Here's a somewhat truncated timeline of U.S. labor history I wrote for an exhibit at the Hull House in Chicago. It lacks social and political context, but it does highlight a few of the most important events.
1866: Founding of the National Labor Union
The NLU is the first national labor federation in the United States, dedicated in large part to fighting for the eight-hour day. This goal is not achieved nationally, though in 1868 Congress does establish the eight-hour day for government employees (a law not consistently enforced). The organization falls apart during the depression of the 1870s.
1869: Founding of the Knights of Labor
This nationwide organization grows in the 1870s as the NLU fades; by 1886, in the wake of major victories in strikes against railroad companies, it has 800,000 members. Its long-term aim is to bring about a cooperative commonwealth of labor in the United States, in which the wages system would be abolished and workers would control their own work. More immediately, it fights for the eight-hour day, higher wages, women’s economic rights, racial equality, laws against child labor, and industrial unionism (according to which all workers in the same industry are organized into one union rather than separated by skill-level and occupations, as in craft unionism). It also facilitates the establishment of hundreds of worker cooperatives around the country.
Summer, 1877: the Great Railroad Strike, a.k.a. the Great Upheaval
In response to wage cuts, depression, unemployment, and savage treatment by capitalists, spontaneous strikes spread along railway lines from West Virginia to cities in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Missouri, and other states. By the time the colossal strike is crushed by state militias, police forces, and federal troops—after 45 days of fierce resistance by workers—a hundred people have been killed and 100,000 workers have gone on strike. Despite its defeat in 1877 by the combined forces of private power and government, the labor movement continues to grow rapidly in the 1880s.
May 4, 1886: Haymarket bombing in Chicago
At a rally in support of the national movement for an eight-hour day—a movement that has inspired half a million workers to go on strike on May 1, 1886—an unidentified person throws a bomb into the crowd that kills seven policemen and several civilians. In a subsequent trial much criticized for its lack of objectivity, eight anarchists are convicted of conspiracy (though not of throwing the bomb), seven of whom are sentenced to death. The bombing triggers a nationwide crackdown on the militant labor movement, dealing a tremendous blow to the Knights of Labor and the revolutionary hopes it symbolized.
December, 1886: Formation of the American Federation of Labor
The AFL is founded as a craft-union-based alternative to the Knights of Labor, and accordingly takes a relatively conservative approach to labor activism. It eschews “social movement unionism” and opposition to capitalism as such, focusing instead on bread-and-butter issues like wages and other incremental demands that can be won through collective bargaining. As the Knights of Labor collapses, the AFL slowly grows to encompass millions of (mostly skilled) workers.
July 2, 1890: Passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act
This law is intended to prohibit business activities that interfere with free competition. In one of history’s many ironies, though, it is frequently used to justify injunctions against union activities, such as strikes, that are said to interfere with competition.
Summer, 1892: Homestead strike
In an attempt to destroy the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (AA), the powerful union of skilled workers at the Carnegie steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, Henry Clay Frick locks them out of the plant. Other workers in the plant and town then go on strike in solidarity with their fellows. The conflict escalates as Frick tries to break the strike with the help of 300 Pinkerton “detectives”—effectively a private army—but a bloody battle ensues between them and the townspeople of Homestead. The strike is finally defeated after the governor dispatches a militia against the workers, with the further result that the AA’s power in the industry is broken. For the next forty-five years, the steel industry will remain essentially non-union.
Summer, 1894: Pullman strike
Factory employees of the Pullman Company in Chicago go on strike to protest their low wages and abysmal treatment by George Pullman. In solidarity, Eugene Debs and his American Railway Union declare a boycott of all trains carrying Pullman cars; at its peak, the boycott involves 250,000 workers. President Grover Cleveland sends troops to Chicago to get the trains moving again, which infuriates the strikers, who react with violence. At length the army is able to subdue the workers (at the cost of many lives) and end the strike, which results in the dissolution of the American Railway Union and the arrest of its leaders for violating a federal injunction against the strike.
1905: the Industrial Workers of the World is formed
Despite its many defeats, the militant wing of the labor movement remains unbowed. It forms the IWW as a radical, anarcho-syndicalist alternative to the more conservative AFL, and organizes workers along class lines rather than occupational lines. It is the only union at the time to welcome all people into its ranks, including immigrants, women, and African-Americans. Before it loses influence during the waves of government repression that follow World War I, it plays a major role in campaigns for free speech and in some of the era’s most important industrial conflicts.
1909: Shirtwaist strike in New York
Workers in the garment industry, which employs primarily young women, vote for a general strike against low pay, long hours, awful working conditions, and discrimination for union activity. Led mostly by rank-and-file women, the strike of almost thirty thousand lasts eleven weeks. Finally employers give in to most of the workers’ demands, including a shorter week, no discrimination against union loyalists, and negotiation of wages with employees. The groundwork for industrial unionism is laid in the garment industry as the International Ladies Garment Workers Union gains thousands of members, proving to conservative AFL leaders that a multi-ethnic, immigrant, female workforce is worth organizing.
