Workers of a New Century
By Philip Taft
During the economic crisis that gripped the country in the early 1890s, farmers complained of low prices, businessmen of falling orders, and wage earners of salary cuts. Unemployment was widespread. Armies of jobless men swarmed over the countryside and rode freight trains. Bread lines and soup kitchens became commonplace.
The depression of the 1890s had softened the public attitude towards organized labor. Between 1897 and 1904, union membership climbed from 447,000 to 2,072,700. In the same period, the number of internationals affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) rose from fifty-eight to 120. The AFL had come on the scene in the 1880s, created by the leaders of craft unions who sought to curb invasions of their jurisdictions by the Knights of Labor. While the principal reason for embarking on this venture was defensive, AFL founders believed in the improvement of wages and working conditions through trade-union action--including the strike if necessary. Adolph Strasser, president of the International Cigar Makers Union, described the AFL program as a constant seeking of "more and more," a slogan frequently repeated by AFL President Samuel Gompers.
The early years of the century witnessed a stabilization of the labor movement, but it was also a time when some employers were determined to halt its further progress. One of the first challenges came from the steel industry. The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, established in the 1870s, saw its position endangered with the formation of the United States Steel Corporation in 1901. The convention of the union met that year and voted that each combine, or multiple companies, would be required to sign a union contract for all of its plants. This demand became the sticking point in negotiations. When no agreement was reached, the union called a strike in three of U.S. Steel's subsidiaries.
As the strike continued, a committee from the National Civic Federation, established for promoting the peaceful adjustment of labor disputes, intervened. The committee included Gompers, United Mine Workers President John Mitchell, and Senator Mark Hanna, President McKinley's mentor. A conference of strike leaders met with J.P. Morgan, Charles M. Schwab, and Elbert Gary, heads of the U.S. Steel Corporation. Morgan, denying hostility to unions, argued that it was not practicable for the corporation to recognize unions for unorganized mills. When the union leaders rejected his arguments, the companies began to replace the strikers.
At another meeting, Charles M. Schwab, speaking for the corporation, said that since many steel mills had been started by nonunion labor, the companies would only sign for mills which had not started up. The union was given twenty-four hours to accept; otherwise all negotiations would be terminated. On the plea of the Civic Federation Committee, Schwab extended the time, but the union would not immediately accept. The strike dragged on until September 14, 1901, when it was settled on terms disastrous to the union. Under the agreement, the union lost fourteen mills, but it suffered much more. It could not, in fact, seek to organize any mills.
The union's insistence upon signing all mills of a company was obviously ill-advised, since it could not be enforced. Amalgamated had overestimated its strength, and many steelworkers refused to follow its leadership. The effect of the 1901 strike was to strengthen the enemies of organized labor in the greatest center of economic power.
After the defeat of 1901, the union steadily lost strength. The puddlers, who became dissatisfied with the union's inclusion of all classes of steel labor, seceded and formed the Sons of Vulcan in 1907. The final blow fell when the American Sheet and Tin Plate Company posted a notice " that all its plants after June 30, 1909, will be operated as 'open' plants." The Amalgamated had no choice but to call a strike. But it was a losing battle. The union surrendered after fourteen months.
"Inside," or company, unions were the employers' answer to organizing by bona fide unions. On the Great Lakes, where the U.S. Steel Corporation operated fleets of iron ore vessels, a company union, the Lake Carriers' Beneficial Association, was established in 1903 to "maintain, by contract or otherwise, such amicable relations between employer and employed as would avoid public injury that would result from lockouts or strikes...." In the spring of 1908 the association declared for the open shop and voted to deny union delegates access to ships. An organized effort to deny employment to union members followed. The union fought back, and there were bloody clashes at lake ports. But it was difficult to overcome the combined resources of the shippers. When the association announced in 1912 that no discrimination would be directed against union members, the walkout ended. U.S. Steel extended its open-shop policies to other industries in which it had influence. One was bridge construction. The National Erectors' Association, organized in 1903, took U.S. Steel's lead and pledged to maintain the open shop. Subcontractors were expected to follow suit. Consequently, members of the International Association of Bridge and Structural Workers found themselves excluded from many jobs.
The union reacted by dynamiting nonunion jobs. From 1908 to 1911, they set off an estimated seventy explosions at unorganized jobs. In 1910, the Los Angeles Times building was dynamited, killing twenty. General Harrison Gray Otis, the publisher, blamed labor terrorists. The California State Federation of Labor charged the Times with laying the foundation for another Haymarket case, and denounced it "as a hostile and unscrupulous enemy, not only of unionism, but to progress generally."
The National Erectors' Association hired detective William J. Burns to find out who was blowing up their bridges and buildings. He accused the union's secretary-treasurer, John H. McNamara, and his brother James. The prosecution charged that San Francisco unionists were trying to organize open-shop Los Angeles and that the Times stood in their way. Unionists, including Gompers, insisted the McNamara brothers were framed; Clarence Darrow was hired as defense counsel. But the McNamara brothers confessed, dealing labor a damaging blow.
