Understanding organized labor


Prairie Fire Newspaper went on hiatus after the publication of the September 2015 issue. It may return one of these days but until then we will continue to host all of our archived content for your reading pleasure. Many of the articles have held up well over the years. Please contact us if you have any questions, thoughts, or an interest in helping return Prairie Fire to production. We can also be found on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you to all our readers, contributors, and supporters - the quality of Prairie Fire was a reflection of how many people it touched (touches).

It’s rare to have a broad understanding of the American labor movement. That’s a shame because over 90 percent of us earn our living as the employee half of the employer/employee relationship. In the next few months organized labor will become an important part of the national dialog, and this is the first of a two-part series aimed at filling in the blanks about this democratic institution that exists to improve the quality of life for employees both in the workplace and in the community. Part one will help tell the untold story of organized labor, and part two will examine whether or not the original intent of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act is still honored in the workplace.

By John Kretzschmar

While the height of labor-movement participation was in the 1940s and ’50s, labor unions have a long history in the United States. Here an illustration from the Feb. 6, 1869, “Harper’s Weekly” shows The National Colored Labor Union Convention in session at Washington, D.C. (Public domain)Few Nebraskans have any real understanding of organized labor, and it’s not their fault. The history surrounding the evolution of the American labor movement is rarely taught in school, discussed around the dinner table or even described in media coverage of current events. Few of us could name our nation’s two large national labor organizations: The American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and Change to Win. Fewer may know that our largest single union, the National Education Association, is a member of neither. Unions, like other institutions in the U.S., are human institutions, and their history is full of the frailties of human beings. But for all its faults, organized labor has been guided by some noble goals and ideals.

Here are a couple of statements, separated by over a 100 years, that express organized labor’s consistency of purpose. The first is from Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor. When asked at the end of the 19th century “what does labor want,” he replied, stating that organized labor wants to transform the workplace and society as a whole, “What do we want? More schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning, less crime; more leisure, less greed; more justice, less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.” The second is the AFL-CIO’s current mission statement. Upon reading, it’s easy to understand its roots are in Gompers’ earlier response. “The mission of the AFL-CIO is to improve the lives of working families—to bring economic justice to the workplace and social justice to our nation. To accomplish this mission we will build and change the American labor movement.”

Nationwide, approximately one in eight members of the workforce is also a union member. This is down from a high of one in three during the late 1940s and 1950s. Combine a union density rate not seen since the 1920s with little or nothing taught or discussed about labor unions in schools and it’s easy to understand why there is a widespread ignorance of the American labor movement. Unfortunately, because nature abhors a vacuum, the lack of information is distorted with half-truths, innuendos and outright lies.

Nevertheless, organized labor is important to the vast majority of Americans. Some scholars argue that outside of family, friends and a personal relationship with the Creator, the next most important relationship in an employee’s life is the employer/employee relationship. Why? Because it’s that relationship that directly and indirectly influences the quality of life for working families, often from birth until death! The employer/employee relationship also influences a person’s ability to have the leisure time for civic engagement. That relationship, therefore, also affects the lives of Nebraska’s communities.

Historian Howard Zinn once remarked that all history is told with a bias. The bias is found in what the teller chooses to include and exclude as well as what to emphasize and de-emphasize. The history of organized labor and the role it played in the evolution of the employer/employee relationship is a largely untold story.


From the English point of view, the 13 American colonies existed for England’s economic benefit. In 1774, the Marquis of Carmarthen put it this way when speaking before Parliament: “For what purpose were they suffered to go to that country, unless the profit of their labor should return to their masters here?” It was as if the English thought of the colonies in America and elsewhere as servants in a master/servant relationship.

The English did their best to control American commerce and to use us as an important source of tax revenue. Eventually an important segment of Americans had enough. And Thomas Jefferson, at the behest of the first Continental Congress, wrote the Declaration of Independence, listing our grievances against the King. The servant had broken away from the master. An important sentence was in the Declaration, a sentence which forms the core of our American values: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Those 34 words captured the essence of what our Founding Fathers believed was the difference between what life in the U.S. would become and what life in the colonies had been.

Americans are rightly proud of being the world’s first broadly based democratic republic. But the way our republic functioned at first is a far cry from what we have today. For instance, the right to vote was primarily restricted to white property-owning males. Founding Father and an author of the Federalist Papers Alexander Hamilton explained it this way: “All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well-born, the other the mass of the people … Give therefore to the first class a distinct permanent share in the government.” John Jay, another founding father, Federalist Papers author and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was more succinct: “The people who own this country ought to govern it.” Slowly over time, and often at a great cost, the nation has expanded rights and liberties to those segments of our population who were previously without them. It is that continual push to extend human rights that many think is our nation’s greatest strength.