March 25, 1911: Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City
Locked inside the factory by its owners, 146 garment workers (mostly young women) die during the fire, many by jumping to their deaths from the ninth and tenth floors. While the factory’s owners are not convicted of any crime, the incident leads to new safety regulations and a modernization of New York’s labor laws.
January–March, 1912: Textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts
More than twenty thousand workers, again primarily women and girls, walk out of the mills in response to a pay cut. The IWW takes over leadership of the strike and establishes several innovative practices, such as sending strikers’ children to sympathizers in other states who will temporarily care for them. The police beat mothers, children, and pregnant women, which so inflames national sentiment that Congress holds investigative hearings that reveal the terrible conditions at the Lawrence mills. Eventually the company agrees to nearly all the workers’ demands, thus furthering the unionization of the garment industry.
April 20, 1914: Ludlow massacre
This event is the climax of the deadliest strike in U.S. history, called by the United Mine Workers in 1913 to protest horrific conditions at John D. Rockefeller’s mines in Colorado. For months, company-instigated violence failed to break the will of the strikers and their families. On April 20, the National Guard and local militiamen attack the strikers’ tent colony with machine guns (killing several people), then set fire to the tents as workers and their families flee. Eleven children and two women suffocate and burn to death under one of the tents. Ultimately the strike is lost, but the government commission that investigates the massacre provides support for many union demands, such as the eight-hour day and abolition of child labor.
1916: Congress passes the Adamson Act
This law establishes the eight-hour day for railroad workers, with additional pay for overtime work. It is the first federal law to regulate hours of work in private companies.
1919: Postwar strike wave
Following World War I, four million workers go on strike for higher wages and better working conditions. The response by business and government is the “Red Scare,” or demonization of strikers as Communists. The violent repression of the strikes presages a decade of terrible setbacks for labor, which end only with the upsurge of popular protest in the Great Depression.
1932: Norris-La Guardia Act is passed
This law bans “yellow-dog contracts,” which stipulate that an employee cannot join a union during the course of his employment, and forbids federal courts from issuing injunctions against nonviolent labor disputes such as strikes. It is a great victory for organized labor, anticipating the more comprehensive Wagner Act of 1935.
April–June, 1934: Toledo Auto-Lite strike
Led by the small American Workers Party, and with the decisive help of class-conscious unemployed workers, employees of an auto parts plant in Toledo, Ohio walk off the job to achieve union recognition, improved working conditions, and a wage increase. The strike lasts almost two months and survives a five-day battle between workers and thousands of police and National Guard troops (a battle in which hundreds are injured and several killed). Under the threat of a general strike, Auto-Lite finally agrees to nearly all the union’s demands. This victory leads to the rapid unionization of other workplaces in Toledo.
May–August, 1934: Minneapolis Teamsters strike
Local 574 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters strikes for union recognition and its right to speak for all of its members. The city’s commerce virtually shuts down as trucking operations come to a halt. Serving, as usual, as the business community’s enforcers, the police violently but fruitlessly attempt to break the strike. After weeks of virtual civil war, employers finally give in to the union’s demands—a victory that sets the Teamsters up to eventually become a major national union.
May–July, 1934: West Coast waterfront strike
First longshoremen, then sailors and other maritime workers, in every port on the West Coast go on strike for union recognition, a coast-wide contract, and a union-controlled hiring hall. After a brutal police action a couple months into the strike, dozens of unions in San Francisco vote for a general strike, which lasts four days. The dispute finally goes to arbitration, which hands the maritime workers several victories: for example, the International Longshoremen’s Association gains substantial control over hiring on the docks, employees’ wages increase, and shift hours are reduced.
September, 1934: Textile workers strike
Under the leadership of the United Textile Workers, 400,000 workers from New England to the South go on strike for a thirty-hour week, a minimum wage, union recognition, and better working conditions. “Flying squadrons” travel from plant to plant, calling workers out. In response, employers call on local and state authorities, who send the police and National Guard to wage near-war on the strikers (especially in the South). At length the UTW calls off the strike, which ends in total failure. For the rest of the century the South remains largely un-unionized, despite CIO efforts to organize it.
July, 1935: Franklin Roosevelt signs the National Labor Relations Act into law
One of the U.S. labor movement’s greatest victories, the NLRA (otherwise known as the Wagner Act) guarantees the right of private-sector employees to organize into unions and bargain collectively, and to strike. It forbids discrimination against workers for engaging in union activity or filing charges against their employer. For purposes of enforcement it establishes the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees elections for union representation and investigates charges of unfair labor practices.
