Employees' Organizations

Accounts of the rise and fall of the National Labor Union and the Knights of Labor were traced in Chapter 2. In that chapter the genesis of the American Federation of Labor was also noted. It is the purpose of this chapter briefly to examine twentieth-century trends in employee organization, to look into such matters as the structure and government of modern unions, and to discuss the place of unions in the economy.

Twentieth-century Trends in Employee Organization. The first half of the twentieth century saw (1) the gradual decline of unionism under the combined assault of belligerent employers' associations and economic conditions which favored high wages, (2) a great economic depression which brought into power an administration that favored and encouraged unionism, and (3) the consequent rise in the size and power of unions to heights never before encountered in the United States.

The Industrial Workers of the World. From 1905 to about 1920 the Industrial Workers of the World enjoyed a small measure of success. Its leaders were bold, and its strike tactics were aggressive. It led strikes of miners in Nevada, railway-car workers in Pennsylvania, and textile workers in Massachusetts, to name a few of its activities. The success of the IWW in organizing unskilled workers led the AFL to reconsider its traditional policy of organizing along craft lines instead of along industrial lines. At its 1912 convention, the AFL adopted a resolution expressing the necessity for organizing certain workers on an industrial basis. However, nothing tangible was done to put this resolution into effect. In spite of a few spectacular strike victories, the IWW never gained wide popularity, chiefly because its radical and revolutionary characteristics did not appeal to the majority of Americans.1

Employee-representation Plans. The first part of the twentieth century saw the growth of a number of employee-representation plans of various kinds. Forward-looking employers and employees increasingly worked 1 For an excellent account of the IWW, see Paul F. Brissenden, The I.W.W.; A Study of American Syndicalism, Columbia University Press, New York, 1920.

out their own solutions to industrial-relations problems. Cooperation and frank discussion more and more replaced the ultimatum and the strike or lockout. One popular form was patterned after the United States Congress. The employees' representatives formed a house of representatives; the foremen and superintendents were the senate, and the top operating officials comprised the cabinet. Veto power was generally kept by the chief executive officer of the concern, who was the president of the representation organization. Such plans implemented a valuable transitional period from industrial autocracy to the truer forms of industrial democracy which came into being in later years.

As a result of a disastrous strike in 1913-1914 at a Rockefeller-owned company, the Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and W. L. Mackenzie King (formerly Minister of Labor in Canada, and then employed by the Rockefeller Foundation as an industrial-relations expert) worked out a committee form of employee representation which was widely copied under the name of “works councils."

In the clothing industry a plan involving union recognition by employers for purposes of collective bargaining operated successfully from 1910 to 1921. When employers and union representatives failed to agree, impartial chairmen assumed the task of effecting settlements.

Waning Interest in Unionism. After the start of World War I in 1914, unemployment among American workers practically disappeared. Dur ing participation of the United States in the war, membership in the AFL rose from about 2 million to over 3 million. During this period it was the policy of the first National War Labor Board neither to encourage nor to discourage unionism. As nearly as possible the status quo was maintained in such matters as labor organization, the closed shop, and other controversial issues. Works councils were urged for settling disputes, and before the war was over they were in common use throughout the country. Although the AFL supported the great national effort, labor unrest grew as prices rose without corresponding wage increases. After the war, labor aggressively went to work to gain what they felt was rightfully theirs. Although Gompers was outspoken in his denunciation of communism, the wide publicity given by the press to a few instances of red-inspired and communist-led strikes had the effect of marshaling public opinion against all strikes and all labor, whether radical or conservative. As a consequence few strikes were won by the AFL or any of the independent unions in the postwar period. This adverse public feeling, coupled with growing antagonism on the part of the Federal administration and the courts, set the stage for a period of stagnation among unions. It was during this period that Gompers died (1924) and was replaced by William Green, a man who held views as conservative as those of his

predecessor. Green, a former United Mine Workers officer, seemed to favor industrial unionism over craft unionism. For this reason he was supported by John L. Lewis, but as time went by the AFL showed no evidence of a change in its traditional craft-oriented policies.


The Lynds report in Middletown that a wide difference was displayed in the methods of celebrating Labor Day in the 1890's and 1920's. In the old days the entire city participated in a celebration which commenced at 4 A.M. with an artillery signal. In 1923, however, a feeble effort was made to attract a crowd to hear a speaker, while the following year all effort to celebrate the day was abandoned. At about the same time, one of the city's leaders was quoted as saying that workingmen did not need unions any more.

With the exception of railroad employees, the employees of the largest concerns were unorganized during the twenties. There were practically no strikes or lockouts in industries other than the building trades, street railways, clothing, textiles, and coal mining. The number of strikes steadily diminished from 4,450 in 1917 to 604 in 1928, which was the smallest number for any year since 1884. Union membership and activity dropped during this period, and trade-union agreements frequently were not renewed. Reference to Table 13 discloses that from 1919 to 1930 the number of workers involved in strikes each year fell from 4,160,348 to 182,975, the lowest since 1888.

After 1929, workers began to feel the need for unions; but industry was prostrate, and workers were too desperate for employment at any wage and under any conditions to consider joining unions. At this juncture a new administration was voted into power.


