Amber Everson  - 1999 Essay Winner


The American Labor Movement





An essay by Amber Everson

The American labor movement has played a pivotal role in the elevation of the American standard of living. Without the hard work and sacrifice of many workers, daily life as we know it would not exist.

On December 8, 1886, the American Federation of Labor evolved from its predecessor, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. This was a large step towards development of the modern trade union in America. This new union was lead by President Samuel Gompers. The founder of the AFL declared the need for a more effective union organization stemmed from "the various trades [being] affected by the introduction of machinery, the subdivision of labor, use of women’s and children’s labor and the lack of an apprentice system-so that the skilled trades were rapidly sinking to the level of pauper." And therefore, "the trade unions of America have been established…to protect the skilled labor of America."

Union membership grew immensely in the late 19th century. Unions accomplished many remarkable things, but the road to better standards for workers was a long one with many obstacles. One of these obstacles was the Sherman Antitrust Act. This act was designed to break monopolies, but instead worked against the labor movement. One instrument used under the Sherman Antitrust Act was the injunction. This government supply of military force to break strikes severely crippled the power of the American labor unions.

Union membership steadily declined in the post WWI years, due to the depression that hit the United States. Many powerful companies instituted "yellow dog contracts"; forcing workers to sign contracts that bound them to never join a union or lose their job. The future of American labor looked bleak. However, in 1932, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began many programs to recharge the economy. Among those was the National Recovery Administration. The NRA’s section 7a stated that unions had the right to exist and negotiate with employers. This stimulated tremendous growth in union membership. Soon after, the Supreme Court declared the NRA unconstitutional and it was replaced by the National Labor Relations, or Wagner Act. This Act improved labor union effectiveness by establishing things like collective bargaining and secret ballots.

The growing popularity of labor unions spurred John L. Lewis to form the Committee for Industrial Organization. The CIO’s objective was to promote industrial unionism. For many years the AFL and the CIO were on opposite sides of the labor movement. By 1955 many of the old issues had been resolved and the two unions merged to form the AFL-CIO, lead by President George Meany.

In the years since, there have been many advances in the labor movement. The AFL-CIO was instrumental in passage of many laws such as Age Discrimination and Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Today, all of America enjoys the many benefits of the labor movement. Things that many of us take for granted, such as vacations with pay, pensions, health and welfare protection, grievance and arbitration procedures, never existed until labor unions fought and won them for working people. America is in debt to the many people who fought and often sacrificed their lives for the elevation of the American standard of living.