Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression. Editor: Richard C Hanes & Sharon M Hanes. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
When the Great Depression began in 1929, and deepened into 1931, the demand for goods produced in U.S. factories began to plummet. The average citizen did not have the money or job stability to pay the same amount of money as before for goods that were not necessities. In addition the financiers who had lost money in the stock market crash were no longer investing in American businesses as they had before. As a result unemployment and under-employment swept through factories across the United States. It became a vicious cycle as the public had less money to spend on the goods, leading to factories cutting back, meaning the public had even less money to spend. Due to this downward spiral during the Great Depression industrial production in the United States fell 35 percent. Depressions in the 1830s, 1870s, and 1890s had not had nearly as severe an effect on the economy. Workers faced diminished wages, fewer work hours, or loss of jobs altogether. The situation became desperate for millions of laborers; without jobs they could not pay for shelter, clothing, or food. They had little place to turn. The states and federal government offered no unemployment insurance and provided only limited welfare assistance. Most relief had to come from the private sector, especially churches and lodges or clubs that had assistance programs.
The labor sector was ill equipped to deal with an economic crisis of such proportions. By 1932, 16 million were unemployed, which was equivalent to nearly a third of those who were able to work in the U.S. at that time. During the economic prosperity of World War I (1914-1918) and the early 1920s, activity of the union had steadily declined. Unions are organized groups of workers joined together for a common purpose, such as pushing management for better working conditions. Such conditions include wages, health and safety, hours required to work, and benefits including retirement. Before the late nineteenth century unions were primarily composed of skilled craftsmen, however, with the rapid growth of industry and factories after the Civil War (1861-1865), semi-skilled and unskilled workers grew in number and began efforts to organize. Having historically received little support from government and strong resistance from management who did not want to share any control of companies with workers, the early labor movement took a more aggressive path to gain recognition from employers. This path discouraged many workers from participating. The main issue of confrontation between these early unions and business management was simply seeking acceptance from the company and an opportunity to negotiate working conditions.
In addition, during good times, workers did not find compelling reasons to work together in unions for better wages and other benefits. Further, the Republican administrations of Warren G. Harding (served 1921-1923), Calvin Coolidge (served 1923-1929), and Herbert Hoover (served 1929-1933) were not friendly towards unions. They refused to adopt any policies that would recognize rights of workers to collectively bargain, or negotiate as a group, over working conditions including wages, hours worked, health and safety, and various benefits. The right to strike, to temporarily walk out of a job until workers’ demands of employers such as better pay and hours were met, was not protected by law. The prospect of arbitrating disputes, or resolving a dispute between two other parties by a person chosen by both sides, was problematic.
As the Great Depression deepened in the 1930s, the lure of labor unions grew. Volunteers, especially from such organizations as the Communist Party USA, attempted to pull workers together through various social activities and support programs to form unions. By 1935 it was evident that broad, industrial unions—associations joining workers in steel, rubber, automobiles, or loading ships—had particular appeal. Workers were drawn to unions because of the unions’ goal of protecting the interests of workers, whereas most businesses were largely concerned with protecting their own interests, regardless of how the decisions based on their bottom line might affect those working for them. Unions provided workers with a voice and protection against unfair working conditions and pay. The largely craft-oriented American Federation of Labor (AFL) composed of skilled workers could not come to terms with the new industrial unions of unskilled and semi-skilled laborers, and expelled the leaders of those new organizations. The Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO), which had existed within the framework of the AFL under the leadership of John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers, separated from the AFL. The CIO, which was wildly successful in its membership drives in various industries, especially the automobile and steel industries, emerged from the split as a strong player in expressing the interests of labor in general.
To support this growing labor union activity the New Dealers, politicians who supported President Roosevelt’s New Deal, or plan for economic relief and reform, in Congress passed laws encouraging it. Parts of Roosevelt’s New Deal that assisted labor were the National Recovery Administration (NRA), which was signed into existence in June 1933 as part of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which became law in July 1935. While parts of the National Industrial Recovery Act were held unconstitutional in 1935, the NLRA, also known as the Wagner Act, extended legal protection to union activities, including the ability to collectively bargain or negotiate with employers to meet workers’ demands for better wages, hours, benefits, and working conditions. Firing an employee for joining a union was also outlawed by the NLRA, therefore the 1930s became a highly important decade in the history of American labor.