Industrial Unionism and the American Federation of Labor. “In four short months after the National Industrial Recovery Act was passed, AFL membership jumped from 2,500,000 to close to 4,000,000. The Federation then began the organization of unskilled workers, and a rapid drift toward industrial unionism developed.' These new industrial unions

2 Robert and Helen Merrell Lynd, Middletown, Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., New York, 1929, pp. 77-81.

3 Chap. 3.

* Adapted from Wayne L. McNaughton, Business Organization, Littlefield, Adams & Company, Ames, Iowa, 1952, pp. 143–148. Quoted material used by permission of the publisher.

5 48 Stat. 214 (1933).

6 About 7.9 per cent of the total labor force of the country.

An industrial union accepts into membership all employees in a given industry without regard to the type of work such employees perform. Unions of coal miners, steel workers, and automobile workers are examples of industrial unions. A craft union, on the other hand, accepts as members only those who practice a given craft. Examples of craft unions are organizations of carpenters, of machinists, and of type


were affiliated with the Federation through so-called federal charters. Due partly to the traditional antipathy of the AFL toward industrial unions, this new activity soon bogged down. When a dissident element demanded more aggressive tactics in organizing the great masses of labor in the automobile, rubber, steel, and other unorganized industries, a serious split developed within the Federation. This group set up within the AFL a Committee for Industrial Organization, and again efforts were made to organize the mass-production industries, with assurances being given that the privileges of existing craft unions would be respected. However, the problem of resolving jurisdictional claims proved to be formidable, and at the Atlantic City convention of the AFL, industrial unionism was voted down. Nevertheless, another Committee for Industrial Organization was set up, and efforts were made to educate the membership of the AFL. . . . During the subsequent months, the CIO went ahead with its organizing plans, and demands were made upon the AFL for industrial charters. In turn the AFL demanded that the CIO cease its activities. Then, finally, the AFL suspended the ten unions comprising the CIO. Valiant efforts continued to be made by individuals on each side to prevent a final split, but delegates from the ten suspended unions did not attend the Tampa convention of 1936, so the AFL voted to keep the suspension in effect until they should be reinstated on terms laid down by the executive committee of the AFL. During the following two years, the breach grew wider, and the leaders of each faction showed little inclination to cooperate. In May of 1938 the split was confirmed by the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, by that time a federation with membership rivaling that of the AFL."

Political Activities of Organized Labor in 1936. "The AFL had always opposed governmental meddling with union matters such as minimum wages, old age pensions, and unemployment insurance; but when as a result of depressed business conditions Federal legislation was proposed in these fields, the traditional attitude of the AFL was modified, and to a greater extent than ever before organized labor swung behind one political party. This support by labor was instrumental in returning Roosevelt to office in 1936. Although efforts were made at this time to set up a third party dedicated to furthering the interests of labor, neither the AFL nor the CIO would endorse it. In the 1940 elections the AFL wholeheartedly supported Roosevelt, while the CIO leadership supported Willkie. Much of the CIO rank and file, however, continued to support the Democratic administration."

Strikes during the Forties. “At the outbreak of World War II, organized labor pledged itself not to strike, a pledge which was kept to a remarkable degree. There were strikes, some deliberately called by labor and

some forced on labor by unbearable managerial attitudes; but in spite of the wide publicity given to such walkouts by antilabor newspapers, the ratio of hours lost to available hours of work averaged less than one to one thousand, or about one day per worker for the three-year period from January, 1942, to December, 1944. But with the end of the war, work stoppages rose to staggering proportions. During this postwar period, in which the AFL continued its policy of neutrality in political matters, labor steadfastly supported the Democratic administration. From depression days the Wagner Act had thrown the weight of the government onto the scales in favor of organized labor; but with the revival of employment, the war, and the postwar rush to replenish depleted stocks of consumers' goods, public opinion began to swing away from its prolabor attitude. Instead of releasing the restrictions on employers, however, the new Federal legislation embodied in the Taft-Hartley Act sought to even out the imbalance by retaining control over employers and in addition by imposing restrictions upon labor. Apparently public opinion believed that labor finally had reached a position of equality with business management, and that both should be restricted for the best interests of all.

"The Congress of Industrial Organizations. The foregoing discussion has shown how the CIO began as a movement within the AFL which favored the granting of charters to groups of workers in entire industries irrespective of the nature of work performed by the individuals involved. There were difficulties in the way of this movement. For instance, assume that the CIO should institute a membership drive at a plant in which the truck drivers belong to one AFL affiliate, the electricians to another, and the machinists to still another. Actually the AFL extended its blessing to a type of organization drive which should respect these existing jurisdictions. But in practice, the CIO tried to take into the new unions all employees in the plant, while AFL union members quite naturally attempted to discourage these incursions." These matters, which many believe might have been adjusted amicably at the time, were allowed to accumulate to the point of open hostility.

In May, 1938, the name of the Committee for Industrial Organization was changed to the Congress of Industrial Organizations. "This Congress of unions differed little from the older Federation, except that it did not recognize craft lines. Although some Communists got into positions of responsibility in the new organization, there is no evidence that its longterm objectives were revolutionary in nature. Actually the CIO has proved to be more conservative in some ways than the AFL, for its leaders have urged its membership to increase labor productivity as the only sound means of justifying wage increases. The structure of the Congress is somewhat similar to that of the Federation. However, the Congress has

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