August, 1935: Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act
This law creates the foundation of the modern U.S. welfare state, by providing federal assistance for the elderly, unemployment insurance, and assistance to children whose families have low income. In later years, particularly the 1960s, the law’s provisions are made more generous, though still not comparable to the generosity of many European welfare systems.
November, 1935: the Committee for Industrial Organization is formed
Later called the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), its purpose is to do what the AFL has failed to do: organize workers in the mass-production industries, such as automobile and steel production, into one big union each. In the following years, such iconic mass unions as the United Autoworkers, the United Electrical Workers, the United Steelworkers, and the United Packinghouse Workers achieve unprecedented successes in their respective industries, and the CIO, having left the AFL, grows to encompass millions of workers by the late 1940s. At long last, the “industrial unionism” dream of the Knights of Labor and the IWW has to some extent been realized.
Winter, 1936-37: Sit-down strike against General Motors in Flint, Michigan
One of the most celebrated events in U.S. labor history, this strike leads to the unionization of much of the automobile industry and thereby the first major victory of the newly formed CIO. The new tactic of occupying the factory—rather than forming a picket line outside—is used to prevent the company from using strikebreakers and to make it harder for police to break up the strike. Within six weeks GM realizes it has no choice but to negotiate with the UAW; the resultant contract gives the union such prestige that in one year it gains 500,000 members.
March 2, 1937: U.S. Steel concedes the unionization of its employees
Since the summer of 1936, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) (of the CIO) has been signing up thousands of steel workers as members, in the first stage of its drive to organize the steel industry. Early in 1937 the head of U.S. Steel, Myron Taylor, secretly meets with John L. Lewis, head of the CIO, and agrees not only to recognize SWOC as a bargaining agent but also to an eight-hour day for employees, a wage increase, seniority protection, and a grievance procedure. These astonishing concessions are due to Taylor’s desire to avoid a strike at a time when Europe is preparing for war and needs to import steel.
May 30, 1937: Memorial Day massacre in Chicago
Chicago police shoot and kill ten unarmed demonstrators (injuring many others) in a crowd of hundreds who have gathered to protest the refusal of small steel manufacturers to negotiate with SWOC. No policeman is prosecuted.
1938: Fair Labor Standards Act is passed
In a sense the culmination of decades of activism, this law mandates an eight-hour day and forty-hour week (with “time-and-a-half” for overtime), the abolition of child labor, and a national minimum wage. It applies to employees whose work relates to interstate commerce. In subsequent decades the law is expanded and improved upon many times, for instance by raising the federal minimum wage and by expanding coverage to some farm workers (in 1966).
1945-46: Postwar strike wave
After the conclusion of World War II, six million workers in the railroad, coal, automobile, oil, steel, electrical, maritime, and telephone industries go on strike—the largest strike wave in U.S. history. The pent-up frustrations of the war years, primary among them wage grievances, erupt in this rank-and-file upsurge met by repression that is not nearly as serious as in 1919. The workers win many of their less-radical demands, but the settlements negotiated by unions, companies, and the federal government set the stage for the conservative “liberal consensus” of the 1950s.
June 23, 1947: Congress passes the Taft-Hartley Act
Perhaps the most significant event in the early backlash against the New Deal and its empowerment of unions, the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act rolls back many of the advances labor has gained by the Wagner Act. It prohibits secondary strikes and boycotts, wildcat strikes, strikes by federal employees, and the “closed shop,” and allows states to pass “right-to-work” laws that ban the “union shop” (in which newly hired employees must become union members within a specified period of time). It also requires union leaders to sign affidavits saying they are not members of the Communist Party, a requirement that effectively purges many of the most militant activists from unions and contributes to the anti-Communist hysteria of the postwar years.
1955: Merger of the AFL and the CIO
In the context of the Cold War, the AFL-CIO is a conservative, bureaucratic organization that shows none of the social movement mentality of the CIO in the 1930s. Under George Meany, it supports U.S. imperialism in Vietnam and Latin America, and takes a generally conservative stance on the civil rights movement and feminism. Later, under Lane Kirkland in the 1980s, it is largely ineffectual in defending workers and unions from conservative attacks.
January 17, 1962: Federal employees win the right to collectively bargain
This landmark executive order signed by John F. Kennedy is a factor in the explosive growth of public-sector unionism in the 1960s and 1970s, as many states follow Kennedy’s example and permit state employees to unionize. The number of public-sector strikes also dramatically increases, even in cases where they are illegal.
June 10, 1963: Kennedy signs the Equal Pay Act
An amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act, this law is intended to end wage disparities between the sexes. It prohibits sex discrimination in the payment of wages, thus allowing women’s pay to rise dramatically in the next fifty years (though on average it remains lower than men’s).