During the 1920s labor unions declined dramatically in membership due to a number of circumstances surrounding industry at the time: support of the government in keeping “open shops” or denying unions the ability to represent all workers in an industry; companies’ offers of pensions or stocks to keep employees from joining unions; and severe suppression of strikes by companies in various industries. As a result, their ability to improve and protect the interests of workers greatly declined. Labor leaders wondered if it was possible, in the face of widespread unemployment in the 1930s, to build a union movement and obtain legal protections for union activities. They wondered if the rapidly increasing unemployment would potentially kill any opportunity to become better organized. Many had lost their jobs. Others feared becoming unemployed and did not want to jeopardize their jobs by joining organizations that management disliked.
The federal government provided little protection for unions and when workers engaged in strikes, they often faced arrest or displacement by scab, or replacement, laborers. Violence frequently broke out because of labor disputes. Key questions arose regarding the government role in labor relations. Could Congress as part of the New Deal chart a new course in protecting organized labor? Could the federal government have sufficient powers to bring both management and labor together to discuss the resolution of their differences?
Representing the large numbers of unskilled workers, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) grew rapidly in the late 1930s by developing industrial unions, which are unions that includes members of an entire industry, such as automobile or steel production, join regardless of their position or specialty within that industry. With this growth, several new challenges arose regarding labor activities. With the broader diversity of workers represented, the CIO had to create and maintain solidarity among the working classes and in order to do this, they had to rise above differences in ethnicity, race, and occupational skills. The CIO also had to forge a strategy that could use mass strikes and win concessions from big business without further contributing to the problems of the Great Depression. A major issue was the relationship of the CIO to the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which represented skilled workers. The prospect of having relative labor peace and renewed prosperity seemed more complicated when two massive unions had very different philosophies and strategies for obtaining their objectives. While organizing workers across social and work backgrounds was not without problems, unions did find ways to press their causes despite the trying economic times brought on by the Great Depression.
Rebuilding a Labor Movement
The decline in union membership had continued from the 1920s into the 1930s, from more than four million union members in 1920 to less than three million union members in 1933. Along with the unwillingness of the government and industry to facilitate union membership, the shop closings and layoffs prevalent during the Depression contributed to waning union membership. Those who belonged to unions were, for the most part, miners, construction workers, or skilled craftsmen. To rebuild the labor movement, union advocates had to find issues and means to revive the commitment of working men and women to joint action, otherwise they would continue to face long hours, low wages, job insecurity, and poor working conditions. They also needed federal laws supporting their strikes and collective bargaining. The issues most relevant to workers were long work weeks extending up to 60 or 80 hours a week in some jobs, a drop in incomes, (the national per capita income fell from $705 in 1929 before the crash, steadily down to $374 in 1933) and the prevalence of industrial accidents.
As the Great Depression deepened, it was clear that unemployed workers were caught in difficult circumstances. In 1930 no federal or state unemployment programs existed and fewer than 150,000 workers had private unemployment insurance. As a result, those without jobs were without incomes and those without incomes were unable to pay rent, purchase food, and maintain their families’ standard of living. Unemployment during the Depression was thus a vicious circle that was hard to escape.
Though rents and costs for food and clothing dropped during the 1930s, unemployed workers were still unable to pay for many of these basic necessities including housing. As a result evictions became common, creating a growing homeless population. In a number of cities both men and women, sometimes helped by the Communist party, formed Unemployed Councils to protest evictions and participate in rent strikes, which was the refusal to pay rent until rental rates were lowered by landlords to meet declining incomes. Black women also formed Housewives Leagues and protested under the slogan “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work.” The boycott, which began in Harlem, was targeted against white-owned businesses in black communities that refused to hire black employees. These boycotts helped thousands of black Americans secure jobs in the 1930s.
The turn around in the labor movement during the 1930s was the product of dedicated, determined leadership, a growing realization of the needs of workers, and a softening of government’s anti-union stance. As the Great Depression deepened, the appeal of union membership grew and the zeal of organizers mounted. Women formed auxiliaries to a number of the male-dominated unions and assisted with first aid, food supply, and child care during strikes, and sometimes joined men on the picket line.
Congress gave some stimulus to unionization in 1933 when it passed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). The NIRA was a complex law, which permitted workers to organize into unions, select representatives, and engage in collective bargaining. Importantly the law gave unions greater legitimacy in the eyes of workers. The law also led to creation of the Public Works Administration (PWA) that provided work for many unemployed laborers, and also established the National Recovery Administration (NRA). The NRA partly suspended antitrust laws and laid out a basis for creating codes for business operation. Section 7A of the NIRA contained a special provision protecting unions, which stated: “Employees shall have the right to organize and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and shall be free from interference, restraint, or coercion of employers—in the designation of such representatives.”