Because of its vast resources the steel industry was able to impose its will on the unions of its employees and compel employers in other industries to follow its example. On the other hand, employers in the metal trades and foundries were not strong enough to resist organizational efforts of unions. In an attempt to promote harmonious relations with labor the foundrymen producing cast-iron ware established the National Founders' Association in 1898. The National Metal Trades Association was set up in 1900 for similar purposes. In neither instance were the hopes for cooperation realized. In the case of the foundrymen and the International Molders' Union, differences were submitted to the presidents of the respective organizations and four members from each side. As a result, on issues of basic importance the parties deadlocked. In 1904 the Founders' Association decided to go its own way. The next few years witnessed many strikes in the foundries. Often there was violence because employers tried to keep their plants operating with replacements.
Employers established the National Metal Trades Association to find a basis of cooperation with the International Association of Machinists, the dominant union in the industry. At the time, the union was seeking the nine-hour workday. The Murray Hill agreement between the association and the union, signed in New York City in May, 1900, stipulated that the hours of labor would be reduced to fifty-seven a week and to fifty-four within a year. Overtime rates were defined, apprenticeship regulated, and strikes and lockouts prohibited during the term of the agreement.
However, as soon as the contract was signed members of the union insisted that wages be raised to compensate for reduced hours of work. When negotiations reached an impasse, the National Metal Trades Association, on June 10, 1901, abrogated its contract with the International Association of Machinists, and the following week enunciated its Declaration of Principles.
The employer was to have complete and unrestricted control over the work force. The association declared, "It is the privilege of the employee to leave our employ whenever he sees fit and it is the privilege of the employer to discharge any workman he sees fit." The principles enunciated were embodied in the words "open shop," which meant that the employer was the absolute master. Under the code no interference with the prerogatives of management was tolerated.
Unions were combated by a combination of black listing, espionage, strikebreaking, and company unions. The National Metal Trades established labor bureaus in major cities for compiling records of employees in the industry so that the blacklist could be more effective. To promote the open shop, the National Metal Trades Association conducted the "investigation and adjustment of questions arising between members and their employees." This kind of activity consisted of using industrial spies in plants to disrupt labor unions and cause the dismissal of union activists. If a strike in the plant nevertheless followed, "the association assumed complete control over the settlement of the dispute in exchange for the strikebreaking services which it made available to the member." The association paid the cost of recruiting strikebreakers and the bonus needed to attract them.
Large single employers could successfully combat a labor organization and by various devices prevent its establishment on their properties. Smaller employers combined in associations to follow, as convenient, a policy of peace or war with the organizations that sought to recruit their employees. In 1903 local organizations of employers, manufacturers' associations, industrial associations, employers' associations, and citizens' alliances joined forces to resist the demands of organized labor. They formed the Citizens' Industrial Association, with David M. Parry of the National Association of Manufacturers as chairman of the executive committee. "Organized labor," he accused, ".... does not place its reliance upon reason and justice, but on strikes, boycotts, and coercion.... It denies to those outside its ranks the individual right to dispose of their labor as they see fit a right that is one of the most sacred and fundamental of American liberty."
The Citizens' Industrial Association sought "to establish and maintain industrial peace, and to create and direct a public sentiment in opposition to all forms of violence, coercion and intimidation." It urged employers to organize to forestall the spread of unionism. Under the leadership of C. W. Post, a wealthy dry cereal manufacturer, the Citizens' Industrial Association carried on propaganda through public meetings and in paid advertisements. In some communities, the citizens' alliances resorted to stronger tactics.
The citizens' alliances were a factor in the Colorado mining wars of 1903 and 1904. Cripple Creek, a union stronghold, was the center of the dispute. Although relations between the miners and the operators had been peaceful for more than a decade, the representatives of the State miners' association had declared that one of their purposes was "to fight... the miners' unions of the state." Thus began a contest of unparalleled violence between the Western Federation of Miners and the operators, which resulted in the virtual ousting of the union from the Colorado mining camps.
The union struck the mines at Idaho Springs and the smelters of the American Smelting and Refining Company at Denver. A strike of mill men for reduction of hours was going on simultaneously in Telluride. At Cripple Creek sporadic violence flared. Pleas were made to Governor James H. Peabody by the mine owners for troops; petitions not to intervene arrived from union supporters.
The Governor's investigating team recommended sending troops. They arrived under the command of General Sherman M. Bell, who directed a reign of terror against the strikers. Unionists retaliated by blowing up a mine and killing two men, then dynamiting the Independence station, which took the lives of thirteen nonunion miners.
Union men were arrested and herded into the "bull pen," a cattle stockyard. The cooperative stores owned by the union were sacked and their contents stolen or thrown out and burned. Leaders were imprisoned. Lawyers sought their release, but the majority of the Colorado Supreme Court supported the detention under the Governor's proclamation of martial law. Members of the Western Federation of Miners were driven out of the district. When the Governor was asked by the New York World whether it was true that destitute miners were being deported to Kansas, he replied that "rioting, dynamiting and anarchy has had its day in Colorado."