July 2, 1964: Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act
Title VII of this Act outlaws workplace discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, or national origin (age and disability being added later).
Late 1960s–1970s: United Farm Workers organizes workers in California
Under the leadership of César Chávez, the UFW does what Saul Alinsky thought impossible: it organizes tens of thousands of farm workers and forces growers to sign union contracts. This is achieved through such unconventional tactics as mass boycotts (by 1975, 17 million Americans are boycotting grapes), hunger strikes, marches, and community organizing. In 1975 the Agricultural Labor Relations Act is passed in California, guaranteeing farm workers the right to organize, bargain with employers, and vote in state-supervised union elections.
December 29, 1970: Occupational Safety and Health Act becomes law
Before this law, government’s attention to issues of workplace safety has been scattered and minimal. Thousands of workers were killed in the workplace each year, and millions were harmed or disabled. The OSH Act establishes an infrastructure (the OSH Administration, or OSHA) to enforce health and safety regulations.
August, 1981: Air Traffic Controllers strike
The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) goes on strike for better working conditions and higher pay. President Reagan fires the 11,000 employees who have ignored his order to return to work, essentially destroying PATCO and signaling to employers that it’s open season on unions. In the 1980s, the federal government stops enforcing many of the Wagner Act’s provisions to protect workers and unions.
1985: Hormel Foods strike
In one of the longest strikes of the 1980s (lasting ten months), Hormel workers in Austin, Minnesota take a stand against the epidemic of wage cuts occurring in the U.S. manufacturing and food industries. The strike becomes a media sensation and leads to a national boycott of Hormel products, but in the end the workers cannot hold out against the opposition of their parent union (the United Food and Commercial Workers) and Hormel’s determination to defeat them.
Late 1980s: SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign begins
One of the most successful organizing campaigns in recent history, it has its first major victories in Los Angeles and spreads around the country in the succeeding decades. It uses many of the tactics of the United Farmworkers, which draw media attention. The campaign succeeds in raising wages for many thousands of janitors and improving their working conditions.
December 8, 1993: Bill Clinton signs NAFTA into law
The North American Free Trade Agreement between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico continues the neoliberal attack on workers and unions (under the guise of promoting “free markets”). By cutting back numerous regulations and social protections, in the next twenty years it contributes to record income inequality in North America, wage cuts, the loss of a million U.S. jobs, unions’ catastrophic loss of power, the decimation of Mexico’s peasantry and resultant influx of immigrants into the U.S., and the erosion of environmental protections. (See the Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch report “NAFTA’s 20-Year Legacy,” at www.citizen.org.)
November 30–December 1, 1999: Seattle protests occur against the World Trade Organization
Tens of thousands of protesters, including trade unionists, environmentalists, students, and representatives of many left-wing groups, demonstrate and march through the streets of Seattle as the WTO meets downtown. The first major U.S. protest against corporate globalization, it provokes a savage response by the Seattle police force and hostile treatment by the media. Nonetheless, it successfully disrupts WTO negotiations and forces the mainstream media to acknowledge the alter-globalization movement.
February–June, 2011: Protests in Madison, Wisconsin
Over a hundred thousand people demonstrate in and around the Capitol building in protest against Governor Scott Walker’s bill to strip public employees (excluding police and firefighters) of the right to collectively bargain over pensions, health care, hours, safety, sick leave, and vacations, and to limit their pay raises, in addition to ending automatic union dues collection by the state. The bill passes and subsequently survives legal challenges. In the following years anti-union measures continue to pass in other states, as when Michigan and Indiana become “right-to-work” states in 2012.
Fall, 2011: Occupy Wall Street
While not strictly a labor action, this series of protests initiating in New York City and spreading around the world continues the post-NAFTA tradition of organized labor’s allying itself with other progressive forces to achieve common ends. The immediate target of OWS is the growing income inequality in the U.S., but more fundamentally it is directed against the very political economy of neoliberalism. On November 15 the New York protesters are forcibly evicted from Zuccotti Park, and similar crackdowns are coordinated across the country. Nevertheless, OWS succeeds in putting the issue of economic inequality onto the public agenda.
September, 2012: Chicago Teachers Union strike
Rejecting the paradigm of narrow “business unionism” and concessionary bargaining that most unions have followed in recent decades, the CTU embraces a militant, social-movement strategy to fight back against the national assault on public schools and teachers’ unions. Having painstakingly built up community support for teachers and students, the CTU is able to mobilize many thousands of people in picket lines and protest marches through the streets of Chicago to fight for improved public education. Drawing international attention, the strike makes possible what is widely considered a victory for the union in its contract negotiations with the Chicago Public School system.
--What the next chapters in this epic story will be is up to the millions who are fighting for their basic human rights, and to the millions who have yet to join the struggle.