A Struggling Union Movement
Using the prospect of union legitimacy offered in Section 7A of the NIRA, John L. Lewis, a conservative Republican who had headed the United Mine Workers since 1919, began rebuilding membership in the United Mine Workers, organizing workers in one of the most dangerous occupations in the country. Long hours, exposure to coal dust and hazardous conditions far below the earth, accidents, and low wages had long beset miners. Lewis became a powerful force in labor as the United Mine Workers grew in membership and strength. Other unions, however, did not fare as well.
Though Section 7A permitted workers to organize and bargain collectively, early in 1934 the NRA ruled that company unions might legally fulfill this section of the law as an alternative to outside unions. Companies established their own unions to appease workers by allowing them to settle disputes with the company, which, through the company union, was essentially overseeing its own negotiations. Employees benefited somewhat through minor improvements in working conditions and pay. The benefits of a company union, however, primarily went to the company that was trying to avoid losing workers who would quit if a union wasn’t formed, or having to bargain with a true union that would be more likely to negotiate terms that might increase a company’s costs. When a company started its own union, it significantly undermined or made impossible the work of a national or craft union. In the first half of 1934 nearly 25 percent of industrial workers labored in factories which had established company unions.
The events of the Great Depression in the early 1930s thus brought mixed prospects for unions. Unemployment, low wages, evictions, yellow dog contracts (documents signed by employees who promised not to join labor unions), and company unions, were all good reasons for laborers to consider joining craft or industrial unions. A change in atmosphere, however, was needed before that could occur.
The U.S. Supreme Court in May 1935 ruled that the National Recovery Administration (NRA), a major part of the NIRA law, was unconstitutional. The Schecter Poultry Corp. v. United States ruling overturned Section 7A. As a result, the right of workers to organize and engage in collective bargaining ceased to exist. The death of the NRA, however, also meant that company unions were less prevalent. With companies no longer obligated under law to allow their employees the choice of organizing into unions, many companies ceased their union support. Company unions lost popularity and membership in industrial, skilled, and other unions began to rise again.
Labor Takes Off
The same month as the Supreme Court decision overturning the NRA, Congress again took the initiative to create a situation favorable to organized labor. In May 1935 President Roosevelt (served 1933-1945) signed the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act after its sponsorship by Senator Robert Wagner of New York. The law prohibited certain unfair labor practices, such as interference and coercion with regard to employees’ right to organization and collective bargaining, and created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
The NLRB was given considerable leeway to administer the law; it could help employees hold elections and select a bargaining agent, such as a union. It could prevent unfair labor practices and might issue “cease and desist” orders—telling an employer to stop what it was doing. It could also insist that employers deal in good faith with workers in their efforts to organize and engage in collective bargaining. The rapid growth of labor unions in the United States followed the birth of the NLRB.
Another factor highly significant in the growth of unions was a decision by eight unions in 1935, at a meeting of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), to create the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). John L. Lewis sensed that a new era for industrial unions had arrived but the leadership of the craft-dominated AFL did not necessarily agree. The AFL was a loose federation of independent craft unions, the primary unifying force for American labor from its founding in 1886 to the 1930s. They were not eager to open the door to lesser skilled industrial workers, which led to its division. Tempers flared as debate raged over who the new organization should include. When Bill Hutcheson, president of the Carpenters’ Union, insulted Lewis on the floor of the annual meeting in Atlantic City for pursuing industrial union organization, Lewis punched him in the jaw and sent him sprawling. The encounter made national headlines and showed the public the division between craft unions representing skilled workers and industrial unions representing unskilled and semi-skilled workers.
A few weeks after the Lewis-Hutcheson encounter, the AFL suspended from its organization all the unions that formed the new CIO, but they could not stop the momentum. Leaders of rubber workers, laborers in automobile factories, redcaps handling baggage at railroad stations, longshoremen, teamsters (which were a union of truck drivers), and worker organizations of other industries considered joining the CIO. As the CIO grew, tensions with the AFL and its old-line emphasis on skilled workers mounted. Unions represented by the CIO were not organized by shared skills in crafts like the AFL member unions, but rather based on the type of industry or shared workplace. A major split in the nation’s union movement resulted in the AFL and the CIO trying to out recruit the other for new members. With its new independent status, the CIO changed its name in November 1938 to the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
The new CIO grew dramatically under the charismatic leadership of John L. Lewis, who abandoned some of his former, conservative principles. Like the AFL, the CIO was a broad unifying organization representing numerous labor unions. By 1938 the CIO represented 38 national unions. In spite of the obvious differences in philosophy and approach between the AFL and CIO, unionization in the United States continued to grow. Both the AFL and CIO attracted hundreds of thousands of new union members.
