The Evolving History of Organized Labor

The secession this week of the largest union group within the AFL-CIO is not the first splinter that labor has suffered this century. NPR Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr asks whether there are lessons to be learned from history.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This week's split in the AFL-CIO is the biggest rift in organized labor in decades, and it has NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr thinking about the history of the labor movement.

DANIEL SCHORR:

Mine was what you might call a union family. My widowed mother was sustained by David Dubinsky's Garment Workers Union. My brother organized social workers in St. Louis. Aunt Ethel(ph) was in the Hat Makers Union. I was an early member of the American Newspaper Guild and thus came to witness the first great rupture in the house of labor.

The big industrial unions--coal, steel, autos--began to challenge the domination of the long-established craft unions: carpenters, plumbers and electricians. Finally, in 1935, an intemperate John L. Lewis, head of the Miners, stormed out of the AFL convention in Atlantic City after an altercation on the floor. He sent a curt letter of resignation as vice president to President Bill Green, and later he pulled the Miners out of the federation with a four-word message: `Green, we disaffiliate. Lewis.' So it was born the CIO, the Congress of Industrial Organizations. In the Newspaper Guild, we elite journalists had to open our ranks to clerical and even maintenance workers, which strengthened our hand in contract negotiations with newspaper proprietors.

The AFL and the CIO coexisted for 20 years, until 1955. And with Green and Lewis now both gone, succeeded by a more forward-looking George Meany and Walter Reuther, unity returned to the house of labor and gave some reality to the union song "Solidarity Forever."

But time has not stood still for organized labor. The ratio of union members in the total work force is down to 12.5 percent from 24 percent in 1973. The service sector has been growing, and the blue collar no longer dominates the employment scene. The biggest union is the Service Employees Union, headed by the dynamic Andrew Stern. Now that it's out of the federation and with the disaffection of the Teamsters, organized labor has suffered a grievous blow. The question is: Will it manage, as it did a half-century ago, to adjust to new conditions and come together again? This is Daniel Schorr.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): And this is National Public Radio.

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