Category Archives: Labor History

The Labor Vision of the Thirteenth Amendment

Source: Lea S. Vandervelde, University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Vol. 138, No. 437, 2009

From the abstract:
The conventional understanding of the Thirteenth amendment is that it abolished the particular antebellum southern institution that subjugated black persons as slaves. Yet, the congressional debates reveal a much more expansive vision of labor reform. This theme has largely been lost in modern interpretation. Historical events rarely result from a single cause, and a single idea rarely drives legislative action. Nonetheless, beside the more religious abolitionist arguments, one finds numerous speakers who focused on labor conditions. Consequently, this Article aims to recapture the strong pro-labor theme that runs consistently through the debates.

As a whole, the Reconstruction debates reflect a desire to improve all workers’ status by recognizing the dignity of labor, guaranteeing workers a wide range of opportunities for advancement, and raising the floor of legal rights accorded all working men. The pattern of discourse in the debates reveal a structure formed by three types of statements. The first addresses the historical need to rid employment relations of the master’s patriarchal dominion over all laborers in his household and to accord the employee a realm of family and personal privacy free from employer control. The second describes the core concept of autonomy for laborers in their social and economic relations with employers. The final group targets certain specific labor practices as inconsistent with the spirit of labor autonomy. This three part configuration is useful in exploring the amendment’s reach in restructuring baseline rights in the modem employment relation. The Reconstruction debates constitute an important resource because they record the original attempt to mandate constitutionally a minimum level of worker protection.

U.S. Public Sector Labor Relations: A Historical Perspective

Source: Amanda Cuba, HR News, Vol. 75 no. 4, April 2009
(subscription required) (scroll down)

As recently as 50 years ago, labor relations in the U.S. public sector were extremely disorganized, said Walter Pellegrini, who is on the board of the National Public Employer Labor Relations Association, which has more than 2,900 members and provides networking opportunities for HR professionals. A public sector management advocate for 30 years, Pellegrini said that a mere half century ago, “any labor relations that went on was by forward-thinking employers. In the public sector any recognition and formal dealing with unions was
done predominantly by Democratic politicians as another source of bloc votes.”

Unions were rare but not unheard of in the public sector until a few decades earlier. While the National Education Association was established in 1857 and the Fraternal Order of Police started in 1915, former NPELRA general counsel James Baird said the early days of government employee organizing were a rough time for employees everywhere. Most workers had few real options for seeking better benefits, pay increases and many of the other amenities they desired.

Labor vs. Labor

Source: March of Time, Newsreels, Vol. 3, Episode 2, September 30, 1936

From a summary:
Organized labor began to grow rapidly during the Great Depression. The growth and expansion into “mass production” industries brought in unskilled and semi-skilled workers who did not fit into the traditional craft union model of the American Federation of Labor. The result was a splitting off in 1935 of the CIO which practiced industrial unionism, the subject of this video. The split was not healed for 20 years. More recently, the AFL-CIO has again seen a splitting off of major unions in the Change to Win coalition.

OSHA–the (not quite) lost films

Source: OSHA, 1980

If ever there was evidence of a sea change in labor relations, it is these lost OSHA films from late in the Carter administration. The life of these films was short: made in 1980 and destroyed in 1981. They’re great 30 minutes movies commissioned by OSHA, have Studs Terkel on narration, Johnny Paycheck on the soundtrack, and discuss both the history and significance of occupational disease and regulation. They actually show workers taking the issues into their own hands and using government regulations and agencies to prevent occupational disease and injury. The films are:
“Worker to Worker,” “Can’t Take No More,” and “The Story of OSHA.”

When Reagan appointed Thorne G. Auchter to head OSHA in 1981, he apparently had the films recalled and destroyed. A few renegade union folks withheld their copies, which circulated in bootleg fashion. They are now available on the internet and are a fabulous resource for both teaching and research.

– Link to the films on the Internet Archive

– Link to the films on YouTube

OAH Hosts National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites

OAH Hosts National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites
Source: National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites, Organization of American Historians

The OAH serves as an online host to the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites (NCWHS) web site. NCWHS supports and promotes the preservation and interpretation of sites and locales that bear witness to women’s participation in American life. The Collaborative makes women’s contributions to history visible so that all women’s experiences and potential are fully valued.

Women Working, 1870-1930

Source: Harvard University Library, Open Collections Program

Women Working, 1800 – 1930 focuses on women’s role in the United States economy and provides access to digitized historical, manuscript, and image resources selected from Harvard University’s library and museum collections. The collection features approximately 500,000 digitized pages and images including:
• 7,500 pages of manuscripts
• 3,500 books and pamphlets
• 1,200 photographs

The Party of Lincoln and the Politics of State Fair Employment Practices Legislation in the North, 1945-1964

Source: Anthony S. Chen, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 112, No. 6
(subscription required)

From the abstract:
From 1945 to 1964, more than a score of northern states passed laws mandating non-discrimination in employment. Why did some states pass such fair employment practice (FEP) laws much more slowly than other states? This article presents archival and statistical evidence that partisan control of policy-making institutions – namely, Republican control of veto points in the legislative process – is associated with a substantial reduction in the likelihood that a state would pass FEP legislation, even when controlling for potentially confounding variables. This finding casts doubt on the leading account of the electoral realignment that began in the mid-1960s and culminated in the Reagan-Bush years. Well before the advent of affirmative action, key numbers of GOP office-holders – allied with organized business and motivated by a free-market, anti-regulatory ideology – worked successfully to block the adoption of color-blind laws mandating formal racial equality.

The Memphis Strike: Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign

Source: Michael Honey, Poverty & Race, Vol. 16 no. 2, March-April 2007

On February 12—Lincoln’s Birthday—Gillis and others on the sewer and drainage crew had had enough. They and nearly 1,300 black men in the Memphis Department of Public Works, giving no notice to anyone, went on strike. Little did they imagine that their decision would challenge generations of white supremacy in Memphis and have staggering consequences for the nation.

“Fighting for Our Share of the American Pie”: The 1985 Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Strike

Source: Jennifer L. Worley, Labor Studies Journal, Vol. 32 no. 1, March 2007
(subscription required)

This article analyzes the 1985 Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel strike and places it in the context of the declining American steel industry and deteriorating relationship between the steel companies and the United Steelworkers of America. Within the hostile 1980s economic and political climate, steelworkers at Wheeling-Pitt unleashed a repertoire of bargaining tactics that would help them achieve at least some of their demands while preventing the company’s liquidation. Besides exploring the reasons why steelworkers struck a bankrupt company and how they secured their demands, the article demonstrates how the strike offered new strategies for negotiating with capital at a time when unions’ options were severely limited.

The Past as Prologue? A Brief History of the Labor Movement in the United States

Source: Joseph Adler, Public Personnel Management, Winter 2006, Volume 35, no. 4

Of the approximately 20 million public employees in the United States, more than eight million are either members of or represented by labor unions—a penetration rate of just over 40 percent. What is remarkable about this phenomenal growth is that most of the expansion of union activity in government has occurred within the last 40 years, and almost mirrors the decline of union strength in the private sector.

The rise and fall of labor in the private sector is a backdrop to the growth of public sector collective bargaining. Explanations for the dramatic increase in government union activity can be explored from a number of different perspectives. Current public policy efforts to reform civil service and allow managers greater flexibility are seen by some researchers as having the potential to impact the ability of public sector unions to represent their members effectively.