By Colette Perold and Eric Dirnbach
Workers in the U.S. have been organizing together, forming unions or other organizations, and going on strike for hundreds of years. In the early 1800s, this often involved groups of workers stopping work to protest their working conditions. As capitalism developed, workers built more formal organizations. They formed a number of union federations after the Civil War, including the National Labor Union in 1866, the Knights of Labor in 1869, and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886.
Organizing in the 19th century was often dangerous and risky, as employers would fight union organizing efforts using violence, and the government would typically side with employers in breaking strikes. Unions had little legal protection and were often considered by various courts and the press to be illegal conspiracies among workers to raise wages.
Unions were often associated with radical and socialist politics. With the founding of the AFL, many unions eventually began to distance themselves from radical politics and emphasized that they were only seeking better wages and working conditions within capitalism. One reaction to this on the left was the formation of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1905, which explicitly rejected capitalism.
The most common form of union until the 1930s was usually called a craft union, where workers who did the same kind of job would band together. This led to situations where a workplace might have workers in several different unions, according to their jobs. Associated with this was the common idea that only “skilled” workers should be union members. This left out a lot of workers considered “unskilled” at the time, who were often female, Black, or immigrants.
In the 1930s, workers and unions reacted to the devastating conditions of the Great Depression with a massive wave of organizing and strikes. By 1935 the Roosevelt administration responded to this labor upsurge by passing the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which established a legal framework for workers to join unions, hold elections, and bargain contracts with their employers.
The NLRA led to a huge wave of successful union elections. It contained some powerful concepts on the rights of workers to engage in concerted activity, and unions were able to seize it as a tool for mass organizing.
It was seen at the time by most of the labor movement as a huge advance, but critics saw some problematic elements built into it. For example, it was rooted in the Constitution’s “Commerce Clause,” which means that union formation was tolerated by the state as a way to minimize disruptions to commerce. This eventually sowed the seeds for anti-labor laws like the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 and court decisions later on that weakened unions’ abilities to strike. The nature of the NLRA is still subject to debate today.
Moreover, in the 1930s, more workers in the labor movement began to promote the idea of industrial unions, where all workers in a workplace would organize together into the same union, regardless of the kind of work they did. This kind of organizing would typically involve assembly line workers at huge manufacturing employers, which were generally avoided by craft unions. These workplaces had large numbers of immigrant and Black workers, many with radical politics that informed their organizing.
Several of these new industrial unions formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) which helped organize hundreds of thousands of workers in auto, steel, rubber, electric and other industries. Initially the CIO was part of the AFL, but was kicked out in 1938, largely over this difference in organizing philosophy and political positions. Crucially, because of their more expansive notions of what a worker is and does, and who the real class enemy is—bosses, not “lower-skilled” workers—these industrial unions were seen as politically more radical. Indeed, they were often communist, socialist, or anarchist-led.
The labor movement grew dramatically in the 1930s through the 1940s, and reached a peak of one third of the U.S. workforce in the 1950s. By that decade, unions had become established institutions. While some unionists believe this moment of increased formalization was a positive development, others—including many unionists on the political Left—believe that the biggest unions at the time prioritized organizational stability at the expense of deepening their shop-floor militancy.
The more formalized the union bureaucracies were, the more distant from the membership they became, turning into top-down organizations that in many cases lacked genuine democracy. The book “The Long Deep Grudge” is a great story on this kind of union transition, as the militant Farm Equipment workers merged into the more conservative and bureaucratic UAW in the 1950s.
The AFL and CIO merged in 1955 to form the AFL-CIO that exists today. This happened largely because the political differences between the federations had decreased dramatically, as the AFL accepted industrial unionism and the CIO had purged its Communist leadership during the late 1940s and early 1950s McCarthy Era.
Though the number of union members continued to grow into the 1970s, the union membership rate then started a long slow decline. Moreover, the number of large strikes has also declined dramatically, from hundreds annually in the 1950s to low double digits in most recent years. The reasons for these declines in members and strikes have been greatly debated for decades, and constitute one of the most serious problems facing the labor movement.