A Historical Outline of Organized Labor in the United States

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  • 0:07 Cordwainers & First Unions
  • 1:13 Employers Strike Back
  • 2:45 Progress During the…
  • 3:14 New Deal for Unions &…
  • 4:13 Globalization & Decline
  • 5:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the development of organized labor and unions in the United States and their current position in the United States economy. We'll also touch upon federal laws that have been developed regulating and protecting organized labor.

Cordwainers & the First Unions

Imagine toiling away and handcrafting shoes in the hot summer sun of Philadelphia in 1794, about five years after the ratification of the United States Constitution. You're a respected and skilled cordwainer who spent years as an apprentice learning your craft. And now you're faced with a threat to your livelihood: the dawn of the industrial revolution and shoe factories with machines that can make shoes faster with less skilled workers than yourself.

One cordwainer cannot stand alone against the large shoe factories for better working conditions and wages. There are simply too many other workers willing, ready and able to take whatever the shoe factories are prepared to give them. But you figure you may have a chance to get better pay and working conditions if all cordwainers work together to negotiate as a group with the factories. So, in 1794, you and your fellow cordwainers form the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers, which most historians view as the first labor union in the United States. Your labor union is an organization created by you and your fellow workers to act collectively as a group to bargain with your employers for better compensation, benefits and working conditions.

Employers Strike Back

Many employers did not like you and your fellow Cordwainers working together to improve your bargaining position for better working conditions and wages. So they teamed up with the government to destroy your union, as well as other emerging labor unions of the late 18th and early 19th century.

Employers were successful in convincing the courts you and your fellow cordwainers were engaging in a criminal activity by working together to win better wages and working conditions. In 1806, the cordwainer's union was charged and found guilty of criminal conspiracy to raise wages in the court case of Commonwealth v. Pullis - known as the 'cordwainer's case.' This case formed the basis of a legal doctrine known as the labor conspiracy theory, which held that workers attempting to collectively bargain interferes with the labor market and destroys competition.

Collective bargaining occurs when a group of workers bargain with their employers as a unit concerning wages, benefits and working conditions. Workers that collectively bargain have a stronger bargaining position because there is power in numbers. An employer can disregard the demands of one employee, but it's harder to ignore the threats of all employees bargaining in unison.

While the 'cordwainer's case' was overturned in 1842, businesses and governments found other ways to hinder the development of unions. Courts granted injunctions that prevented unions from striking, and police and local militia - today's National Guard - were used to stop strikes. Businesses often fired employees seeking to form unions and blacklisted them - a list of people not to hire because they were troublesome. Supporters of unions were also subjected to violence if they attempted to organize.

Progress During the Progressive Era

The fortunes of organized labor began to change with the onset of the Progressive Movement in the first two decades of the 20th century. The Clayton Act of 1914 declared that labor unions were not an article of commerce and did not violate antitrust laws. Employers responded with yellow-dog contracts. A job applicant that signed a yellow-dog contract not only acknowledged that he was not a union member, but also agreed not to become one. Yellow-dog contracts eventually became unenforceable against public policy under the Norris-Laguardia Act.

A New Deal for Unions & Post-War Tweaking

Organized labor continued to gain ground during the Great Depression in the 1930s and became a part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the NLRA or Wagner Act, in 1935. The NLRA gave most workers in the private sector the right to form unions, collectively bargain and even strike. The National Labor Review Board was created to implement and enforce the NLRA.

Some thought that the NLRA swung the pendulum a bit too far in favor of organized labor and against employers. Congress passed the Labor-Management Relations Act, also known as the Taft-Hartley Act, in 1947, in an attempt to swing the pendulum back towards employers a bit. The act also created the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which helped with resolving strikes that created national emergencies, such as shutting down air travel. The act also banned closed shops. A closed shop is an employment circumstance where only union members can be hired and stay employed.

Globalization and Decline

Union membership in the United States was about 35% of the workforce in 1935, but declined to around 12% by 2007. Unions have declined for a few different reasons:

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