On December 30, 1905, the ex-governor of Idaho, Frank Steunberg was murdered. A man named Harry Orchard confessed the deed, but he claimed that the Western Federation of Miners' leaders, William "Big Bill" Haywood, Charles Moyer, and Denver businessman George A. Pettibone, put him up to it. He said their motive was revenge on the Governor who, elected with labor support, called out the troops in the Coeur d'Alene strike of 1899. Idaho officials kidnapped the accused in Denver and took them across the state line for trial. The prosecution was directed by the famous William Borah, but he was to meet his match in the defense attorney Clarence Darrow, who skillfully convinced a specially picked "hanging jury" to acquit the accused.
The mine owners' campaign destroyed the Western Federation of Miners throughout virtually all of the metalliferous mining areas of Colorado. Weakened by the ordeal the organization became a prey to internal bickering. There was not much the union could do except to defend itself, but it was not equal to the massed might of the mine operators supported by the citizens' alliances and the government.
Over the years the United Mine Workers of America had attempted to organize the Colorado coal fields, but to no avail. The companies, led by the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, would not deal with the union. These companies dominated the Colorado mining areas "through the ruthless suppression of unionism, accomplished by the use of the power of summary discharge, the black list, armed guards, and spies, and by the active aid of venal state, county and town officials."
Seeking, union recognition, the miners wanted wages of $3.45 a day, the eight-hour day, a union man checking the weighing of coal (for they felt the company was cheating them), the right not to buy at the company store, and the "abolition of the notorious and criminal guard system which has prevailed in the mining camps of Colorado for many years." The operators refused. In September, 1913, the miners voted to strike. Sheriff Jefferson Farr of Huerfano County immediately commissioned several hundred deputies.
Workers left company-owned hovels for tent camps in Ludlow and nearby areas established by the UMW. In the meantime, the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company provided its guards with a specially built armored car, the "Death Special," which could be used to intimidate pickets and strikers. The miners began to arm after several of their number were killed. Clashes between strikers and guards increased.
Yielding to the companies' pressure, Governor Elias Ammons sent the National Guard into the strike district. At first the strikers welcomed the soldiers, who had been instructed to protect property and preserve the peace. But when the militiamen sided with the company guards and deputies, the miners protested. Subsequently the governor withdrew most of the National Guard, leaving a company commanded by Lieutenant Karl E. Linderfelt, a "rare combination of a bully and a bulldog."
On April 20, 1914, Ludlow exploded. Linderfelt's soldiers attacked the tent colony, spraying it with bullets and setting fire to the tents. Eleven children and two women died in the flames. Louis Tikas, strike leader at Ludlow, and two others were murdered. Angered miners burned mines and killed guardsmen. The military began falling back as strikers advanced to the cry "Remember Ludlow!" In a ten-day war, forty-six people died in the assault, most of them company guards.
President Woodrow Wilson, at the request of the governor, sent in federal troops, and it was all over. Court-martials absolved soldiers of any responsibility in the Ludlow Massacre. Linderfelt, tried for murder, got off with a light reprimand.
The mining wars in the Rocky Mountain states had their eastern counterpart in West Virginia, where the United Mine Workers embarked on a major organizing effort in 1912. The union demanded wage increases, the eight-hour day, the checkoff, and no discrimination for union membership. The companies refused. A strike was called on April 20.
Guards supplied by the Baldwin-Felts agency and three companies of National Guardsmen were sent to the scene. The officer in charge "proceeded on the theory that a state of war existed there, and we were exercising war powers." On February 7, 1913, an armored train, the "Bull Moose" special, attacked the miners' tent colony at Holly Grove. Armed men fired more than 200 shots into the sleeping village. Quin Morton, general manager of Imperial Coal Company, boasted: "We will go back and give them another round." When testifying before a committee of the U.S. Senate, Morton was asked whether "a cultured gentleman approves of the use of a machine gun in a populous village." One senator called Morton's conduct "appalling, horrible." The strike ended in April, 1913, with the companies promising not to discriminate against union members, a promise broken.
The anthracite fields of Pennsylvania had also been bloodied when miners challenged the superior might of the coal operators. In 1900 the United Mine Workers of America had called its first strike in these fields. It lasted a little over a month. According to UMW President John Mitchell, the anthracite strike of 1900 "stands out in bold relief as the most remarkable contest between labor and capital in the industrial history of our nation; remarkable because it involved a greater number of persons than any other industrial contest; because of the entire absence of lawlessness on the part of those who engaged in the strike; and last, but not least, because it was the only great contest in which the workers came out entirely and absolutely victorious."
While the last part of Mitchell's statement was more than a slight exaggeration, the outcome of the strike was a solid victory for the union. A more serious encounter began in May, 1902, and lasted until mid-October. From the beginning the strike had been a violent one. Shootings, killings, and attacks upon the colliers were frequent. In the midst of the strike, George F. Baer, head of the Reading Railroad and spokesman for the mine operators, penned his famous "divine right" letters. When a Wilkes-Barre photographer appealed to him on the basis of Christian principles to settle the strike, Baer replied:
"I do not know who you are. I see that you are a Christian man; but you are evidently biased in favor of the right of the working man to control a business in which he has no interest other than to secure fair wages for the work he does. I beg of you not to be discouraged. The right and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in his infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of the country, and upon the successful Management of which so much depends. Do not be discouraged. Pray earnestly that right may triumph, always remembering that the Lord God Omnipotent still reigns, and that His reign is one of law and order, and not of violence and crime."
