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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class



Learning Objective Two

Discuss the development of organized labor from the 1860's to the 1950's.

The Radical Unionism


The radical unionist rejected the factory system with its division of labor and its sharp differentiation of interests of employer and employee and sought to restore a society which valued the independent artisan .


This approach was very idealistic for the time .

Radical unionists were determined not to become machine tenders assigned to a small part of the process of production . They strove to preserve their status as craftsmen.


After 1865, the growth of national craft unions quickened, for example, iron molders, printers , and cigar makers


A federation of such unions, the National Labor Union, was created in 1866.

Most of its leaders were visionaries out of touch with the

practical needs and aspirations of the workers. They opposed the wage system, strikes, and anything that increased the laborers sense of being members of the working class. A major objective was the formation of worker-owned cooperatives , "By cooperation we will become a nation of employers--the employers of our own labor."


Because the Union desired basic social reforms that had little to do with bargaining .between workers and employers, it eventually became a political organization--the National Labor Reform Party. When the election of 1872 proved this venture a fiasco, the organization disappeared .

By far, the most important organization of radical unionism was the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor (1869, Urich Stephens--a mason). It attempted to unite the workers of America into one big union under centralized control.


Membership was open to men and women, white and black. skilled and unskilled, laborers and capitalists, merchants and farmers. Membership was not open to lawyers, bankers, professional gamblers, saloon keepers, and stockbrokers. They wanted an eight hour workday, no strikes and equal pay for both sexes. The purpose of this all inclusive membership and the structural arrangements of the order was bent in the direction of political action and broad social reform.


The underlying objective was that the abundance of opportunity in America should be shared among all workers of hand and brain, and the mission of the producing classes was to regain and protect this opportunity.


Several factors contributed to the rapid decline of the Knights of Labor after 1886. First, the Union sought to absorb the existing craft unions, to subject them to the loss of their autonomy. This structural characteristic caused a great deal of internal friction. Also the unsuccessful outcome of the Knights of Labor strike policy which involved the craft Unions in industrial strikes which were not in their direct interest. Finally, the fallacies in the orders assumptions, about a free market economy and the equality of rewards between hand labor and mental labor. ยท

The Trade Union.


Instead of looking for ways to be self-employed, the trade unionist organized to bargain with employers whose interests they recognized as different from their own. They saw the system as it was.


As the Knights of Labor declined in membership, its place was taken by the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Created in 1886, the AFL was in philosophy, structure, goals, and tactics the expression of a long process of evolution whose roots could be traced back to the 790's, when the first unions emerged in the United States.


In technical language, the AFL was a trade union center, meaning that it was a "roof organization." The AFL was a loose federation of about 100 national and international unions, each retaining full autonomy over all the affairs of its organization. The AFL reflected the principle of unions of skilled workers on craft lines. The most powerful of these affiliates were the national and ..... international unions (so called because they enrolled Canadian , as well as U.S. workers), such as the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and the United Mine Workers.


The hundred or so national and international unions which were affiliated with the AFL were composed of local unions centered in towns, cities, or counties.



The AFL was to dominate the American labor scene for the next half century. Samuel Gompers was the founder of the union and established a philosophy that labor should accept the economic system and should try to win respect within the system.


The AFL accepted the fact that most workers would remain in the . laboring class all their lives and tried to develop in them a sense of common purpose and pride in their skills and station.


Gompers encouraged his supporters to make intelligent use of the ballot in order to advance their own interests.


The AFL refrained from supporting any single political party. It acted upon the principle that labor should reward its friends and punish its enemies, regardless of the political party.


The Wagner.Act 1935: the Wagner Act, also known as the National Labor Relations Act, made it illegal for an employer to refuse to bargain with a union and allowed the federal government to intervene in relations between labor and capital in a more forceful way in order to protect labor from being deprived of their negotiating power by big business. The act also outlawed a list of unfair labor practices. Partly as a result of the Wagner Act but also as a result of the 1937 depression, union membership tripled between 1933-1939, from three million to over nine million.


Because of the Wagner Act unskilled industrial workers now have bargaining power.


The AFL is now interested in organizing unskilled industrial workers, and thus creates the Committee for Industrial Organization within the AFL to accomplish this feet.


In 1935, John L. Lewis who was president of the United Mine Workers. became chairman of the newly formed Committee for Industrial Organizations (CIO). Soon, Lewis and the CIO challenged the more conservative leadership policies to get more union representation and government protection for workers involved in mass-production. Thus, they were expelled from the AFL in 1936 and formed their own union , called the Congress of Industrial Organizations CIO) in 1938.


The CIO proceeded to organize such key industries as steel, rubber. and automobile and reached agreements with such large corporations as U.S. Steel and General Motors. In the following years the CIO and the AFL engaged in a bitter struggle for leadership of U .S. labor. In 1955, the CIO merged with the AFL to form one union called the AFL-CIO .


In comparing the Knights of Labor with the AFL , the AFL was opportunistic and practical where the Knights of Labor was idealistic and vague in its aims. The AFL was instrumental in achieving the eight-hour day, the five and six day work week, workmen's compensation , outlawing of the injunction and much more. The AFL has done much to improve working conditions; but the larger social question, raised by the Knights of Labor and other Reform Unions , of the redistribution of wealth , still remains open for debate.