Union Action Becomes Bolder
The growth of the CIO was, in part, a product of the success of its member unions in fighting for their wants. Some of the efforts came at the grass-roots level and were sparked in the factories by the workers, not by the leaders of their unions. Such a case came in late 1935 in Akron, Ohio, when Goodyear Corporation announced it was returning to an eight-hour workday, but because of the Depression’s effect on sales, the company would pay wages only for six hours of work. The automobile industry, including related tire manufacturers, had been the leaders in U.S. industry since the late 1910s. The Depression, however, triggered a major decline in car sales. As a result the demand for car tires also plummeted. Rubber workers at plants owned by Goodyear, Firestone, and Goodrich—all manufacturers of tires—without prompting from their union leaders, staged a “sit-down strike” in January 1936. They remained in the factories but refused to work until their demand for a 30-hour workweek was met. This tactic blocked the employers from replacing them with scab laborers.
With the strike continuing for several weeks Goodyear started firing workers that February. In response the sit-down strikes spread, eventually idling over 14,000 workers. At this point the CIO began assisting the rubber workers, giving advice and financial assistance. Finally in March 1936 Goodyear gave in to a number of the workers’ demands, including their demand for a thirty-hour workweek. Local opposition to company practices continued to flare from time to time. Unions representing the workers would then call for “wildcat strikes,” in which workmen walked off the job. These actions continued at Goodyear for the next five years.
In 1936 the United Auto Workers (UAW), a CIO affiliate, began a series of actions against General Motors (GM). Despite the collapse of car sales due to the Depression, General Motors had risen to the top of the auto industry controlling 43 percent of the market and still showing a profit. Given its relatively strong financial condition, GM became a target for labor unions seeking to gain increased wages and benefits. Laborers had become bolder with the election of Frank Murphy, a liberal, as governor of Michigan because they realized that Murphy would likely not take action against them if they engaged in strikes. In the fall of 1936 strikes began occurring at the local level first without the support of the UAW. With the UAW support coming strikes spread to plants in Cleveland, Kansas City, Atlanta, and Flint, Michigan. Strikers used “sit-down” tactics thus avoiding confrontation on the street with people opposing a picket line and it also kept employers from bringing in scab laborers.
In January 1937 the strike at the GM plant in Flint erupted into a brawl between strikers and the police on the street outside the factory. While the police fired tear gas and strikers retaliated by throwing rocks and bottles, no one was killed, however, a number of people were injured on both sides. The governor of Michigan, Frank Murphy, sent in the National Guard to keep order but not to break the strike. Murphy chose this tactic not only because of his liberal stance and support of unions, but also because of a desire to keep the situation peaceful. In not allowing the National Guard to physically move into the plant, Murphy believed that he was preventing any further violence, especially toward the unarmed workers inside.
In early February the UAW occupied another plant in Flint and in retaliation General Motors secured a court injunction to evict the strikers. A judge who owned a significant amount of GM stock, however, issued the injunction; thus, the ruling could not truly have been impartial. In light of this news, Governor Murphy was unable to force the injunction, instead, John L. Lewis of the CIO came in to negotiate for the UAW.
As a consequence of CIO success in the automotive industry, manufacturers in other sectors began to enter into agreements with other unions but all was not peaceful. Labor disputes at the Republic Mill in Chicago on Memorial Day, 1937, turned violent when the police prohibited picketing at the main gate. As workers marched toward the steel mill, the police blocked them. A demonstrator lobbed a tree branch at the police, who began shooting into the air and the demonstrators then began throwing rocks. The police opened fire on the workers, then pursued the demonstrators, shooting and beating them. Ten demonstrators died—all shot in the back—twenty-eight others were wounded and hospitalized, while three police officers needed medical treatment. This event became known as the Memorial Day Massacre. Despite the “massacre,” nothing was immediately resolved between Republic Steel and the strikers. The strike continued until August 1941 when Republic Steel agreed to end unfair labor practices. A year later, Republic Steel signed a contract with United Steelworkers of America.
More Congressional Support and Court Setbacks Arrive
Members of labor unions and other workers were further heartened when, after considerable debate and opposition from conservatives, Congress in 1938 passed the Fair Labor Standards Act. This law addressed some of the advances in NIRA that had been undone when the Supreme Court overthrew NRA and covered all workers engaged in interstate commerce or manufacture of goods moving between states. The law applied several of the codes from the National Labor Recovery Act that addressed maximum hours, minimum wages, and child labor. More specifically, the new law, signed on June 25, prohibited child labor in interstate commerce. It also fixed a minimum wage of 25¢ an hour and a maximum work week of 44 hours, providing that by 1940 wages would go to 40¢ an hour with a work week of 40 hours. Employers who wanted laborers to exceed the maximum hours allowed had to pay time-and-a-half, still, however, an estimated 12 million workers in 1938 were earning less than 25¢ an hour.
