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These first efforts to organize may have been ineffective, but it shown the need for economic and legal protection of the working people from these exploiting employers. The factory system started to become more common with the invention of the steam engine and the growing use of water power to operate machinery. Beginning in the 1830s and accelerating even more so with the Civil War, factories accounted for a growing percentage of American production. It produced great wealth for few, but still poverty for many.
An increasing number of local union organizations steadily grew during the mid-19th century. Unions in various trades in various cities, joined together in citywide federations. The Nation Labor Union formed in 1866. The NLU helped persuaded Congress to pass an eight-hour day for Federal workers. Nevertheless, it went away with the sweeping economic depression of 1873.
The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was founded by Samuel Gompers in 1886 and was the federation’s first president. Samuel was born in 1850 in the Jewish slums of London. He came to America at age 13 with his parents in 1863. His father was a cigar maker and Samuel joined the his first cigarmakers’ union in 1864. Samuel devoted 38 years to the AFL until his death in 1924.
100,000 miners of the United Mine Workers went on strike on May 12, 1902 in northeastern Pennsylvania and kept the mines closed all that summer. When the mine owners refused a UMW proposal for arbitration, President Theodore Roosevelt intervened on Oct. 3. On Oct. 16, he appointed a commission of mediation and arbitration. The miners returned to their jobs five days later. Five months later, the Presidential Commission awarded them a 10 percent wage increase plus shorter work days, but they did not receive the formal union recognition they wanted.
One historic industrial strike before World War I happened in 1912 in the textile mills of Lawrence, Mass. This was not an AFL union strike, but by the Industrial Workers of the World-the IWW, or the Wobblies. They had a reputation as an organization who engages in frequent verbal and physical conflict with the AFL and its affiliates. This strike started when the mill owners responded to a state legislature action reducing the work week from 54 to 52. The mill owners cut the pay rates by 3&½ percent without prior notice as well. This caused a strike of 50,000 textile workers, arrests, fervent statements by the IWW leaders, police and militia attacks on peaceful meetings, and a high number of public support for the strikers. Some 400 children of strikers were “adopted” by sympathizers. When women strikers and their children were attacked at the railroad station by the police after authorities had decided no more youngsters could leave town, an enraged public protest finally forced the mill owners not only to restore the pay cuts but to increase the workers’ wages to more realistic levels.
The AFL urged Congress to create a separate U.S. Department of Labor with a legislative mandate to protect and extend the rights of wage earners. A Children’s Bureau was created with concern to protect the victims of job exploitation,. The LaFollette Seaman’s Act required improvements in the working conditions on ships of the U.S. merchant marine. The Clayton Act of 1914 made it clear of the legal concept that “the labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce,” therefore not subject to the Sherman Act provisions. These had been the legal basis for injunctions against union organization. Clayton provided legalized strikes and boycotts as well as peaceful picketing. It also provided and dramatically limited the use of injunctions in labor disputes. AFL President Gompers hailed the Clayton Act as a “magna carta.”
The post world war I depression decreased wages dramatically and caused a decrease of union membership of about a million members in the years from 1920 to 1923. The problem was multiplied by the decision of the National Association of Manufacturers and other anti-union “open shop” groups. In 1913, President John Kirby of the NAM decided the trade union movement was an un-American, illegal and infamous conspiracy.
John L. Lewis announced the creation of the CIO, the Committee for Industrial Organization, in November 1935. The CIO was composed of about a dozen leaders of AFL unions, to carry on the effort for industrial unionism. Industrial Unions organize an entire industry regardless of skill. These were unions of unskilled workers. Lewis was born in Iowa in 1880 of Welsh immigrant parents. He went to work in the coal mines and became president of the Mine Workers in 1920. In 1936, the various CIO unions were expelled from the Federation. In 1938 the CIO held its first constitutional convention and became the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
The AFL-CIO merger at a convention in New York opening on Dec. 5, 1955. The AFL-CIO merger and its accompanying agreements brought about the elimination of jurisdictional disputes between unions. The unions placed a new priority on organizing workers in areas, industries and plants where no effective system of labor representation yet existed. This meant crossing the barriers of old thinking and inadequate methods to reach the employees of companies which for years had resisted unions.
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