Looking Back, Looking Ahead

LaborHistory Month

Volume CIX, No. 5May, 2009

>Edan Dhanraj
Click for larger image.
Geraldine Blankinship and Olen Hamm, veterans of the 1937 Flint sitdown strike, were honored by their modern-day counterparts in Detroit in February. To the left and right of the Flint strikers are two workers from Republic Windows and Doors. Last December, workers there had occupied their factory for a week in order to win back pay and benefits owed to them. Seventy-two years earlier, workers in Flint, Michigan, successfully used a sitdown strike to win a first-ever union contract with General Motors. This
heroic act led to the unionization of auto workers all across the country for the first time. Photo by Barbara Ingalls.

Power concedes nothing without a demand. Frederick Douglass was right when he wrote that.

Historically, the labor movement has always gained leverage over big business’s corporate agenda when we mobilize our most important resource, the members.

Either by engaging in the most pressing political conversations of the times with progressive reformers and intellectuals, or by directly communicating with public officials, the labor movement has left its mark upon, and continues to positively influence, the creation of pro-worker legislation.

Consider the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the piece of federal legislation that mandates a national minimum wage, requires a maximum work week of 40 hours, establishes an overtime wage rate as one and a half times the rate of regular pay, and prohibits employment of minors in “oppressive child labor.”

Unexamined popular myth proclaims this law solely as the result of New Deal reform efforts led by F.D.R.

In reality, it took a century of activism by the labor movement and its progressive allies to persuade key decision makers in government to enact this legislation.

As the nation gradually moved from an agrarian to industrial society, union members understood that long working hours creates unemployment and lowers wages by placing more workers in competition with each other.

Those most willing to work the longest hours and for the least pay threatened everyone’s ability to obtain employment.

In response, the major labor organizations from the pre-Civil War Era to the New Deal fought for and won shorter working hours by utilizing the oldest weapon of labor: the strike.

Through these actions, labor won legislation from states which set precedents for the federal government to respond.

In 1868, Congress passed a law enacting an eight-hour day for Federal government employees and in 1916 the Adamson Act established the eight hour day for railroad workers with additional pay for overtime.

These laws, however, lacked adequate enforcement to ensure their integrity.

Furthermore, employers attacked labor’s right to strike and form unions by: issuing injunctions against striking workers (court orders banning strikes), requiring workers to sign “yellow-dog” contracts (in which the employee agrees, as a condition of employment, not to join a union), and petitioning mayors, governors, and presidents to call in militia, national guard, and armed forces to quell strike activity.

As industrial unrest began to tear apart the social fabric of our nation, progressive reformers and intellectuals who believed industrial peace as essential to democracy, joined labor’s cause.

The labor movement gained much influence in the Roosevelt administration, aligned with reformers like:

  • Jane Adams and Florence Kelly, advocates for the advancement’s of women’s working conditions, the end of child labor and the rights of African-Americans;
  • Pro-labor lawyers such as Felix Frankfurter, who recognized the need to address wealth inequality associated with the Great Depression;
  • Staunch pro-labor public officials like Senator Robert La Follete of Wisconsin, who set up the La Follete Civil Rights Committee to expose techniques taken to undermine workers’ ability to form unions.

As the ideas of the progressive reformers and union leaders spread through the halls of academia, pages of scholarly journals, newspapers, and magazines, and opinions of legal discourse and public policy, a politicized culture developed that saw the restoration and protection of workers’ rights as essential to a democratic society.

The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 created the National Recovery Administration, an institution similar to President Wilson’s U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations — a tripartite board consisting of representatives from labor, business, and the public — to place wage and price floors and a ceiling over hours and working conditions, known as “industry codes.”

The Roosevelt administration understood that organized labor’s participation in this process was vital to its success, for as historian Nelson Lichtenstein says, labor “possessed an intimate, internal knowledge of business conditions. Only they could ‘enforce’ government mandated minimum-wage standards and maximum hour regulation.” 