Another unwelcome Supreme Court ruling, however, came in 1939. The outlawing of sit-down strikes was disconcerting to workers, especially to members of the CIO. This technique had served the industrial unions well by bringing factories to a close and compelling management to consider the grievances of workers.
As a result of the Great Depression workers in many occupations organized into unions for the first time. New Deal laws, slow in enactment and sometimes incomplete in enforcement, did help change the condition of laborers. Unions gave millions of workers a voice and a sense of solidarity in demanding fair treatment from employers that they had never before possessed.
With the rapid industrialization of the American economy following the Civil War (1861-1865), working conditions in factories were often deplorable. Low pay, long hours, no benefits, and unhealthy conditions were far too common for workers as company owners accumulated vast wealth in the growing industrial economy. The railroad industry had led the industrialization efforts of the late nineteenth century by establishing a strong demand for iron, steel, and coal. Efforts to form national unions of unskilled industrial workers in the United States to address these issues began in the 1880s with the Knights of Labor (KOL) and the Federation of Organized Trades. The KOL focused on national political issues and before long lost support of its diverse membership. The Federation, however, focused instead on working conditions such as working hours, safety, wages, and benefits, making its support more stable than KOL’s. The Federation became the AFL in 1886, forming a loose federation of craft unions.
Labor activities became more radical with the militant Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), formed in 1906. The IWW attempted to draw into its ranks loggers, sawmill workers, farm hands, and other laborers. The IWW (also mockingly referred to as “I Won’t Work”) tried to weld together unskilled workingmen and women from all sorts of jobs. To create solidarity, the IWW employed songs, fiery speakers, combative strikes, and parades, however, the economic boom of World War I and the following decade of the 1920s led workers to back away from the radical group. For various reasons most of these early broad-based industrial unions were not able to fully achieve their objectives and sustain large memberships for any length of time.
The Setting Changes for Unions
During the 1910s unionization swept through many crafts and industries. The craft unions attracted members with commonly held skills, for example, boilermakers, pipe fitters, and carpenters each developed unions specific to their craft.
Unionization did see some growth during World War I, only to decline rapidly afterwards. During the years 1920 and 1923 unions lost almost 1.5 million members; about a 30 percent decrease. A labor surplus, fostered by mechanization, drove workers from jobs as well as from union membership. Mechanization involved major breakthroughs in automating factories. New machines worked faster and were more accurate and consistent for the new mass production strategies that involved interchangeable parts between the individual products. Assembly line production also greatly increased efficiency while reducing the number of workers needed in many industries. Fewer workers meant fewer prospective members of labor unions. The IWW, for example, grew rapidly during the 1910s but, like other unions, declined in the 1920s. The pacifism (opposition to war) of some IWW leaders and general feelings in the public that unions were thwarting the country’s efforts to fight World War I by their work stoppages, cost the union support and also raised considerable opposition to them.
The reasons for the general decline in all unions by the 1920s were, in part, founded in the anti-union attitudes and actions of company owners and the administrations of presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. Some employers, for example, required yellow dog contracts. These contracts required workers to agree not to join a labor union as a condition for their employment, and were so named because workers were essentially required to beg like dogs for jobs from employers. Other businesses formed company unions dominated by the management of the company, which were designed to block the prospects that workers would join a craft or industrial union not controlled by the company. During the 1920s union membership fell sharply from a high of more than 4 million in 1920, to 3.4 million in 1929. This drop in union membership and activity left workers particularly vulnerable to businesses cutting back during the Great Depression, especially among the less organized unskilled laborers.
The lack of any federal or state unemployment insurance programs in the early 1930s, combined with low wages, dangerous working conditions, lack of paid vacation time, and no retirement provisions caused workers to consider what might be gained by combined action. Unions offered the possibility of forcing employers to accommodate the needs of their workers if the workers could stand united before managers and owners.
After passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, unions grew rapidly. The AFL continued to represent skilled craft workers, controlling access into its skilled labor jobs through programs of apprenticeships, high union fees, and fairly wide discrimination against minorities and women. If a person was not a union member their access to jobs was limited for they could not receive union-sponsored training through the apprenticeships to make them more competitive. Also if they did not pay the high union fees or if they were a woman or minority, access to the training and other union programs designed to help them gain employment would not be available. The CIO emerged as a new alternative in unionization because it enrolled millions of industrial workers, which the AFL refused to do. The workers were willing to engage in sit-down strikes, or strikes where workers remained in the workplace but refused to work; wildcat strikes, or strikes organized locally rather than through a union in particular; picketing; and strong bargaining to secure gains in wages and benefits.
