Category Archives: Labor History

Special Issue: American corporations and European labor

Source: Guest editors: William Knox & Alan McKinlay,Labor History, Vol. 51 no. 2, May 2010
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Our understanding of the relationship between American multinationals and European labor has been refracted through two assumptions. The first of these is that American multinational labor strategy has been marked by a consistent adherence to the US domestic model of employment and employee voice mechanisms. While European subsidiaries have been prepared to modify American practices, this has consisted of no more than tactical adaptations rather than representing the decentring of employment norms or the emergence of a truly international, far less global strategy. The second assumption is that American employment practices are derived from strong, highly centralized corporate philosophies – or cultures – that change very little over time. This has often made studies of American multinationals peculiarly, and unconsciously, ahistorical. In no small measure this reflects the closed nature of American corporations in Europe, especially in those without union recognition where there is no legitimate alternative source of information. The ahistorical nature of studies of multinational employment practices is reflected and compounded by methodological choices. Overwhelmingly, studies of multinational employment or work organization are snapshots based on managerial self-reporting. At the very least, this limits the possibility of developing long-run data on, for instance, the dynamics of skill, internal labour markets or the dynamics of employee voice, whether through trade unions or other institutions. This produces temporally ‘flat’ accounts or requires us to make heroic assumptions linking quite different historical moments but with little sense of process. All of the articles in this issue have confronted these questions directly and developed analyses which draw on new sources and examine employment and collective bargaining not simply as ‘problems’ addressed in various ways by American headquarters but as matters negotiated by local management and grassroots campaigning. The result is the beginning of an alternative way of examining multinational employment that regards temporality as essential and ‘local’ bargaining as having its own dynamic not wholly determined by – or as a deviation from – a ‘pure’ American model.

The Haymarket Affair Digital Collection

Source: Chicago Historical Society, 2010

The Chicago Historical Society has created this digital collection to provide on-line access to its primary source materials relating to the Haymarket Affair, a controversial moment in Chicago’s past and a pivotal event in the early history of the American labor movement.

The digital collection presents images of key documents and artifacts in their historical context with a minimum of interpretive information. Much like the witness testimony and exhibits introduced during the Haymarket trial, these primary sources are pieces of evidence which enable the user to reconstruct and interpret the historical events to which they relate.

“A Wagner Act for Public Employees”: Labor’s Deferred Dream and the Rise of Conservatism, 1970-1976

Source: Joseph A. McCartin, Journal of American History, Vol. 95 no. 1, June 2008
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From the abstract:
The explosive rise of public sector unions in the United States in the 1960s and the early 1970s resembled in many ways the breakthrough of industrial unionism in the 1930s. The unionization of teachers, police officers, fire fighters, secretaries, sanitation workers, and other government employees was every bit as sudden and unexpected as the depression-era industrial union upsurge had been. Membership in public sector unions grew tenfold between 1955 and 1975, topping four million by the early 1970s. Moreover, newly organized government workers behaved just as militantly as did auto and steel workers a generation earlier. In 1958 there were a mere 15 public sector strikes recorded in the United States; in 1975 the number hit 478. It is little wonder then that so many observers compared public sector unionism to the rise decades before of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Describing a scene reminiscent of a famous history of the 1930s by Irving Bernstein, the journalist Irwin Ross suggested in 1968 that the upsurge in government workers’ activism had created a “turbulent state” by the late 1960s. Ralph J. Flynn, a lobbyist for the fastest growing public sector union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), also used a depression-era benchmark. Surveying AFSCME’s prospects in 1974 he concluded that “today is 1934 in the public sector.” And, when a Pennsylvania state official tried to understand the unionization of state workers, he also drew on history: “We went through this in the ’30s in the private sector,” he explained. “Now we are going through it in the public.”

Forty Years Since King: The Memphis Sanitation Strike

Source: James Lawson, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, Vol. 5 no. 1, 2008
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April 4, 2008, marks forty years since the tumultuous battle for union rights in Memphis, in which an assassin took the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Coretta Scott King summed up her husband’s work in 1968 by saying, “He gave his life for the poor of the world, the garbage workers of Memphis and the peasants of Vietnam.” To honor and remember the importance of King and the Memphis strike, we reprint excerpts from Rev. James Lawson’s speech to the joint LAWCHA-Southwest Labor Studies Association conference held at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

Reforming Repression: Labor, Anarchy, and Reform in the Shaping of the Chicago Police Department, 1879-1888

Source: Sam Mitrani, Labor, Volume 6, Number 2, Summer 2009
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From the abstract:
In the article “Reforming Repression: Labor, Anarchy, and Reform in the Shaping of the Chicago Police Department, 1879-1888,” Sam Mitrani examines the dramatic strengthening of the Chicago Police Department in the 1880s. Beginning in 1879, Mayor Carter Harrison pulled the department back from its least popular activities, such as enforcing temperance regulations and breaking strikes, to increase the legitimacy of the force. This was part of Harrison’s policy of class collaboration aimed at calming the tension in the city after the strike and riot of 1877. His administration also hired hundreds of new officers and funded an extensive police telegraph system. Meanwhile, the city’s workers were organizing in new unions, anarchist organizations were growing, and the city’s business leaders were preparing for new clashes by organizing themselves in a citizens’ association and an organization known as the Commercial Club. When a new strike wave began in 1885 and his class collaborationist policies ceased to ensure civic peace, Harrison deployed the newly strengthened force against strikers and their anarchist allies, with telling effect. After the Haymarket bombing and the repression of the anarchists in 1886, the police department further consolidated and reinforced itself with increased support from the city’s business leaders and their organizations. The article concludes that the Chicago Police Department was largely built in this era in reaction to the labor movement. The department’s main task was to contain that movement and protect “order” as defined by businessmen.

Trade Union Publications: The Official Journals, Convention Proceedings and Constitutions of International Unions and Federations, 1850-1941

Source: Lloyd G. Reynolds and Charles C. Killingsworth, Baltimore, The John Hopkins Press, 1944

The Catherwood Library and ILR School at Cornell are pleased to again make available an extremely important index of major labor union publications, long out of print. It is Lloyd G. Reynolds and Charles C. Killingsworth’s Trade Union Publications: The Official Journals, Convention Proceedings and Constitutions of International Unions and Federations, 1850-1941. Baltimore, The John Hopkins Press, 1944.

This remarkable reference tool is in three volumes. It provides a subject index to the vast literature of the American union movement from its birth to World War II where none existed before and for which none has been created since.
See also:
Volume I
Volume II
Volume III

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
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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.