Why was the 1920s such a difficult time for American unions?
Call it a reaction against their growing strength. After expanding power during the Progressive Era in the first two decades of the 20th century, organized labor grew even stronger during World War I. The U.S. government took a more conciliatory approach to unions to avoid work stoppages that could disrupt the war effort. In return for a moratorium on strikes, unions were granted shorter working days, greater collective bargaining rights and seats of power in wartime federal agencies like the National War Labor Board, which has arbitrated labor disputes. As a result, membership in the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the country’s largest union, jumped 50% between 1917 and 1919.
After World War I, however, the labor movement lost ground. The National War Labor Board dissolved and American companies sought to regain power over the unions. “As soon as the armistice was signed in November 1918, their crackdown on workers’ gains began,” says Georgetown University labor historian Joseph McCartin. “Meanwhile, workers’ expectations had risen as a result of the wartime gains, and they were not in the mood to give up on those gains. This set the stage for a titanic struggle in 1919, the largest eruption of labor unrest at this point in history.
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Workers’ strikes rocked America in 1919
Inflation eroded the purchasing power of American workers in the months following the war. Food prices more than doubled and clothing prices more than tripled between 1915 and 1920. But most companies refused to raise wages accordingly.
In response, more than 3,500 work stoppages involving more than 4 million workers occurred in 1919. In February, Seattle unions halted work in solidarity with 35,000 shipyard workers who had quit their jobs in February. the first general (or intersectoral) strike in American history. That fall, nearly 400,000 members of the United Mine Workers of America went on strike, as did 365,000 Midwestern steelworkers who tried to organize.
However, the strikers won few concessions. Having suffered rationing and shortages during the war and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919, an exhausted American public felt little solidarity with an increasingly militant labor movement. Attitudes further backfired against unions when Boston police went on strike and raised fears for public safety. “When the large union of steel, electrical manufacturing and meat packing readers was crushed by the 1919 strike break, all work was on the defensive in the 1920s,” McCartin says .
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Red fear divided organized labor in the 1920s
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Following the Russian Revolution of 1917 and other Communist uprisings in Europe, many middle and upper class Americans began to equate trade unionism with Bolshevism. Some believed that the union leaders were looking for nothing less than to overthrow the American capitalist system. In the midst of this “red fear”, industrialists called union members anti-American radicals. The New York Times wrote of the Great Steel Strike of 1919: “It is an industrial war in which the leaders are radicals, social and industrial revolutionaries.” These concerns only increased after several mail bombs were sent to government officials, industrialists and suspected enemies of organized labor in the spring of 1919, and an explosive device killed more than 30 people in the exterior of JP Morgan and Co.’s Wall Street headquarters on September 16. , 1920.
“The labor movement itself has become quite conservative in reaction to the Red Scare,” says Nelson Lichtenstein, historian at the University of California at Santa Barbara. According to him, concerns about the possible radicalism of unskilled immigrant workers have led the AFL and craft unions to focus instead on organizing skilled workers and more conventional union activities. “This is a time when ethnic tensions are very strong, and the working class in many mass production industries such as steel are often immigrants,” says Lichtenstein. “The hostility of craft unions [devoted to a single trade] to the idea of big [multi-trade] industrial unions with many immigrant workers persisted in the 1920s. “
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Court rulings favored large companies
Americans voted for a “return to normalcy” in 1920 with the election of Warren G. Harding, the first of three pro-business Republican presidents to occupy the White House in the 1920s. After a series of progressive presidencies, the playing field has once again leaned towards employers. “The main activity of the American people is business,” said Calvin Coolidge, who succeeded Harding after his death in 1923.
Throughout the 1920s, courts regularly issued injunctions against strikes, picketing and other union activity. When 400,000 railroad traders quit their jobs after the Railroad Labor Board cut their wages in 1922, Attorney General Harry Daugherty won a sweeping injunction to crush the nationwide strike. “As long as I can speak for the United States government, I will use the power of the government to prevent unions across the country from destroying the open shop,” he said.
The United States Supreme Court made a series of anti-union rulings in the 1920s, McCartin says: Duplex Printing Press Co. v Deering (1921) drilled a deadly hole in the Clayton Act’s labor protections. Truax vs. Corrigan (1921) prevented states from limiting employers’ use of injunctions to crush strikes. And Adkins v. Children’s Hospital (1923) struck down minimum wage laws that protected women workers.
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With the weakening of the labor movement, union membership fell in the 1920s from 5 million to 3 million. Corporate profits, meanwhile, have soared. The decade has seen an accumulation of wealth dating back to the Golden Age. About 200 corporations controlled half of the country’s corporate wealth. Even though US Steel, the country’s largest employer, saw profits double between 1924 and 1929, workers did not receive a single general raise in pay.
However, after the onset of the Great Depression, unions rebounded when President Franklin D. Roosevelt advanced his New Deal agenda, which brought new protections that led to a further increase in union membership.