Therefore, Section 7(a) of the NRA required that employees “have the right to organize and bargain collectively by representatives of their own choosing…free from the interference, restraint, or coercion from their employers.” Between the two years of the NRA’s legality, 1933 — 1935, workers participated in 5,500 strikes to keep employers honest to the NIRA’s industry codes.

When the Supreme Court’s determined in A.L.A.Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States (1935) that the industry codes set up in the NIRA were in excess of congressional power under the Interstate Commerce Clause listed in the United States Constitution, the NIRA provisions ensuring maximum hours and the right for workers to organize lost their legitimacy.

By 1936, when Roosevelt ran for a second term, union leaders knew his defeat would be detrimental for the entire labor movement, for although workers won the right to organize unions in the Wagner Act of 1935, employers refused to comply with the law and used aggressive anti-union tactics to ensure their worksites remained union free.

The Congress of Industrial Organization (C.I.O.) took decisive political action.

Leaders of the CIO founded Labor’s Non-Partisan League in effort to funnel support to the president’s campaign by mobilizing workers to vote for Roosevelt, who openly advocated a pro-worker agenda.

The strategy worked.

Roosevelt won millions of working class votes and garnered over 60 percent of the popular vote on way to a landslide victory.

But even though workers now received both popular and governmental support, big business and their political allies opposed to New Deal legislation still remained a threat to the labor movement.

The American Liberty League, an organization made up of centrist Democrats, challenged the legality of the Wagner Act in courts until the Supreme Court declared it legal in 1937.

Meanwhile, employer organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers joined with an unofficial coalition in Congress intent on weakening organized labor’s political strength and other New Deal initiatives they felt imperiled the profitability of business.

The alliance funded and campaigned for officials willing to push a pro-business agenda and suppress government control of the economy.

As the economy dipped into a recession and unemployment rose from 14.3 percent in 1937 to 19.0 percent in 1938, employers argued that organizing and strike activities of the labor movement created the economic downturn.

Soon, this argument became legal doctrine, as the Supreme Court’s May 16, 1938 decision in NLRB vs. MacKay Radio & Telegraph Co. Allowed employers to hire replacement workers during strikes and retain their employment after the strike ended, without any obligation to reinstate the striking workers.

Despite the onslaught from reactionary forces, and only one month after the Mackay decision, enough congressional support remained to support passage of the FLSA in June of 1938.

Three main reasons explain why and point towards actions the labor movement can use today to help pass important pro-worker legislation (like the Employee Free Choice Act and the United States National Health Insurance Act) and stir the imaginations of working people with a vision of social change worth struggling over.

An active, diverse, and mobilized rank and file took direct action at both worksites and in the political process.

When they were not ringing doorbells, gaining signatures, or registering voters, well organized unionists demonstrated through collective power through major mass actions like the Flint sit-down strike of 1937.

The success at Flint spawned 477 sit down strikes during the course of 1937 and recruited 400,000 members to the UAW.

Union members’ immediate involvement in the political process built strong unions whose programs for economic development directly represented the interests and priorities of working people.

This wave of activity, once perceived as “militancy,” was understood as an expression for the need of “Industrial Democracy” by progressive reformers.

Influential reformers like Roosevelt’s pick for Secretary of Labor, Francis Perkins, who believed government had to take an active role in protecting the rights of all working people.

She recognized that government enforced labor standards would protect nonunionized workers and raise labor standards for all.

Because of her connection to the labor movement as an activist social worker in the state of New York, she urged President Roosevelt to meet with labor leader to discuss the creation of a labor standards bill.

At the same time, labor leaders cajoled enough support from the Democratic Party to bolster political power.

The process entailed lobbying leading officials in Washington D.C., advocating the role of mobilized unionists at Democratic Party conventions, and forming alliances with other progressive reform groups such as the National Child Labor Committee and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to win support from public officials to pass the FLSA.