Bicentennial History of The American Worker


It is with pleasure I note that this volume, published in the Bicentennial year, adds an important dimension to the history of the United States. It deals not with Presidents, the Congress, and the Supreme Court. Instead, it treats of the working men and women who built the nation and whose struggles and achievements deserve a central place in a people's history of the United States. This volume represents the cooperative effort of six specialists in the field of American labor history.

From the time of colonial settlement, American labor has been recruited from abroad, from Great Britain, the European continent, Africa, and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from Asia and Latin America as well. How labor was induced to make the long and dangerous voyage to the New World and how it fared when it first came here is the central theme of the editor's first chapter. The colonial era was the day of the handicraftsman and the field hand. To protect and advance their economic well being, white workers - both master and apprentice, mechanic and common laborer - formed temporary combinations. The American Revolution provided an occasion for workers as well as their employers to cooperate with the merchants in protesting the new tax measure imposed by the British government. This political alliance continued down to the adoption of the Federal Constitution, which workers embraced as providing protection for their own interests against cheap labor products from abroad.

The role of labor at the beginning of the republic, in the days of Jefferson and Jackson, during the sectional conflict, and climaxing in a great Civil War, provides a cluster of themes for Edward Pessen's illuminating chapter. As the old crafts came into competition with an emerging factory system and the use of cheap, semiskilled labor, the impulse to the rise of trade unions occurred. The free labor system was marred by the exploitation of women and children, and in the South by the pervasive system of slavery, which drove free labor out of the crafts as well as agriculture. In response to new problems, workingmen's parties appeared; workers took concerted action to secure better wages and shorter hours, despite the ever present threat of criminal conspiracy prosecution.

The third chapter by David Montgomery deals with what may well be called the takeoff point for the modern American labor movement. The age of industrial capitalism and business concentration posed severe challenges to labor to organize successfully on a national level. After Sylvis, the challenge to establish a national labor federation was taken up by Terence V. Powderly. His efforts to forge a national union of all wage earners, known as the Knights of Labor, an industrial rather than a craft organization, were tried and found wanting in the strife torn 1880s. After 1886, Samuel Gompers, his American Federation of Labor, concentrating on the crafts and stressing business unionist objectives, would hold the center of the labor stage for almost a half century. After the Civil War, instead of labor peace, one finds a series of labor capital confrontations.

Philip Taft takes labor's story forward, recounting the continuing struggles and achievements of the labor movement from the start of the twentieth century until the Great Depression. It was a time when the federal government began to play a significant role in labor disputes, but it also marked a time when labor undertook initiatives of its own, including the arbitration machinery initiated in the cloak and suit industry. During this period the United States Supreme Court, of all three branches of the federal government, proved to be the most inimical to the labor movement.

The New Deal and World War II brought revolutionary gains for the American labor movement. As Irving Bernstein instructs us, the passage in 1933 of the National Industrial Recovery Act, which guaranteed to labor the right to bargain through representatives of its choosing - a right reiterated by the Wagner Act of 1935 - bestirred labor to a frenzy of organizing; the CIO began to form industrial unions, and spectacularly successful strikes were launched against the auto and steel industries. For workers, aside from the Wagner Act, the two most important pieces of legislation in this period were the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act (Wages and Hours Law) of 1938.

The postwar years, which Jack Barbash sketches with broad strokes, were marked by increasing pressures on the part of management for modification of the Wagner Act, pressures which led to the passage in 1947 of the Taft-Hartley Act. It failed to choke off labor power, curtail union membership, or end strikes and work stoppages. The new antilabor legislation which federal and state governments were now enacting impelled the AFL and the CIO to put aside their philosophic and jurisdictional differences and to merge in 1955 under the presidency of George Meany. To Walter Reuther of the UAW, credit must go for his emphasis upon health care and pension policies, while the new AFL-CIO found such insistent problems requiring resolution as corruption, discrimination, and jurisdictional conflict in national union affiliates. In the 1960s and '70s, as Professor Barbash has shown, the great increase in union membership has stemmed largely from the organization of public employees.

As a capstone to the treatment of contemporary problems, John T. Dunlop, former Secretary of Labor has contributed a closing essay on the future of collective bargaining.

Richard B. Morris, Editor


Chapter 1. The Emergence of American Labor.

Chapter 2. Builders of the Young Republic.

Chapter 3. Labor in the Industrial Era.

Chapter 4. Workers of a New Century.

Chapter 5. Americans in Depression and War.

Chapter 6. Unions and Rights in the Space Age.

Closing Essay by John Dunlop.

Authors' Biographies.