Dominated by such sentiments, the coal operators would accept no compromise. Baer criticized President Theodore Roosevelt for urging a settlement with "fomentors... of anarchy." Roosevelt later confided that he would like to have taken Baer "by the seat of the breeches and the nape of the neck and chucked him out of the window."
Only after an appeal to J. P. Morgan, the dominant investment banker of the time, did the operators agree to arbitration by a Presidential commission. The union was anxious to have a labor man on the panel. Roosevelt "sneaked" E. E. Clark, Grand Chief of the Order of Conductors, on the commission as an "eminent sociologist." The award of the commission did not grant as much as the union expected, but it included a ten percent increase in wages and a reduction in hours of work. In addition, the use of private guards was held to be against the public interest. The commission did not recommend the recognition of the union, but it did agree that differences between the employer and his employees should "first be considered in conference between the operator or his official representative, and a committee chosen by his employees from their own ranks." While the issue of child labor was not directly submitted, the commission deplored the employment of male children as breaker boys, and noted that the statutory age of employment was not sufficiently high.
"The story of coal is always the same," wrote Mary "Mother" Jones, self-styled "hell raiser" and a devoted fighter for the rights of miners to form a union. "It is a dark story. For a second's more sunlight, men must fight like tigers. For the privilege of seeing the color of their children's eyes by the light of the sun, fathers must fight as beasts in the jungle. That life may have something of decency, something of beauty a--picture, a new dress, a bit of cheap lace fluttering in the window--for this, men who work down in the mines must struggle and lose, struggle and win."
The victory in the anthracite fields was one of the greatest in American labor history. It was gained against the formidable opposition of the operators in an industry dominated by the same financial groups which sought to limit the influence of unionism in other industries. By willingness to accept less than their demands, the mine workers, under the leadership of Mitchell, were able to force open a door to labor organizations that had been closed since the demise of the Workingmen's Benevolent Association in the early 1870s.
Employers have in disputes with their employees utilized the legal weapons that were available. By the turn of the century the use of the labor injunction was already established. It was a method by which equity courts forbade picketing or other union activities during a labor dispute. It was also used to prohibit the boycott of a good or service of an "unfair" employer. The injunction was effective because those refusing to obey the order of a court could be adjudged in contempt and sentenced to a fine or imprisonment.
Legislation to limit the writ of injunction had been introduced in Congress in 1900, but no action was taken. Before the end of the decade the unions faced another serious problem, the liability of an organization of labor under the Sherman Antitrust law for damages incurred by an employer as a result of a secondary boycott. The United Hatters of North America, as a result of a dispute with D. E. Loewe & Co., a manufacturer of men's hats in Danbury, Connecticut, instituted a nationwide boycott. Unionists from all over the country urged dealers not to handle Loewe merchandise. Advertisements sponsored by the United Hatters asked readers to forego Loewe products. Loewe warned the members of the Hatters' Union that their conduct was illegal. When the union ignored the warning, Loewe sued.
The case was in the courts for twelve years. In 1908, the Supreme Court held that any combination which "obstructs the free flow of commerce or restricts in that regard the liberty of a trader to engage in business" may have violated the antitrust laws. The case was brought to trial and the union found guilty. The decision was unexpected, and it was believed that the labor unions would be flooded by suits charging violations of the Sherman laws and that verdicts of triple damages would bankrupt the union treasuries and jeopardize the savings of the members.
While the Danbury Hatters' case was going through the courts, an attack upon the boycott was made by James Van Cleave, owner of the Buck's Stove and Range Company and a leader of the militant antiunionists. A strike had been called at Van Cleave's factory, and its products placed on the unfair list by the AFL, a fact regularly announced by the American Federationist, the AFL's official journal. Van Cleave secured an order from the District of Columbia federal court directing the removal of the offensive announcement. Considering that the court order violated the first amendment, Gompers refused to obey. He and Frank Morrison, secretary of the AFL, and John Mitchell, a vice-president, were adjudged guilty of contempt of court and sentenced to jail.
While the case was passing through the courts, Van Cleave died and his successor settled with the unions. The court upheld the injunction, but the jail sentences were set aside. The trial judge then appointed a prosecuting committee and again found the defendants guilty of contempt. However, the Supreme Court ruled that the statute of limitations barred punishment.
The attack upon the boycott, the utilization of the injunction in labor disputes by the courts, and the unresponsiveness of Congress to the AFL's appeals for remedial legislation caused the AFL to become more active in the national political arena. To show its displeasure at the failure of Congress, delegates from fifty-one unions assembled in Washington in March, 1906, and drew up a "Bill of Grievances." Congress was charged with failing to deal adequately with the competition of convict labor, immigration, the granting of equal rights to seamen. In addition, Congress had refused to protect the right of federal employees to petition for redress, relieve unions from the threat of prosecution under the antitrust laws, or to limit the right of the courts to issue injunctions in labor disputes.
Although the AFL was the predominant labor organization radicals had been trying to "capture" the trade unions since the 1890s. The Western Federation of Miners had become disenchanted with the AFL's conservative outlook and helped establish successively the Western Labor Union and the American Labor Union. In the eastern part of the country, the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance was formed by adherents of the Socialist Labor Party.
