A Brief History of the Labor Movement

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How did the U.S. labor movement develop? Professor Jeff Cowie of Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations gives Liane Hansen a working lesson in American history.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

In New York City on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, a parade and a picnic were held to bring together the city's workers. This weekend, 124 years later, Labor Day is well established as a celebration of America's workforce and of the backyard barbeque.

For a look back at the early days of the American labor movement, we called Jeff Cowie. He's an Associate Professor of Labor History at Cornell University. Welcome to the show, Professor Cowie.

Professor JEFF COWIE (Cornell University): Thanks, Liane.

HANSEN: Take us back to 1882. What was it that got the first so-called Labor Day going?

Prof. COWIE: Well, the origins of Labor Day have sort of multiple strands. They were the types of parades you just mentioned boiling up around the country, especially in New York City.

But then there were also some very key developments, most notably the Pullman Strike, which really rocked the country; it was a major strike to organize the railway industry. And President Grover Cleveland had to call out the troops - 12,000 troops - to suppress the strike. And in order to sort of buy himself a little political capital he decided, okay, it's time to have Labor Day, and he made it an official holiday, six days after calling out the troops on the railway workers.

HANSEN: Hmm. So workers getting together to celebrate, but on the other hand there would seem to be some concern about workers becoming organized in such a way.

Prof. COWIE: That was the question of the Gilded Age. To what extent could all of these masses of unskilled workers teaming in from southern and eastern Europe, to what extent could those workers join with the native-born white skilled trades who sort of had a lock on the labor movement at that time?

And what happened to Pullman was, the unskilled and the skilled sort of came together to organize an entire industry.

HANSEN: What happened to the labor movement after that? I mean what would you consider to be its heyday?

Prof. COWIE: Well, it had multiple heydays and each heyday sort of took a different form. But the probably apex of it all came in the '30s and '40s, where organized labor took its giant step and went from sort a brewing question about, well, how much power workers would have, to institutional form in the creation of the CIO and modern industrial relations mechanisms and machinery we have today.

HANSEN: What happened after the 1930s? Because labor does not appear to have as much power as it had then. What happened?

Prof. COWIE: Well, that's the big question. You have the dramatic rise in those miracle years of the '30s and '40s, from obscurity to 35% of the labor force after World War II. And then it's the amount of power and the density of union membership in industry began to trickle down and down slowly and then fell off very precipitously in the late '70s and '80s and '90s.

And there is plenty blame to go around for that, some serious failures of the labor movement to get into organizing service sector industries. And then there is some very serious external reasons, changes in labor law, employers becoming much more militant and aggressive in making sure that unions did not have a place in modern workshops.

HANSEN: Many of the issues have been addressed, but continued to be addressed. Minimum wage, for example, health and safety standards. What do you see? What role do you see the labor movement playing now?

Prof. COWIE: Well, I think that's one of the biggest questions pending right now. I mean you mentioned minimum wage. For instance, minimum wage is at a 50-year-low. It's a shadow of its former self. Occupational safety and health is also weak. Union density is low. All of the protections workers have depended upon for the last few generations have all but dissolved.

And now the question is to what extent will organized labor me able to rebuild? And basically I would argue we're in a new gilded age. It's a place where the workforce is very fragmented by skill and by race and by immigration status and these sorts of things, and the question will - will they be able to come together to make another great leap forward like they did before?

HANSEN: Jeff Cowie is an Associate Professor of Labor History at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations and Cornell University. Thanks a lot for your time.

COWIE: My pleasure. Thank you, Liane.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Male: (Singing): There once was a union maid, she never was afraid of goons and ginks and company thinks and a deputy sheriffs who made the rage. She went to the union hall, when a maidenette was called and when the legion boys come round she always stood her ground.

CHORUS: Oh you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union, I'm sticking to the union, I'm sticking to the union. Oh you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union, I'm sticking to the union till the day I die.

Unidentified Male: (Singing) This union maid was wise to the tricks of company spies, she couldn't be fooled by a company stool she'd always organize - the guys. She'd always get her way when she stuck for better pay, she'd show her card to the national guard and this is what she'd say.

CHORUS: Oh you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union, I'm sticking to the union, I'm sticking to the union. Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union, I'm sticking to the union till the day I die.

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