The right to vote in the early years of our nation was, for the most part, reserved for white property-owning males. That meant that employers were most likely to be voters while their employees were not. This political and societal difference was echoed in the workplace. The employer /employee relationship is a direct descendant in law of the master /servant relationship. Again, over time and at great cost, the employer/employee relationship was changed to extend to employees rights they had previously been denied by their employers, and unions played an important role in the evolution.

When the U.S. started as an agrarian nation, the relationship between the cost of labor and the cost of agricultural commodities was fairly clear. David Ricardo, an English political economist, noted in 1820, “There is no way of keeping profits up but by keeping wages down.” As employees were to find out, the importance of keeping wages low was not limited to agriculture.

Labor unions date to the beginning of our nation. While wage labor was not widespread across the U.S., in our northern port cities, employees formed labor unions to improve the quality of life. Shoemakers, coopers, printers, shipwrights and others all formed unions.

In 1806, the first U.S. court case testing the right of employees to organize labor unions and collectively bargain was heard in Philadelphia. Union shoemakers had put wage proposals before their employers aimed at raising their Philadelphia wages to the level earned by unionized shoemakers in New York and Baltimore. As a result, an association of employers challenged the union’s right to exist. The judge in this case couldn’t find any statutory law on which to base his decision. So he, in turn, relied on part of the English Industrial Code in making his common law ruling. Based on English law, the U.S. judge ruled that while any single employee may approach his (and presumably her) employer and ask for a raise, when two or more employees did it in unison, they were forming an illegal criminal conspiracy.

In essence the judge ruled that it was legal for employers to form associations to look after their economic self-interest, but it was illegal for employees to do the same thing. Who knows whether or not the fact that at this time in U.S. history most employers had the right to vote, while most employees didn’t, played a role in the judge’s decision. But whatever the reason, equality before the law didn’t apply in this instance. But the decision neither ended the need for unions nor killed the desire on the part of employees to attain an independent voice in the workplace. One of the things that did change is that as employees finally got the right to vote, they added political involvement to their union organizing and collective bargaining.

The U.S. industrial economy grew after the uniting of the nation by rail and telegraph. By the 1870s the majority of the workforce was for the first time employees. As the percentage of wage workers grew, so did the importance of labor unions. In workplaces without unions, companies had the unilateral right to set and reset ages and working conditions as they pleased. Low pay and long hours were the norm. Likewise, dangerous working conditions were commonplace. Child labor abounded. A woman’s low wage was the only reason that women were welcomed into the workplace. As early as 1869, Susan B. Anthony noted the importance of labor unions to women when she gave this advice: “Join the union girls, and together say Equal Pay for Equal Work.” The term sweatshop was an apt description of a workplace where sub-human working conditions flourished.

It was commonly thought that because the employer owned the workplace and purchased the raw materials, the employer also owned the jobs that existed to turn raw materials into commodities that were sold in the market. Because employers considered jobs their property, they thought labor unions an unjust and unlawful intrusion into the employer/employee relationship. As a result, most employers resisted unionization with everything they had. Not every public figure agreed with that analysis. It would surprise most Americans that President Abraham Lincoln was an early advocate of labor unions. He made this observation in 1861 in his first annual message to Congress: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much higher consideration.”

Lincoln’s comments aside, almost from their beginning, unions were labeled as un-American, communist, socialist and any other negative that could be conjured up. Union supporters were regularly fired and blacklisted. They often had to relocate in order to support their families. There are numerous examples throughout our history of union supporters being tried on trumped up charges, convicted, jailed and even executed. In their effort to break unions, companies regularly employed strikebreakers.

Without a doubt, the most arrogant statement ever uttered by an owner was one made in 1886 by Jay Gould. Gould was a speculator who owned a number of railroads during his life, including at one time the Union Pacific. But it was in 1886 when his Southwestern System was threatened with a strike by the railroad brotherhoods that he was asked how concerned he was about the strike. His response, is essence, was to say he wasn’t worried, because his vast wealth bought him the power to defeat the strike. Gould’s comment was, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” Not surprisingly, he won the strike.