In 1905, a successful attempt was made to unite the separate independent groups into one organization. A group of leaders who believed another federation of labor espousing a more radical doctrine was needed met in Chicago "to confederate the workers of this country into a working class movement that shall have for its purpose that emancipation of the working class ... having in view no compromise and no surrender." Thus was launched the Industrial Workers of the World. The Wobblies, as members called themselves, advocated the abolition of capitalism and the formation of industrial unions.
Presiding at the convention was William D. Haywood, head of the Western Federation of Miners. He proclaimed that "we are going down in the gutter to get the mass of workers and bring them up to a decent plane of living." Despite ringing oratory and rousing songs, it was obvious that the IWW did not have a ready formula for success. Conflicting elements could not live together in the same organization. At the second IWW convention, the trade unionists with the most industrial experience, including the Western Federation of Miners, withdrew. At the fourth convention, in 1908, the followers of the Socialist Labor Party left or were driven out. As a result of these secessions, the IWW became an organization of migratory workers with an anarcho-syndicalist orientation. For the next few years it devoted itself to carrying on free-speech fights in the West. Though revolution was the final aim, the present need, in the words of one IWW official, was "a bed to sleep in, water enough to take a bath in and decent food to eat."
In the East, the IWW turned its attention to steelworkers in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, and textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts; Paterson, New Jersey; and Little Falls, New York. The Lawrence strike was a dramatic struggle by thousands of workers, many of them of foreign origin, but it led to no permanent organization. The ability of the IWW leaders to mobilize large unskilled masses to display their poverty and suffering was of a high order, but they failed in the elementary ability needed to build a permanent organization.
When the United States entered World War I Wobblies by the hundreds were rounded up and sent to jail. Accused of hampering the war effort, they became targets of vigilante groups who sometimes took the law into their own hands. It is true that the IWW had traditionally opposed war; its 1916 convention condemned "all wars and, for the prevention of such, we proclaim the anti-militarist propaganda in time of peace, thus promoting Class Solidarity among the workers of the entire world, and, in time of war, the General Strike in all industries."
Socialist leader Eugene Debs openly spoke out against the war. Indicted for violating the Espionage Act, he said at his trial: "Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free." Debs was found guilty.
He had been converted to socialism while in jail for his role as leader of the Pullman strike. Running for President of the United States in 1912, he polled nearly a million votes. A born agitator, Debs told working people: "Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization. It is agitation or stagnation. I have taken my choice." Individual status and power seeking was for the small in soul. Debs chose to remain with the rank and file. Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley said of him:
As warm a heart as ever beat
Betwixt here and the judgment seat.
Critics called Debs a perpetual failure, traveling from defeat to defeat. He might have said, as did socialist leader Norman Thomas, that he fought not for lost causes but causes yet to be won.
Socialists had comparatively more influence within the labor movement than in the country at large. They were active in many unions, and some occupied high office. For many years, Max Hayes, a member of the International Typographical Union, was the leading socialist spokesman on the floor of the AFL convention. In 1912, he ran for president of the AFL, receiving almost half as many votes as Gompers.
The socialists were concerned with promoting the policy of an independent labor party. Many also supported reform of the AFL's structure so that a number of the crafts would combine into industrial unions. But the socialists' influence was short-lived. Their antiwar stance in 1917 and the emergence of communists in their ranks proved self-destructive.
Meanwhile AFL leaders were pledging "ourselves in peace and in war, in stress or in storm, to stand unreservedly by the standards of liberty and the safety and preservation of the institutions and ideals of our Republic." The most important addition to the ranks of organized labor between 1900 and World War I was the clothing industries. The battle for recognition began in New York City, the major market for women's clothing, where the International Ladies Garment Workers Union struggled to survive. Conditions in the industry were deplorable. Low wages, long hours, and unsanitary and unsafe working places were commonplace.
In March, 1911, a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company claimed the lives of 148 employees, most of them young women. As flames spread throughout the eighth floor, workers jumped to their deaths. Scores of charred bodies were found piled against closed doors. They had been kept bolted, a newspaper reported, "to safeguard employers from the loss of goods by the departure of workers . . ." From the ashes of this disaster sprang the movement for industrial safety with the passage of factory inspection laws.
Garment workers revolted at inhumane conditions occasionally and went out on strike. But once grievances were temporarily eliminated, there would be an exodus from the union. This tendency continued for twenty years, and some believed that Jewish workers would never be able to form stable labor unions. The theory was weakened in 1909 when 30,000 striking waistmakers, seventy percent of them women, heard Gompers ask them "to stand together, to have faith in yourselves, to be true to your comrades... Let your watchword be: Union and progress, and until then, no surrender." The strike was an eyeopener to those who doubted the stamina of garment workers. For fourteen weeks the picket lines held and the strikers gained contracts in 354 shops.
That was only a curtain raiser. The next summer 60,000 cloakmakers struck for a pay raise and the closed union shop. Strikers held the picket lines until a favorable settlement was reached on September 16. The following week began a struggle for the unionization of the men's garment trades in Chicago. A foreman in one of the Hart, Schaffner and Marx plants reduced piece rates, a practice normally accepted without protest. However, this time it was rejected, and the incident sparked a major revolt. The United Garment Workers of America called a general strike, and 41,000 workers responded. They gained a costly and limited victory. The strike lasted 133 days, $200,000 was paid out for relief, hundreds of workers were arrested, and seven were killed.
