer. Child labor was widespread. As one observer of the period noted, "The golf links are so close to the mill that almost any day, the working children can look out and see the men at play."

A large number of the exploited workers were immigrants who couldn’t read and had trouble speaking English. My dad Paul Luvera, Sr and his father Nicola were part of the wave of immigrants who came here for a better life. My dad’s father came first finding work with the Canadian Pacific Railway installing tracks. Earning enough to bring dad over as a child, they two worked together until they earned enough to bring my grandmother and the rest of the family from Italy. Moving on to the coal mines of Calgary dad and his father were given small round metal tags with a number they were required to wear on a chain around their necks while working the mines so if killed, they would be able to be identified. After my grandfather developed minor’s lung disease he moved the family to find work in the saw mills of Anacortes, Washington.

The immigrants were required to work long shifts, often in dangerous conditions, often for less money then they needed to support their families resulting in the whole family having to work. Child labor laws were ignored. Entire families were hired to work with work days from dawn to sunset and longer hours in winter. Many companies, like Pullman, had company housing and company stores where workers were required to live and shop. Overpriced goods and exorbitant rent kept the workers in servitude to the company. The courts were of no help. The U.S. Supreme court held several child labor laws, enacted for the protection of children, were unconstitutional. Not until photographer Lewis W. Hine, who worked for the Child Labor Bureau, began documenting child labor abuses was much attention paid to working conditions. The publicity finally resulted in Congress passing the Fair labor Standards Act in 1938 and was upheld by the Supreme Court as constitutional. The act set a work week of 40 hours and minimum wage of $.40 per hour and prohibiting children under 16 years old working.

In the United States, labor organizations developed through the mid 1800’s. The nation’s first effective labor union was the Knights of Labor, organized in 1869. It led a successful strike against American millionaire Jay Gould’s Southwestern Railroad system in 1885. As organized labor became more aggressive, employers began to suppress union activities. Union member lists were circulated among employers to black ball them from finding work. Armed guards were hired to break up union activities and strike breakers hired to work when strikes were attempted. Employers used the Sherman Anti Trust Act of 1890 to charge union leaders with violations and courts issued injunctions stopping strikes. In 1908 the U.S. Supreme court held in the "Danbury Hatter’s Case that the hatter’s union was subject to the Sherman Anti Trust Act when it called for a nation wide boycott of non union hats made by a company in Connecticut. The owner had sued the union under the Act a court awarded some $252,000 in damages which the Supreme Court upheld. Workers had no where to turn except to organize.

By the 1890’s the Rockefeller and Morgans had created monopolies and industry spies, private police and violence was the chosen method of fighting labor unions. In the West, Big Bill Haywood, led the Western Federation of Minors while the government and industry declared war on the union. Hundreds were arrested, injured or killed, but the minors won an eight hour work day by the end of the century.

The violence of the Haymarket Riot of 1886, the Homestead strike of 1892 and the Pullman Strike of 1894 help turn public attitude against union activities.

The Haymarket. Riot involved workers striking for an eight hour work day in Chicago. On May 1st, as a peaceful crowd of some 3,000 were leaving a rally near the McCormick Harvesting Machine company plant on a rainy day, someone threw a bomb into the police who then opened fire killing four and wounding dozens. After the killing, the Chicago police raided meeting halls, union offices and even private homes. Dozens of union members were arrested and eight charged with murder. It didn’t matter that seven of those charged weren’t even there at the time and one was on a platform in full view. They were charged with conspiracy with whoever was responsible. Found guilty, four were hanged and the rest sent to prison. Labor decided that day, May 1st would be in honor of labor and it became a May Day labor parade until it somehow was turned into an anti Communist celebration now known as "Law Day."

The Pullman strike involved a strike by Pullman workers joined by the railway workers which ended in bloody violence and the Homestead strike occurred in Pennsylvania when the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and tin Workers struck Carnegie Steel company in a violent strike.

In 1902 more then 100,000 coal miners in Pennsylvania belonging to the United Mine Workers union went on strike. President Theodore Roosevelt appointed a mediation commission to determine wages and working conditions. In exchange the coal miners went back to work. The Commissioners held hearings for three months taking testimony. Clarence Darrow represented the minors. George Baer, speaking for the coal mine owners, told the Commissioners in his closing "These men don’t suffer. Why, hell, half of them don’t even speak English" Darrow told them "We are working for a democracy for humanity, for the future, for the day will come too late for us to see it or know it or receive its benefits, but which will come, and will remember our struggles, our triumphs, our defeats and the words which we spake." The minors gained some reforms and a pay raise.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) known as the "wobblies" was organized in 1905 with a view to ending the capitalistic system and replacing it with a socialistic system. It was made up of unskilled workers. Most of its organizing was in the West and most members were miners, lumberman, cannery and dock workers. The IWW denounced the racism of the AFL whose membership, by union rule, was Lilly white. Union activities were often marked with violence of all kinds. Finally crushed in the 1920’s by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and his ambitious federal agent J.Edgar Hoover. The Palmer Raids resulted in 10,000 imprisoned and many more deported without trial and with hearings.

