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Union Development During WWI: Issues & Conflict

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  • 0:03 Union Development in WWI
  • 1:34 Post-War Union Development
  • 2:34 Employer-Union Conflicts
  • 4:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

In this lesson, you'll explore the part unions played during wartime and how they were perceived afterwards. You'll also get a crash course on the union-busting tactics used to reduce the power of organized labor.

Union Development in WWI

When the United States entered the First World War in 1914, a recession had been stifling its economic growth. The war effort improved these conditions through increased production. As the war effort ramped up, many moderate labor unions, or trade and worker organizations, played a role in this boom.

It was not a bad time to be part of a moderate union that advocated against child labor and for improved working conditions and wages. After all, employers needed a reliable labor force to ensure continued progress during this period. This gave workers greater leverage and a stronger voice than they'd had during poor economic times.

Unions took advantage of this moment in history and pushed for greater recognition. On the flip side, unions did have to agree to regulations during wartime, such as their pledge not to strike, which would have stopped production and affected the war effort. The government put the National War Labor Board in place with the intention of ensuring good relations between employers and employees.

Unions that did not support the war often faced strong opposition and even the jailing of their leaders. These groups, typically described as radical labor, viewed the war as additional evidence that the class system was inherently doomed to conflict, even if it resulted in temporary prosperity. Viewed as un-American for holding anti-war or neutral views about the war, socialist and anti-capitalist labor unions were penalized harshly during this time.

Post-War Union Development

As you might guess, once the war was over, unions were not interested in giving up the gains they'd made during this time. Once again, economic conditions started to fluctuate, and strikes became common. This type of pressure and union power made employers unhappy.

Just as radical groups were deemed un-American during the war, the press now portrayed anyone striking as unpatriotic. The Red Scare, a strong fear of communism and radical viewpoints, helped fuel this distaste for worker organizations. Many people during this time viewed unions as a threat to the American way of life.

As a result, even moderate labor unions became targets of tactics designed to prevent them from maintaining membership and growing in strength. These tactics are sometimes described by the catch-all term union-busting. Sometimes outward violence was involved, but other approaches had a debilitating effect on unions without the bloodshed.

Employer-Union Conflicts

What if you couldn't get a job because of your union membership? You'd probably be willing to go without union representation if you were in need of employment. Let's take a look at some of the activities U.S. employers used to counteract unions during and right after World War I.

The American Plan, or open shop, was an effort used by some employers to avoid negotiating with a union. An open shop is a workplace in which members have the option of whether or not to join a union. In more extreme environments, employers gave preference to non-union employees or even removed the union option completely from the workplace.

Blacklisting prevented workers from pursuing certain opportunities due to their current or past views. Employers sometimes chose to blacklist potential employees who had been involved in union activities.

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