Opening Remarks

American Labor's
Second Century


Toward a Federation of Labor

Federation of Organized Trades & Labor Unions

A Testing Period and Growth

Women in the Unions

Wartime Gains
and Post-War Challenges

From Murdered Miners to Shiny Dimes

Depression, War and
A Labor Schism Healed

The AFL-CIO Years

On the Farm:
Workers Seek Equality

 

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A TESTING PERIOD AND GROWTH

A better method of federal intervention occurred during a 1902 strike of anthracite coal miners, under the banner of the United Mine Workers.  More than 100,000 miners in northeastern Pennsylvania called a strike on May 12, and kept the mines closed all that summer.  When the mine owners refused a UMW proposal for arbitration, President Theodore Roosevelt intervened on Oct. 3, and on Oct. 16 appointed a commission of mediation and
arbitration.  Five days later the miners returned to their jobs, and five months later the Presidential Commission awarded them a 10 percent wage increase and shorter work days-but not the formal union recognition they had sought.

The difficulties that unions experienced in fashioning their strategies for bringing workers into membership and fighting low-wage non-union competition could best be observed in a long court fight which became nationally known as the Danbury Hatters case.  In 1902, the AFL hatters union instituted a national boycott of a non-union company in Danbury, Conn.  The company, charging a conspiracy in restraint of trade, under the provisions of the antitrust law, filed a damage suit in the state court but lost.

The case worked its way through the federal courts over the next few years, and in 1908 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision against the union.  It held that the Hatters Union had participated in an illegal secondary boycott, which was subject to federal injunctive restraint. The decision was a clear signal to the federal judiciary and to the corporations that injunctions could be used to stop various kinds of labor strikes and strike-support
actions.  In addition, the individual strikers were fined a total of nearly $250,000.  In 1915, the AFL proclaimed a Hatters' Day, in which workers voluntarily contributed an hours pay to help pay off the fines.  The money thus collected kept 184 individual Danbury hat workers from having their homes seized in order to pay the court ordered levy. [It is important to differentiate between direct consumer boycotts or "unfair to labor" or "don't
buy" activities, which are recognized as perfectly legal when conducted in connection with or in support of labor union disputes with employers-and, on the other hand, secondary boycotts, which were the issue in the Danbury Hatters case and which were made illegal under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. A secondary boycott is one directed at companies or stores to try to force them not to use, or to offer for sale, products which have been made by a
company involved in a strike or otherwise deemed "unfair" by the legitimate union.  The secondary boycott has all but disappeared since Taft-Hartley was passed. It should be noted, however, that the courts have ruled that the Constitution's free speech provisions legally permit a union to place "informational pickets" outside a store selling "unfair" goods and calling attention to labor's "don't buy" campaign-so long as they do not call the store itself "unfair" or ask the public not to patronize the establishment.]

This was not to be the first or last example of the way in which employers have sought to redirect the thrust of laws designed to regulate corporations and instead aimed them toward labor unions and their members.  Indeed, even at the current time, efforts are still being made to include labor under the antitrust and other laws originally aimed at corporations.

Not all the strikes and struggles of the period were conducted by the "sons of toil" in the nation's heavy industries.  Long before the rise of the contemporary feminist movement, large numbers of women were at work-particularly in the big cities and in the men's and women's garment industry.  Their grievances were real and tangible in both the textile and garment industries. Their pay was often at sweatshop levels, their hours too long, the speed-up rampant, the working conditions dreadful. Conditions such as these led in 1909 to a strike known widely as "The Uprising of the Twenty Thousand."  The strikers, mostly women, almost all of them recent immigrants from eastern Europe, conducted the first big protest in the needle trades under the banner of the Ladies' Garment Workers against shirtwaist and dress manufacturers.  Their plight brought widespread public support, and they gained the 52-hour work week and wage increases.

In 1910, some 50,000 cloakmakers called a strike in New York.  Thanks to the efforts of Louis D. Brandeis, a lawyer later named to the U.S. Supreme Court, the dispute ended on a constructive note.  A "protocol of peace" designed by Brandeis established procedures for conciliation and arbitration of future grievance disputes, as well as such important advances as the abolition of homework, the free use of electricity, ten paid holidays a year, and piece work at rates fixed by joint  union-management committees.