For female workers, the CIO opened many opportunities. Unlike the AFL, the CIO allowed a number of unions enrolling women to become affiliates. Women’s membership in unions grew to 800,000 by 1940. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) enrolled more than two hundred thousand members, which included Mexican American embroiderers and hand sewers working from their homes, and cutters, fitters, seamstresses, and pressers working in clothing factories. Although having a mixed record on protecting racial minorities, the ILGWU by the mid-1930s included a number of black American women in its ranks from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
In 1932, 3.1 million workers belonged to unions and this number grew modestly to 3.9 million workers in 1935. By 1939, however, union membership doubled from the 1935 rate to 8 million members.
Unions on the Margins
A number of unions, though remaining small in the 1930s, were critical to voicing workers’ demands and meeting workers’ needs. The Communist Party helped many small unions with organization and recruitment. The American communists were especially committed to working with minorities, who were often rebuffed or overlooked by the AFL, CIO, and other large unions. This slight by unions was due to the racist attitudes of some union leaders and members and the simple fact that a relatively small percentage of blacks were in the industrial worker population.
Communist party leaders in the United States seized the occasion of growing worker strife to press labor’s cause and saw this issue as a key avenue for gaining membership. This association between the communist party and labor scared many Americans who began to associate the labor movement with radical left-wing politics. At the same time the rise of Nazi fascism in Germany reinforced this fear. Though many workers appreciated any support they could muster, few actually joined the Communist Party.
In Alabama, for example, a Sharecroppers Union in the 1930s recruited members for 28 local chapters and a dozen women’s auxiliaries. Women played important roles in helping to form this union, which was closely linked to the programs of the Communist Party. They included left-leaning white women, black American women, and working class women. Writing about this organization, historian Nancy Cott noted (in Cott, Nancy, ed. No Small Courage: A History of Women in the United States, 2000, p. 470): “The women’s auxiliaries met separately from the men in the Sharecroppers Union, both so that one parent could always stay home with the children and to divert the suspicions of local white authorities, who were hostile to this attempt on the part of sharecroppers to drive a better bargain.”
In California Dorothy Healey, a member of the Communist Party, worked for most of the late 1930s to organize cannery workers and dock laborers, who faced dangerous conditions with long hours and little pay. Healey served as vice-president of the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America (UCA-PAWA). In 1939 the UCA-PAWA, representing some 430 workers (mostly women) initiated a strike on the California Sanitary Canning Company, also referred to as Cal San. The workers were seeking recognition of the union by the company in the midst of the peach-canning season. The picket line stood duty 24 hours a day for a duration of two and a half months. Finally the owners of Cal San, reprimanded by the National Labor Relations Board and humiliated by children carrying signs claiming their mothers were underpaid, met with the union representatives. This result gave the union some credibility and standing with the company.
Labor and unions charted new ground in America during the Great Depression. Entering the 1930s under desperate circumstances and little legal standing, unions emerged by the late 1930s as a major force in the American economy. Because of congressional protection under the New Deal, labor unions were better able to organize and recruit workers, mount strikes, and engage in collective bargaining.
Although the 1930s were depressed years in the American economy, the advances—many stemming directly from programs and policies formulated to overcome the Great Depression—helped millions of workers rise from lower to middle class in the better economic times during the 1940s and 1950s. Increasingly, the state and federal governments assumed responsibilities for workers, creating employment offices, unemployment insurance, and pension programs, none of which existed at the time of the Depression. The lack of these programs in the 1930s made many workers vulnerable to unemployment and economic despair. Another improvement for workers came with the passage of the Social Security program in 1935, which required the withholding of worker contributions and employer taxes to provide for old-age benefits for workers upon retirement.
Another result coming out of the New Deal’s protective policies toward labor was the emergence of broad-based industrial unions. Individual unions found a common voice through the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The CIO and the AFL both represented different worker interests and often pursued different strategies. By 1940, however, each organization gave laborers a voice in the nation’s economy.
The Decline of Organized Labor
After 30 years of considerable strength growing out of New Deal policies the influence of labor unions began to decline in the 1970s. During that decade the percentage of workers in the United States outside of agriculture who were members of labor unions fell from 28 percent to 23 percent, even though the size of the workforce increased. With the Republican administration of President Ronald Reagan (served 1981-1989) being unsupportive of labor unions during the 1980s—much as the Republican administrations of the 1920s had been—the decline in union membership fell further to 17.5 percent of the workforce by 1986.