Both the United Garment Workers and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union were made up of predominantly Jewish and Italian immigrants, although the national leadership of the United Garment Workers was predominantly native born. At the convention of the United Garment Workers in 1914, a conflict between the two groups resulted in the formation of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, which became the dominant organization in the men's clothing industry.
Immigration policy was one of the issues that divided the leaders of labor. Virtually all unionists favored exclusion of Orientals and believed that the limitless flow of immigrants to the United States tended to depress wages. Between 1903 and 1914 more than 800,000 immigrants entered the United States annually, with a peak of 1,387,318 in 1913.
The issue of immigration exclusion was debated at AFL conventions and at the 1910 convention of the Socialist Party. The majority of the Socialist convention's committee on immigration recommended limiting the number. Milwaukee's Victor L. Berger, elected that year as the first Congressman chosen on the Socialist ticket, spoke in favor of the restrictive proposal. An immigrant himself, he reasoned: "Now I believe in the motto of Marx that the proletarians of all countries should unite, absolutely. But he [Marx] did not say, nor would he say if they should unite in Milwaukee, Chicago or New York." Adolph Germer, a coal miner destined to be a future leader of the CIO, complained that many foreigners acted as strikebreakers and were not reliable for the long pull.
The American Federation of Labor for a time opposed outright restrictions upon immigration. But in the early years of the century it favored an educational test and, after World War I, endorsed the quota system for limiting entry. Restrictions upon Chinese immigration were endorsed from the beginning. It was the adverse influence of the immigrant upon the labor market rather than opposition based on race or religion which accounted for the negative attitude of organized labor. That's why the AFL supported the quota laws of 1921 and 1924 which limited immigration to a percentage of nationals living in the United States. The law of 1924 was attacked as favoring immigrants from northern Europe at the expense of those from Italy and the Slavic nations, but to organized labor these measures represented the means to restrict the continual flow of immigration.
World War I reduced immigration to the United States to a trickle. Recruiting agents from northern industries found substitutes among southern blacks. Between 1916 and 1924, hundreds of thousands streamed north to the automobile, meat packing, iron and steel, and railroad industries. Most of the black workers filled semiskilled and unskilled jobs.
The influx of thousands of black workers into northern industrial areas created many problems for the new arrivals. Coming largely from rural areas and having virtually no knowledge of union organizations, they were more susceptible to strikebreaking than white workers. The employment of large numbers of black strikebreakers in the wave of post-World War I labor disputes exacerbated the feeling of hostility between the races. An estimated 30,000 black strikebreakers worked in the 1919 steel strike. Labor leader John Fitzpatrick feared that if this continued, the industrial centers "are bound to be paralyzed by race riots... As I find it the Northern Negro is alive to the situation and cannot be used to any great extent, but the Southern Negro is brutally exploited and has no real knowledge of the situation in which he is being used."
While Northerners were debating what to do with the black workers, they were welcomed by the Alabama labor movement. When the unions of the state established the Alabama State Federation of Labor, in 1901, they elected two blacks as vice-presidents.
The quality of the Alabama unionists was revealed at the 1902 convention held in Selma. Vice-President J.H. Beane, a black man, informed newspapers: "The State Federation does not draw the color line, and the delegates will be seated as in all general conventions under the American Federation of Labor... Color or creed is no bar to a fair day's service. If the people of Selma for this reason turn the cold shoulder to the Alabama State Federation of Labor in the matter of hall accommodations it will not in any way interfere with the deliberations of the convention."
Blacks and whites cooperated on the picket line in strikes in the mines and plants where both races were employed. A considerable increase in the employment of black workers took place on the railroads during the strike of shopmen in 1922. The six railway shopcrafts agreed with the AFL Executive Council that black mechanics, helpers, and laborers would be allowed to become members of the International Brotherhood of Fireman and Oilers. A small group of black employees of the Pullman Company established the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in New York City on August 25, 1925. A. Philip Randolph was invited to address the group, and he became its first organizer. In Randolph, the Porters' Union selected a man of unusual eloquence, one who was to devote almost forty years to eliminating discrimination by unions against black workers.
The struggle for the eight-hour day was initiated by the four major operating crafts on the railroads. When negotiations proved unsuccessful, the four railroad brotherhoods took the unprecedented step of scheduling a nationwide railroad strike to begin on September 4, 1916. On September 2, President Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress and appealed for the enactment of an eight-hour law to govern railroad operations. Congress acted quickly, and a bill was in his hands on September 3. He signed it the day before the strike date. The brotherhoods knew that the law would be challenged in the courts, and demanded the eight-hour day be put in effect on January 1, 1917. Once war was declared, the union leaders were convinced it would not be possible to seek a solution through a strike.
Three members of the Council of National Defense, including Gompers, were dispatched by President Wilson to meet the bead of the railroad unions and seek a peaceful solution. They agreed to the eighthour work schedule a day before the Supreme Court found the law constitutional.