But a reminder that the garment industry was a good deal this side of paradise occurred in 1911, when a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. on New York's lower east side.  About 150 employees, almost all of them young women, perished when the fire swept through the upper floors of the loft building in which they worked. Many burned to death; others jumped and died.  Why so large a casualty list?  The safety exits on the burning floors had been securely locked, allegedly to prevent "loss of goods." New York and the country were aroused by the tragedy.  A state factory investigation committee headed by Frances Perkins (she was to become Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of labor in 1933, the first woman cabinet member in history) paved the way for many long needed reforms in industrial safety and fire prevention measures.

Another of the historic industrial conflicts prior to World War I occurred in 1912 in the textile mills of Lawrence, Mass.  It was led not by an AFL union but by the radical Industrial Workers of the World-the IWW, or the Wobblies, as they were generally known -an organization in frequent verbal and physical conflict with the AFL and its affiliates.  The strike in Lawrence started when the mill owners, responding to a state legislature action reducing the work week from 54 hoursto 52 hours, coldly and without prior notice cut the pay rates by 3 1/2 percent.  The move produced predictable results: a strike of 50,000 textile workers; arrests; fiery statements by the IWW leaders; police and militia attacks on peaceful meetings; and broad public support for the strikers. Some 400 children of strikers were "adopted" by sympathizers.  When women strikers and their children were attacked at the railroad station by the police after authorities had decided no more youngsters could leave town, an enraged public protest finally forced the mill owners not only to restore the pay cuts but to increase the workers' wages to more realistic levels.

Perhaps the temper of the times in which working men and women sought to build their unions was epitomized by the attitude of George Baehr, head of the Philadelphia and Reading Railway Company, at the time of the 1902 coal strike.  In Mr. Baehr's publicly expressed view, "the rights and interests of the labor man will be protected and cared for not by the labor agitators but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of the country and upon the successful management on which so much depends." Such an attitude did not leave much room for flexibility in developing more equitable labor-management relationships.

Yet not all of the news was of strike and struggle. By 1904, the AFL could claim a membership in its affiliated unions of nearly 1,700,000 members.  Ten years later, at the eve of World War 1, it had climbed to about two million.

There were, furthermore, important legislative accomplishments.  Congress, at the urging of the AFL, created a separate U.S. Department of Labor with
a legislative mandate to protect and extend the rights of wage earners.  A Children's Bureau, with a major concern to protect the victims of job exploitation, was created.  The LaFollette Seaman's Act required urgently needed improvements in the working conditions on ships of the U.S. merchant marine.  Of crucial importance, the Clayton Act of 1914 made explicit the legal concept that "the labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce" and hence not subject to the kind of Sherman Act provisions which had been the issue in the Danbury Hatters case.  The act gave a legal basis in the federal jurisdiction to strikes and boycotts and peaceful picketing, and dramatically limited the use of injunctions in labor disputes.  Little wonder that AFL President Gompers hailed the Clayton Act as a "magna carta," probably not foreseeing that future court decisions and interpretations would seriously undermine the power of the language of the law.

The Adamson Act passed by Congress in 1916 concerning work hours on the railroads was an important milestone in the decades-long effort to achieve
the eight hour day, an objective of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in 1884 and of many subsequent strikes.  The 10-hour day-an improvement in its era-was introduced for federal government employees in 1840, but it took until the early years of the 20th century before the eight hour work day became broadly accepted in the private sector, particularly in the printing and building trades.  The mass production industries and the railroads continued their refusal to grant it.

The Adamson Act brought the shorter work day to railroad employees.  It came in other industries through the impact of strikes, collective bargaining, state laws and two federal statutes: the Public Contracts Act in 1936, requiring contractors on government jobs to observe the eight hour day, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 which provided a maximum work week for employers in interstate commerce.  First a maximum of 44 hours and, after two years, 40 hours a week.

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