Also during this time, the technology and service industries were replacing the manufacturing, mining, and construction industries in the U.S. economy. Many manufacturing industries whose workers greatly benefited from New Deal policies shifted operations to foreign nations, often economically undeveloped Third World countries that did not offer its laborers working conditions and benefits that had been gained by workers under New Deal-supported labor negotiation processes in the United States. These growing industries, though largely characterized by low-wage part time jobs, were less susceptible to unionization. With these trends in the 1980s, corporations became much more aggressive towards labor unions. The expanding global economy meant companies could threaten to relocate manufacturing facilities to other countries that had cheaper labor standards. The United States entered a new economic era labeled the postindustrial period. Domestic manufacturing was being increasingly replaced by service industries including communications, commercial banking, and retail sales.
The impact of labor unions and influence of pro-labor policies first established by New Deal in the 1930s was further diminished in the 1990s. The development of a global economy was characterized by elimination of tariffs (taxes on imports) and increased international character of corporations. A free-trade movement promoted by the U.S. government under both Democratic and Republican administrations led to major international trade agreements including the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as well as the growth of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to help guide global economic development and trade.
Though the U.S. economy was booming overall through most of the 1990s all of these developments were met with great resistance from unions who saw their influence further erode as corporate earnings were substantially growing. Manufacturing jobs increasingly were shifted to nations where wages were lower, benefits much less, and environmental regulations more limited or non-existent. This shift in turn led to decreased wages and benefits in United States jobs from the resulting job competition. Unions found themselves on the same side as environmental activists protesting the trade agreements and WTO policies encouraging these job shifts. Though the United States remained the world’s leading exporter of merchandise in 1999, information technology and communications enjoyed the greatest demand while manufacturing saw a continued decline in importance given the steady shift of industries to other nations with less costs to operate including cheaper labor. In the beginning of the twenty-first century manufacturing industries with the associated labor unions were still on a long-term decline compounded by an economic recession in 2001.
John Brophy (1883-1963)
John Brophy, son of a coal miner, became a coal miner himself as well as a union organizer and a consistent advocate of education. Raised a Catholic, he attended parochial school until 1892 when his parents emigrated from England to Pennsylvania. The Panic of 1893 brought lean times to the Brophys compelling them to move as his father sought employment in the mines. Six of Brophy’s eight brothers and sisters died in infancy or early youth. When Brophy was 12 years old he joined his father in the mines and at age 15, in 1899, he joined a local chapter of the United Mine Workers of America.
Brophy had little opportunity to gain a formal education but displayed keen insight into labor problems. He favored industrial rather than craft unionism, advocated union membership, supported workers’ education programs, and was an advocate of social planning. He called for government ownership of coal mining and, though knowledgeable about socialism, shaped much of his philosophy on the principles of “Christian humanism.” Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Brophy promoted worker education and was a founder of the Workers’ Education Bureau and a member from 1921 to 1938 of the Labor Cooperating Committee of Brookwood Labor College.
Brophy’s views on government control of industry and social planning led to conflict with the leadership of the United Mine Workers and the American Federation of Labor. He challenged John L. Lewis in 1926 for the presidency of the United Mine Workers, but was defeated and thrown out of the union. For the next several years Brophy worked as a salesman, but in 1933 he was appointed special representative of the UMW, and in 1934 he served as the national director of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). Brophy was a key player in strikes and union organizing in the later 1930s and he helped found the United Auto Workers, United Rubber Workers, and United Steel Workers. Brophy continued working for the CIO during World War II (1939-1945) and served as a representative on several boards during the 1940s. At his death in 1963 Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, declared “our industrial unions are living testimonials” to John Brophy’s dedicated work.
Henry Ford (1863-1947)
Perhaps no other American did more to industry and labor in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century than Henry Ford. Born on a farm in Michigan, Ford received a limited education while attending one-room schools. Rather than farming, he preferred tinkering with machines. In the early 1890s Ford began developing a car driven by an internal-combustion engine.
By 1903 he founded the Ford Motor Company with $28,000 he gained from selling stock. From this modest base, Ford expanded and developed the “Model T” in 1908. This consistently operating, low-cost, efficient vehicle became the nation’s first, mass-produced car. In 1910 Ford opened a modern, ventilated, well-lit factory. He and his employees developed the assembly line to improve the efficient production of vehicles.
In 1914 Ford began paying his workers $5.00 a day for an eight-hour day, nearly twice the rate for industrial workers, which was part of his profit-sharing plan. As he became wealthier, Ford became involved in social issues such as education and health.
