Why did industrial trade unions develop so late in US History?

That the Industrial Unions organized in the United States between 1932 and 1936 around the United Autoworkers and gathered in the CIO emerged comparatively late compared to other western economies is undeniable. It was not that the United States did not have a Union tradition. The Molly Maguires were active in the Pennsylvania anthracite fields in the mid-nineteenth century, for example, and the Knights of Labour counted their membership in the hundreds of thousands. The emergence of the American Federation of Labour also showed the appetite amongst skilled workers for the development of guild-style Unions. The Industrial Workers of the World were at one point a serious movement. If northern industry was one of the justifications for northern success in the 1861-65 war, it is difficult to see how it was unsuited to unions.

However, five factors in particular stopped the development of successful mass industrial unions. The first was the frequent use of federal power to support bosses and companies (which were legal persons in American law, with access to the Bill of Rights) such as the interventions by President Cleveland in the Pullman Strike in 1884, or that of President Hayes against railwaymen in the eighteen seventies. Responding to state pressures but also taking their lead from the federal executive, State Governors such as Governor Coolidge in Massachussetts, or various Governors of Illinois, took action by using the National Guard against strikers frequently. This had the effect of suppressing the most powerful weapon of industrial trade unions, which is the violent withdrawal of labour accompanied by picketing.

This use of federal power was accompanied by a reluctance on the part of the Supreme Court to enquire into anti-union agreements or state laws that had the effect of limiting socialist or trade union groups. In the Adair case in 1921, the Court refused to strike down so-called ‘yellow dog’ contracts that allowed companies not to recognize or to work with unions. This made life particularly difficult for industrial unions, as they depended on the organization of workers with no evident skills other than dexterity or muscle, who with no union to support them could not fall back on the inherent value of their labour to bargain with.

This restriction was not lifted until the National Industrial Recovery Act partially released it by encouraging unions and collective bargaining agreements, and was more or less pushed out of industrial life by the Wagner Act in 1935. It is still noticeable, however, that where the Wagner Act did not apply—in the service sector, or on railroads, or in agricultural industries, for example—sectors remained unorganized. It was a restriction coupled with the use of the Sherman anti-Trust Act against unions, which were characterized as a conspiracy against the interests of a contractual party not to perform a contract, and the effect was chilling.

A third reason for the lack of development of industrial unions in the United States is in fact a double one. Where unions were organized, employers, unions and prevailing social attitudes, or church organizations, found it impossible to overcome ethnic and racial differences in meaningful ways. For example, the Knights of Labour did attempt in the 1880s to unite different ethnicities, and even counted 60,000 black workers amongst its membership; but it was ferocious in its denunciation of Oriental Labour and southern European immigration, which substantially hindered its organization as a mass industrial force. Similarly, Henry Ford played on racism, and anti-Semitism, in his organization of Detroit when he produced a model car company that others followed.

The ‘double’ here is the connection between Pullman and Detroit. It is that US companies tended to organize whole towns on the basis of a nexus of company and worker that excluded unions. Workers in Pullman, for example, shopped at a company store, received company credit if they got it at all, and housed their family in company homes. When the famous strike developed, they faced losing everything, and this was a powerful restraint. By playing on the intimate things of life—race, ethnicity, identity (Ford’s agents checked the ‘morality’ of workers down to their drinking and sexual habits) and by providing homes and schools, companies gained a powerful grip over individuals that only the Great Depression could break.

American companies in the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era were also not above the employment of violence against workers, as the bloody organization of the United Auto Workers or the Teamsters shows. This was a serious bar to union organization too. More importantly America—a highly mobile country of immigrants with no federal welfare system and a high degree of religiosity—was arguably the most hostile of Western countries to union ideas and socialism. Sacco, Vanzetti, the Palmer raids, and the prosperous careers of anti-communists and populist but anti-radical preachers in the United States all attest to the inability of socialist Unions like the IWW to gain much of a foothold amongst the mass of American working men.

The Casey Jones case is illustrative. Jones was lauded by Union groups as a railywayman who had died rather than endanger his passengers, by staying in the cabin of a runaway train to slow it down. His name has become familiar to post-CIO organizers, even though he belonged to the late nineteenth century. Jones was only going so fast, however, because he was ambitious, and wished to meet company targets and promotion, which he had honourably and successfully sought. He was not a union man in the proper sense of the word and saw no real place for strikes or industrial organization.

In agriculture, American bosses solved the Union dilemma by importing huge numbers of cheap Hispanic labourers or using black people against whom white workers were turned; in aircraft construction, black labourers and white were subject to the argument that they were hired and fired in huge numbers as part of a cyclical market, but workers could keep jobs by competing with each other to boost productivity. All of these factors tended to undermine Unions.


What elevated trade unions was a trinity of factors; the rise of the Roosevelt Administration’s unexpected radicalism, particularly in the NIRA and Wagner Acts; the decoupling of socialism from unionism by the 1920s; and the organization of the unions in the Auto industry and CIO. Taken together, these made industrial unions powerful and capable of maintaining their position, and this (along with World War two and its effect on the industrial economy and power of the Federal Government) was why the CIO, with the AFL, could become a major feature of American life by 1955.

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