In December, 1917, the federal government took over the operation of the railroads. No discrimination for union membership was allowed, and wages were set by a government board. Despite the liberal labor policies followed, discontent among workers mounted as the war went on. In 1917, strikes reached the highest level in history, 4,450.
In an effort to deal with the problem, President Woodrow Wilson created the National War Labor Board, made up of an equal number of employer and union representatives. The Board agreed there should be no strikes or lockouts during the war, and that workers were to have the right to organize into unions of their choosing for purposes of collective bargaining. Employers were to have the right to organize associations. Workers were not to be discharged for belonging or being active in trade unions, but they were to refrain from coercive methods in recruiting members or seeking bargaining rights. In the sixteen months it functioned, the Board disposed of more than 1,100 cases.
Union membership rose substantially during the war years; in transportation it virtually doubled. The metal and building trades also gained, as did unions on the docks and on the ships. With the end of the war, the organized labor movement faced a number of problems requiring almost immediate solutions. The increased memberships in many unions were in with cautious traditional tactics. A search for new policies and methods was under way. The belief that the heads of the movement were old and weary and that individual unions as well as the general labor movement were in need of new and more imaginative leadership was widespread.
Business leaders were also unhappy about the course of events during the war. In their view, organized labor had become too strong; its improved bargaining position and the protection of the government had allowed unions to expand and gain a foothold in industries normally opposed to their recognition. Labor's more aggressive opponents urged business to organize so as to resist any further encroachments upon the rights of management. As a consequence, the immediate postwar period witnessed an epidemic of labor disputes.
The first manifestation of the new-found militancy was the Seattle general strike called in support of the striking metal trades workers in the shipyards. Food kitchens and milk stations were set up, and the people went about their affairs with few protests and little difficulty. The city's crime rate actually was below normal in this period.
On the second day of the strike, Mayor Ole Hanson issued a proclamation in which he guaranteed the people of Seattle "absolute and complete protection... The anarchists in the community shall not rule its affairs. All persons violating the laws will be dealt with summarily." The strike, which accomplished little, lasted five days.
More unusual was the strike of the Boston Police. When a plan for adjusting wages and working conditions had failed, the policemen struck on September 11, 1919. Absence of police was followed by twenty-four hours of rioting, looting, and violence. At the request of the city authorities, Governor Calvin Coolidge sent 5,000 militiamen to keep order. "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime," he declared. Clashes between roving mobs and soldiers resulted in the killing of eight civilians. By September 14, the strike was virtually over. Coolidge, who had denounced the strike as a "desertion of duty," became a national hero.
Despite reversals, the labor movement expanded at a greater rate than ever. Almost one million additional members joined the unions in 1919. Actors, after a strike lasting a month, won recognition for the newly organized Actors Equity Association. The first contract specified the number of performances a week that could be required without payment of overtime, limited rehearsal time, and required arbitration of unsettled differences.
In May, 1920, the United Mine Workers mustered an "army" to move into the nonunion counties of McDowell, Mingo, and Logan, West Virginia. In one shootout eight men and a boy were killed. Repeated skirmishes brought federal troops into the area; finally the miners were peaceably disarmed and dispersed. The union failed in its campaign.
After the expulsion of the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers from the plants of the U.S. Steel Corporation, the absence of a strong union in the steel industry was regarded as a sign of a weak labor movement. In 1918, the AFL convention endorsed a joint campaign by the twenty-four unions having jurisdiction in the steel industry. The campaign was one of the more successful in labor history. Thousands of steelworkers joined unions.
More difficult was obtaining industry recognition. Elbert Gary, board chairman of U.S. Steel Corporation, refused to meet a union committee to discuss the matter. A strike called for September 22, 1919, was answered by 367,000 steelworkers.
Confrontations between strikers, private guards, and the local police began immediately. Local officials suppressed strike meetings. The mayor of Duquesne, Pennsylvania justified his denial of a speaking permit to AFL Secretary Frank Morrison by saying: "Jesus Christ himself could not speak in Duquesne." Throughout the strike Gary maintained his imperturbability and reiterated his view that U.S. Steel did not deal with unions. During the strike, one of the bloodier of the time, twenty people, eighteen of them strikers, were killed. U.S. Steel had triumphed and would remain the bastion of the open shop for another seventeen years.
In the midst of the strike, President Wilson convened an industrial conference with representatives from business, labor, and the public. The main purpose of the conference was to work out methods that would promote industrial peace. As a minimum the labor delegates wanted the conference to recognize the right of employees to bargain through outside unions, but the employer group would only accept collective bargaining through company-controlled organizations.
Company unions of various sorts had developed early in the century and had multiplied during the war. Large employers also developed paternalistic welfare plans under which they aided home ownership by their employees through supporting low mortgage rates, subsidized lunches, encouraged savings, and established profit-sharing plans. Systems of grievance procedure through which employee complaints could be considered were organized, but the employer generally held the right to make the final decision. The programs were primarily designed to eliminate the influence of the outside union on the work force.
A more extensive campaign for eliminating the influence of unions in industry was the American Plan of Employment which promoted the open shop. The program had considerable success, and established systems of collective bargaining. As in the Chicago and the San Francisco building trades, buckled under the attack of the open shop contractors.