Samuel Gompers founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886. John L. Lewis became the president of the United mine Workers of America in 1920 and held the post until 1960. Lewis created the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) in 1935 made up of leaders of AFL unions. It established the United Steel Workers of America and organized millions of other Americans in 1930’s as well.

One of the leaders of the early union movement was Eugene Debs, born in Indiana in 1855. In 1893 he organized the American Railway Union and in 1894 it successful struck the Great Northern Railroad. When workers at the Pullman Car Company went on strike, Debs union supported them and rail traffic in the Chicago area came to a halt. An injunction was declared. The railroad owners had President Grover Cleveland direct 3,400 "special deputies" be sworn and called out 20,000 federal troops to break the strike. Strikers responded by destroying seven hundred railcars and torched buildings. Debs and seven other union leaders were arrested. In 1895, defended by Clarence Darrow, Debs was convicted with the others and sent to prison for six months for contempt in violating the injunction. He became a Socialists and continued leading the labor movement. In 1918 he was arrested on sedition charges. Convicted he was allowed to address the court and said in part: "I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and the factories; I am thinking of the women who, for a paltry wage, are compelled to work out their lives; of the little children who, in this system, are robbed of their childhood …" From prison, as prisoner No.9653 in 1920 he was a Socialistic candidate for president of the United States.

Not to be overlooked in the history of the labor struggle is Clarence Seward Darrow (1857 – 1938) played a major role in the early labor union struggle. He began his legal career in Youngstown, Ohio and moved to Chicago where he became a lawyer for a railroad company. He quit that job to represent Eugene V. Debs who led the American Railroad Union and had been charged with a crime in connection with the Pullman Strike of 1894. He represented many of the union leaders and unions including Big Bill Haywood, the coal miners and other union causes. He was hired by the union to defend the MacNamara brothers, charged with dynamiting he Los Angeles Times building causing 20 employees to die. His sudden pleading them guilty resulted in his loss of labor union representation and he himself was charged, but acquitted of attempting to bribe a juror.

Darrow’s legal history involved defending Patrick Prendergast, a mentally deranged man who had assassinated Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison. He was convicted and executed. The only client of Darrow’s in some fifty murder defenses ever executed. In 1924 he defended Leopold and Loeb, teenage sons of wealthy Chicago families who kidnaped and killed 14 year old Bobby Franks in a "thrill" killing. He successfully argued for prison and not the death penalty. In 1925 he defended John Scopes in the famous "Monkey Trial" against special prosecutor William Jennings Bryan in Tennessee. Scopes was convicted and Bryan broken as a national figure as a result of Arrow’s cross examination of Bryan as a Bible expert at the trial. In addition, he successfully defended a black Dr. Ossian Sweet charged with murder in Chicago when mob of whites surrounded his house and one of the mob was shot to death by someone inside the house. Following that trial he was virtually retired except to take on an occasional case such as the 1932 Massie case which he defended at age 68 in Hawaii. The case involved a murder in Honolulu and Grace Fortescue who, along with several accomplices, were charged with killing Joseph Kahahawai after her daughter claimed he was part of a group that raped her.

The famous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York resulted in some 150 people, mostly young women, being trapped and burning to death because they had been locked in the building. This tragic fire resulted in reforms in industrial safety.

In 1912 the textile mill owners in Lawrence, Massachusetts were required to reduce by state law to reduce the work week from fifty four hours to fifty two. They responded by cutting wages by a third. The IWW "Wobblies" led the strike of workers. Some fifty thousand workers. :Police and private militia broke up peaceful meetings, and women strikers with their children were attacked by police. The public protest caused the mill owners to not only restore pay, but increase it.

The Clayton Act of 1914 made it clear that the Sherman Anti Trust Act was not applicable to labor activities and limited the use of injunctions against strikes. In 1919 the AFL tried to organize the steel industry but the employers used strikebreakers to break the strike.

With the Great Depression of 1929 there was a change of public attitude about unions since millions of Americans were without jobs. In 1932 Congress passed the Norris-LaGuardia Act supporting labor. Injunctions in labor disputes were limited by the Act. The National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act, protected workers right to organize and collectively bargain as well as establishing the National Labor Relations Board. There followed the organization of workers in industry and in 1937 the first sit down strike in which United Auto Workers at the GM plant in Flint, Michigan, led by union leader Walter Reuther, occupied the buildings so the plant could not be operated by strike breakers.

Over the following years laws were passed and enforced that gave labor the benefit of fair play from the rich and powerful. Unions continued to grow in power. The Second World War changed the picture totally for workers and following the war conditions were substantially improved from the pre depression years.

In 2007 hardly anyone remembers or knows about the contribution of ordinary men and women who are responsible for the working conditions we have today. It wasn’t that long ago people were beaten, lynched and murdered for having the courage to stand up for better working conditions. Few monuments record their contribution and their bravery.

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