Gould wasn’t the only employer to use physical force against employees and their supporters. There was the massive clubbing of wives and children of striking workers in Lawrence, Mass., in 1912; the murder of two women and 11 children during a strike in Ludlow, Colo., in 1914; the beating of union supporters by Ford security forces in Detroit in May 1937; and four days later, the police killing of 10 peaceful demonstrators in Chicago. In fact the 1969 Presidential Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence deduced that American violence was rooted in a highly fragmented and unequal society. Specifically noting U.S. labor history, the commission’s report found “the United States has experienced more frequent and bloody labor violence than any other industrial nation.”

Today unions are democratically run organizations that empower the formerly disenfranchised. Through their involvement in the workplace and community, they level the playing field for employees and employers. But with minor variations, labor unions and their activities were often found to be illegal from 1806 until the 1930s. Peaceful collective self-help activities aimed at supporting either union recognition or union collective bargaining goals were regularly enjoined by courts at the request of corporations.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) became law in 1935. For the first time the federal government declared that it’s “the policy of the United States” to encourage “the practice and procedure of collective bargaining” and to protect “the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing.” Many employers believed that the NLRA would be found unconstitutional and chose to ignore it. In 1937 the Supreme Court ruled the NLRA lawful. That didn’t bring an acceptance of unions. Companies continued to resist. Unions were also attacked in the court of public opinion. In 1938 the National Association of Manufacturers printed and distributed over two million copies of an anti-union pamphlet entitled “Join the CIO and Help Build a Soviet America.”

The need for the NLRA was housed in the idea that the employer/employee relationship had, at its core, a power inequity reminiscent of the one that England had with its colonies. Today’s at-will employment doctrine was first articulated at the end of the 19th century. In an at-will employment situation, where neither an individual nor a collective employment contract exists, the company not only has the unilateral right to set and reset wages and working conditions at will but has also the unilateral right to discipline employees for a good reason, a bad reason or no reason at all, as long as certain federal employee protections are not violated.

It is precisely the inequity of power that the NLRA was created to address. In finding the NLRA constitutional, the Supreme Court described life before unions this way: “[A] single employee was helpless in dealing with an employer; that he was dependent ordinarily on his daily wage for the maintenance of himself and his family; that if the employer refused to pay him the wages he thought fair, he was nevertheless unable to leave the employ and resist arbitrary and unfair treatment…”

Decades later Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) echoed the Supreme Court’s sentiment: “There are always going to be people [employers] who take advantage of workers. Unions even that out to their credit. We need them to level the field between labor and management. If you didn’t have unions, it would be very difficult for even enlightened employers to not take advantage of workers on wages and working conditions, because of [competition from] rivals.”

 The period from the end of World War II to the early 1970s, when union density still topped 25 percent of the workforce, labor unions were at their economic and political zenith. It was also a time when our economy worked best for all segments of our nation. This period was the result of the American labor movement and other like-minded allies ensuring not only successful bargaining but also effective legislative action. Labor unions were considered, by some, an important contributor to the well-being of the society. President Dwight D. Eisenhower understood this when he commented, “Today in America, unions have a secure place in our industrial life. Only a handful of reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions and depriving working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.” Perhaps most significantly during this period, many unions were able to negotiate labor contracts that included a one-for-one raise in wages to match increased productivity.

It was during this period that President John F. Kennedy observed that a “rising tide lifts all boats.” By that he meant that a growing economy benefitted all sectors of the populace. Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman notes that during this period of shared prosperity “government policies and organized labor combined to create a broad and strong middle class.” Krugman is not alone in claiming that organized labor greatly expanded the American middle class. Conservative columnist George Will put it this way: “American labor unions get a large share of the credit for making us a middle-class country.”

In essence unions served as a kind of anti-poverty program. They raised our national standard of living. Organized labor helped narrow the income gap between men and women and between different races and ethnic groups. In 1965 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted: “The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old age pensions, government relief for the destitute and above all new wage levels that meant not mere survival, but a tolerable life.”

Many people remember that in 1968 Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. What they don’t remember is that he was there supporting the right of city employees to form a union and collectively bargain. The history of the American labor movement is both remarkable and inspiring; too bad it’s not more broadly known.



Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

Nebraskans are taught in public school about the link between the growth of large corporations and the U.S. becoming a major economic power. Why can't we also be taught about what the labor movement did to end sweatshops and broaden the ability of employees to join the middle class? Public education is supposed to help prepare Nebraska's students to participate in society. That task includes learning about, as the article says, the employer/employee relationship. After all, the vast majority of Nebraskans will end up supporting their families as employees.

Immigration in Nebraska