At one time twenty-two states had laws making it a criminal offense for employers to discharge union members or to deny employment because of membership in a union. The federal government incorporated such a provision in the Erdman Act of 1898 regulating the railroads. But in a case involving the right of the federal government to enforce the prohibition against discrimination of railroad employees, the Supreme Court held that workers could be discharged for any reason, including membership in a labor union. In the Kansas statute forbidding discrimination for union membership, the Court held that an employer could not be penalized for compelling one of his employees to give up his union membership.
These decisions removed any legislative protection that union members may have enjoyed against discrimination. In another case the Supreme Court ruled against attempts to unionize employees who had signed a "yellow-dog contract," an agreement under which the prospective employee agreed not to join a union during his tenure with the employer. The National War Labor Board had directed employers to abandon such contracts, but they increased greatly after the end of World War I, and were used to block organizing throughout the nonunion areas of West Virginia. They were also used by employers who would hire professional strikebreakers and have them sign an agreement not to join a union.
Inability to obtain relief from Congress turned many sections of organized labor towards independent political action. By 1922, the proponents met and organized the Conference for Progressive Political Action, which was dominated by the railroad unions, although socialists and traditional supporters of an independent labor party were allowed admission; the communists were excluded. Groups speaking for the new body endorsed some congressional candidates in 1922, and when the presidential nominees of the Democratic and the Republican parties did not meet their criteria for endorsement, they nominated Robert M. LaFollette for president and Burton K. Wheeler for vice-president. The AFL endorsed the ticket. Considering the absence of organizational support outside of Wisconsin, La Follette's home state, the third party candidates did very well. However, the railway unions, concerned with their positions in the Congress and the state legislatures, backed out of the alliance.
The antiunion open-shop campaigns seriously affected membership. From 1920 to 1923, it declined from 5,1047,800 to 3,622,000.
Congress made a giant step forward in providing protection against discrimination for union membership when it enacted the Railway Labor Act of 1926. Section two allowed each side to designate representatives for purposes of collective bargaining without interference from the other. In addition a board of mediation was set up to aid the parties to reach an agreement. In the event of a shutdown of rail service which might affect the public interest, the law provided for the appointment of an emergency board of inquiry by the President.
The power of Congress to outlaw discriminatory labor practices was upheld by a unanimous Supreme Court. A railroad company had interfered with the right of its employees to self-organization, and the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks sued. It was ordered to (1) disestablish the company union, (2) reinstate the Brotherhood as the representative of the employees until a choice by secret ballot is made, (3) reinstate employees who had been discharged for activity in the Brotherhood. Mr. Chief Justice Hughes, who wrote the unanimous opinion for the Court, said that the workers' right to organize "to safeguard their proper interests is not to be disputed .... Congress was not required to ignore this right of the employees but could safeguard it and seek to make their appropriate collective action an instrument of peace rather than of strike." He denied that the law would limit the right of the employer to hire or discharge employees. "The statute is not aimed at the right of the employers but interference with the freedom of the employees to have representatives of their own choosing. As the carriers subject to the Act have no constitutional right to interfere with the freedom of the employees in making their selection they cannot complain of the statute on constitutional grounds."
The 1920s witnessed the gradual reduction of the power of the United Mine Workers. In 1922, half a million soft-coal miners and 150,000 anthracite miners joined in a massive strike. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover ruled out federal intervention, declaring: "The government's position has long been known to be that sooner or later there would have to be a showdown in the mine fields. Its attitude is that if a strike must be, it must be, and the sooner the issue is disposed of the better."
As operators engaged in cutthroat competition, John L. Lewis, president of the UMW, thundered "no backward step," which meant no downward wage adjustment. The policy of "no backward step" proved to be no solution. Although compromises were worked out with operators in Illinois and other fields, the miners decided to resist in Ohio and western Pennsylvania. The strike began in the summer of 1927. It was a bitter and heart-rending struggle, with famished families evicted from their homes. In July, 1928, the union admitted defeat.
Ominously, a report from the AFL research department in February, 1928, called attention to increasing unemployment among organized workers. Neither the Labor Department nor the Government was prepared for the catastrophe which followed. In May, 1929, the executive council of the AFL suggested the establishment of a national employment service, a census to determine the number of unemployed, and regularization of employment. In November, a month after the stock market crash, President Hoover asked industry to avoid wage cuts and to speed investment.
The absence of relief and welfare systems deprived millions of the bare necessities. Dire want forced them to seek assistance for themselves and their families, but none was available. State and local governments made some efforts to provide relief, until their budgets were exhausted. Pleas for federal aid were rejected by President Herbert Hoover, who insisted that the nation had "turned the corner." The attempts of Congress to provide aid were vetoed as a threat to the credit of the federal government.
With business depressed and its promises of permanent prosperity a bitter memory, Congress enacted the Norris-LaGuardia Act. The law deprived the federal courts of the power to prohibit certain types of union activity, organization, assembly, strikes, picketing, and collective acts which can be performed by an individual. The yellow-dog contract was declared against public policy.
The labor movement survived the Great Depression shaken but intact. With the advent of the New Deal, its unions were to initiate the greatest organizing drives in history.