Ford turned to the Model A in 1927 and, in spite of the Great Depression, kept his plants in operation although production plunged downward as sales slackened. Ford had 170,502 employees in 1929 and only 46,282 in 1932. When his workers formed unions and attempted collective bargaining, Ford became their bitter foe. His company violated the National Labor Relations Act, fired union members, and persisted in tense labor relations into the early 1940s. As a result Ford was one of the latest major car manufacturers to unionize. Henry Ford was a brilliant but erratic industrialist, who made many contributions to the United States, but became increasingly alienated from labor and industry trends.
Frances Perkins (1880-1965)
Frances Perkins served as secretary of labor from 1933 to 1945, the first woman to hold this cabinet position. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Perkins attended Mount Holyoke College where she helped establish a chapter of the National Consumers’ League. From her college years, she was a dedicated opponent of sweatshops and child labor.
Perkins was, for a number of years, involved in social work. She worked at Hull House in Chicago, investigated child malnutrition in New York City, campaigned for women’s suffrage, and taught sociology. In 1911 following the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire that killed 146 garment workers, she became involved in worker safety programs. In 1919 Governor Al Smith named her to the Industrial Commission of the State of New York. Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt named her industrial commissioner and head of the state labor department.
Perkins gained attention as a critic of President Hoover’s social policies and when Roosevelt was elected president, he named her the first woman Secretary of Labor. She was a leading figure in moving the New Deal toward support of labor, especially with passage of NIRA (1933), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Social Security Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act. She tried to heal the rift between skilled and unskilled labor in the troubles between the AFL and CIO but did not succeed and she consistently encouraged good faith negotiations.
Walter Philip Reuther (1907-1970)
Reuther was one of the nation’s prominent labor leaders of the twentieth century. The Great Depression fired his commitment to leadership of unions.
Reuther was born in West Virginia to German-born parents. His father was an iron mill and brewery worker, who embraced socialism and unionization. Reuther, as a boy, went with his father to visit Eugene Debs, the prominent union organizer and subsequently socialist leader, while he was in jail. These early experiences with unions and socialism helped shape his thinking. In 1927 Reuther found employment with the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, Michigan and due to his good skills, Reuther quickly rose to a high-paying position as a mechanic. He went to school at night and earned his high school diploma when he was 22 years of age.
During the Great Depression, Reuther witnessed Ford’s release of more than half of its workers and as a result saw great suffering. He and his brother Victor photographed conditions among the unemployed. When Norman Thomas campaigned in 1932 as socialist candidate for president, Reuther traveled over three thousands miles to rally supporters for him. Between 1932 and 1934 Reuther visited Germany and worked in the Soviet Union as a tool and die maker. He returned a strong advocate for grassroots democracy based on the rights of workers.
In 1936 Reuther became a full-time organizer for the United Auto Workers (UAW), one of the CIO unions. He soon became a paid union official and in late 1936 helped lead a sit-down strike that helped to spur rapid union growth. By 1937 Reuther was in a leadership position in planning strikes. When beaten by hired thugs working for the Ford Motor Company, Reuther’s picture appeared in Time, and he soon became the most influential leader of the United Auto Workers. Reuther’s long career continued to 1970 when he, his wife, and others were killed in a plane crash in Michigan.
Roosevelt and the NIRA
In 1932 President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco about the National Industrial Recovery Act (1933). In his speech Roosevelt commented about labor and industry and the organization of unions (from Rauch, The History of the New Deal, 1933-1938, p. 41):
We know, now, that [the great industrial and financial corporations] cannot exist unless prosperity is uniform, that is, unless purchasing power is well distributed throughout every group in the Nation. That is why even the most selfish of corporations for its own interest would be glad to see wages restored and unemployment ended and to bring the Western farmer back to his accustomed level of prosperity and to assure a permanent safety to both groups. That is why some enlightened industries themselves endeavor to limit the freedom of action of each man and business group within the industry in the common interest of all; why business men everywhere are asking a form of organization which will bring the scheme of things into balance, even though it may in some measure qualify the freedom of action of individual units within the business.
Suggested Research Topics
- Search newspapers from late May, 1937 and website databases to examine the causes and consequences of the Memorial Day Massacre at the Republic Steel mill in Chicago, Illinois.
- Compare and contrast the positions of the AFL and CIO in the late 1930s on the matters of permitting communists in union leadership and the inclusion of minorities and women.
- Examine the life and labors of John L. Lewis until 1940 and identify why the 1930s were a turning point in his career as a union leader.
- Identify the important legislation passed during the New Deal that opened the way for the rapid growth of labor unions in the 1930s.
- Explore the career of Frances Perkins, first woman secretary of labor, 1933-1945, and how she helped American workers in the Great Depression.