Building the Foundation of Unions in US   Leave a comment

“Those who tell you of trade-unions bent on raising wages by moral suasion alone are like people who tell you of tigers that live on oranges.”

– Henry George, 1891


Prior to World War I, unionists were still on a relatively short leash. Starting in 1842, unions had the clear legal right to exist, and workers could join such “self-help” organizations, but employers were under no obligation to “bargain” with these unions.

The courts generally restricted union tactics by prosecuting threats of violence, violence itself, mob action, and interference with voluntary trade. Further, the courts tended to make little distinction between business and union “restraints on competition.”

So, for example, in 1908, they ruled that union actions in a boycott organized by the United Hatters of Danbury, CT, against the products of D. E. Loewe and Company were in restraint of trade under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, and fined individual union members responsible for the union’s acts. In that era, unions never incorporated lest they be held liable as an organization for damages they caused. Unionists, enraged that they be held ot the same standards as any other American citizen, demanded governmental privilege and mounted persistent and intensive campaigns for favorable legislation.

In 1912, Congress assisted the union movement with the Lloyd-LaFollette Act to compel collective bargaining by the US Post Office, encouraging postal-union membership. In 1914, Congress passed the Clayton Act with provisions to exempt unions from the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act, restrict the use of court injunctions in labor disputes and declare picketing and similar union tactics as legal. Samuel Gompers hailed the Clayton Act as labor’s “magna carta”, but subsequent court interpretations neutered the pro-union provisions.

The “national emergency” of US entry into World War I strengthened cartel-like policies throughout the American government. Unions being a cartel benefited.

“The panoply of procedures developed by the War Labor Board and the War Labor Policies Board provided the basis in later years for a series of enactments culminating in the Wagner National Labor Relations Act of 1935.” Willian E. Leuchtenburg, historian

The Wilson Administration’s nascent deep state set up the conditions that would later be ruled as precedent  for later laws. With World War I’s demands on industry and the government’s interventions on behalf of unionists, union membership skyrocketed, hitting 12% of the labor force.

Image result for image of us unions in 1920sThe War Labor Board and the War Labor Policies Board, modeled on a directive by Franklin D. Roosevelt who represented the United States Navy on the board, proclaimed governmental support of unions and enforced pro-union measures on industry. Among other requirements, the boards ordered establishment of “work councils” composed of employee representatives. When businesses argued against these measures, the US government nationalized them.

The government actually created the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen union and forced lumbermen to join in its battle against the radical leftist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, known as the “Wobblies”). This was my grandfather Joseph’s only foreway into unionism. The Loyal Legion collapsed after the war despite government efforts to keep it alive. Many loggers had already been members of company unions, which had a close relationship with management, while others preferred the independent unoin system that represented workers in a single company. Both these alternative forms of collective bargaining were banned by the 1935 Wagner Act.

The War Labor boards were forerunners to the federal labor boards used to administer Section 7(a) of NIRA and the subsequent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) created by the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act of 1935.

The end of the war ended pro-union interventions. By 1924, the union share of the labor force had slipped to 8%, and by 1933 had eroded to the same 6% as thirty years before.

The “roaring” 20s was a time when working your way out of poverty by your own hard work as entirely within the reach of any man, so unionism became less attractive. Peacetime help for unions was not far off.

Image result for image of us unions in 1920sThe first durable help for “private-sector” unionism was the Railway Labor Act of 1926. The labor disputes that erupted periodically on the railroads were highly visible, violent, unpopular, and politically embarrassing. Although the interstate commerce clause of the United States Constitution, as interpreted then, restricted the ability of the national government to intervene in most economic affairs, Congress had the unchallenged power to regulate interstate commerce. Claiming transportation to be a vital national interest, a sequence of federal laws beginning in 1888 regulated railway labor matters, and Congress passed the 1926 law in almost the identical form agreed on by the major railroads and unions. If that sounds like collusion to you, it probably was. The act, amended in 1934, essentially dictated collective bargaining for all interstate railroads and set up machinery for governmental intervention in labor disputes.

This was an obvious example of monopoly intervention on behalf of an industry. The larger railraods were already unionized. They found it comfortable to impose compulsory collective bargaining on all interstate railroads, some of which had resisted union pressure better than others. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), in turn, fixed freight rates for railroads based on “costs,” which were higher because of unions. This eliminated competition, putting the larger railways at an advantage over the smaller, more competitive railways. Thus railroad wage and price determination was transferred from the marketplace to the political arena.


Posted September 9, 2016 by aurorawatcherak in History

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