Drew Dahlstedt  - 1998 Essay Winner


The Labor Movement - Where We Are Today





An essay by Drew Dahlstedt

So much has been accomplished through the labor movement in the American history, that we sometimes take for granted the prosperity it has brought.

In the late 1880's, the AFL formed to address such issues as women and child labor, safe and healthy working conditions and the protection of the skilled labor force. These and other concerns were not conceded; they were hard-fought for, and not without many sacrificing their lives. Fighting powerful corporations with tremendous financial resources was often a losing battle.

There were 2 million members in the AFL at the start of World War I, and 4 million by 1919. During the war there was great respect or the labor movement, because industrial production was critical to the war effort. Many of these gains, however, were lost in the post-war depression. Unemployment was high, and the AFL lost about a million members. Anti-union supporters used fear of communism to further the anti-union movement.

The following years were difficult ones for he labor movement. The country was in economic disaster, with unemployment going through the roof. In 1932, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president, America was practically a paralyzed nation economically. He designed programs to recharge the economy. One was the National Recovery Administration; NRA's Section 7a specifically put on paper the rights of unions to exist and to negotiate with employers. Even though it didn't have any enforcement powers, millions of workers saw it as a green light to join a union.

AFL unions gained spectacular increases in membership during the time. When the Supreme Court declared the NRA to be unconstitutional, it was replaced in 1936 by the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act. It established a legal basis for unions, set collective bargaining as a matter of national policy required by law, provided for secrete ballot elections for the choosing of unions and protected members from employer intimidation and coercion.

The CIO was formed in 1935, in hopes of creating one industrial union, unlike the craft unions, which maintained that each group of skilled workers have their own union. The AFL and the CIO were at odds for a number of years, but their memberships flourished. During World War II they began to work together, realizing that they had more in common than they had differences. In 1955 the two merged. George Meany was the first president of the AFL-CIO.

Since then, there has been great strides in the labor movement, which have included unions for government employees at all levels, and protection for discrimination against a number of groups such as women, older workers and minorities. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed largely because of the support of the AFL-CIO.

Today we enjoy the benefits of the long war fought to insure workers' rights. We need to remember our history and how far we have come. Complacency could be the greatest threat we face today.