Jason Nowakowski  - 2000 Essay Winner


The American Labor Movement





An essay by Jason Nowakowski

The Labor Movement has dramatically brightened the future of middle-class America. From miners to assemblers, these laborers banded together and fought for a common goal. Early labor movement pioneers realized they needed to organize to protect themselves from what they saw as intolerable working conditions. And although the road that American workers have taken to unite and fight for themselves has been rough, it has shaped the way in which our country is structured and brought the standard of living to where it is today.

The labor movement originated from strikes that began because of wage-cuts, the new inventions of machinery and the depersonalization of workers. The formation of the AFL came about in the late 1880’s in order to address such issues as women and child labor, and safe and healthy working conditions. To the American worker, these topics were of great concern. However, fighting powerful corporations with tremendous financial resources was often a losing battle. Employers firmly opposed the growth of the labor movement in the United States. They mounted formidable economic, legal and even private police forces to oppose the unionization of their workers.

With the number of families living in poverty being high, the working people knew that a reformation was in order. New ideas and the popularity of the AFL caught on quick in the work place. At the beginning of World War I, there were 2 million members in the AFL, and 4 million by 1919. During the war there was great respect for 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 one million members. Anti-union supporters used fear of communism to further the anti-union movement. These following years were difficult ones for the labor movement; the country was in economic disaster and unemployment was going through the roof. Even though there have been many violent outbursts between the IWW and the authorities throughout the last century, the IWW believed strongly that they would not win a labor battle by taking arms and revolting, but rather by simply striking. Their ideas swept through Europe after the formation of the IWW, and soon new leftist groups were appearing all over the continent.

In response to the problems at hand, newly elected Franklin D. Roosevelt designed programs to recharge the economy; one being the National Recovery Administration. This specifically put on paper the rights of unions to exist and to negotiate with employers. Although there was no real enforcement power, millions of workers saw it as a green light to join a union. AFL membership grew substantially during this time. Later the Supreme Court declared the NRA to be unconstitutional; it was replaced in 1936 by the National Labor Relations Act. This Act established a legal basis for unions, and set collective bargaining as a matter of national policy required by law.

Organized labor has faced difficult times over the past 25 years. Even so, the historical record shows that the Labor movement must be recognized as both a major triumph and a permanent institution. Our society now enjoys the benefits of the long fought war to insure workers’ rights. As the labor movement enters the 21st century, the complex economic and social problems that face the United States make even more vital the need for the strong voice to speak for American workers.