USA : Five Labor Leaders Who Improved Conditions for American Workers
At the beginning of the twentieth century, American laborers often worked long hours for little pay. Many worked under extremely dangerous conditions. About five hundred thousand workers, however, had
joined groups called labor unions, hoping to improve their situation.
Today, Rich Kleinfeldt and Sarah Long tell about five labor leaders who worked to improve conditions for American workers.
In nineteen hundred, the largest national organization of labor unions was the American Federation of Labor. Its head was Samuel Gompers. Gompers had moved to New York with his parents when he was thirteen years old. He was twenty-four when he began working for the local union of cigar makers. He worked for the labor movement for sixty years.
Samuel Gompers had helped create the A.F.L. in the late eighteen eighties. He led the organization for all but one year until his death in nineteen twenty-four. Gompers defined the purpose of the labor movement in America. He also established the method used to solve labor disputes.
Gompers thought unions should work only to increase wages, improve work conditions and stop unfair treatment of workers. He called his method pure and simple unionism.
Samuel Gompers sought immediate change for workers. He used group actions such as strikes as a way to try to force company owners to negotiate.
Gompers was criticized for going to social events with industry leaders, and for compromising too easily with employers. But Gompers believed such actions helped his main goal. He believed if workers were respected, their employers would want to make working conditions better.
Under the leadership of Samuel Gompers, the labor movement won its first small gains. For example, the federal government recognized the right of workers to organize. That happened when union representatives were part of the National War Labor Board during World War One.
John L. Lewis expanded the American labor movement with a campaign he called organizing the unorganized. Lewis was the head of the United Mine Workers of America. He also was the vice-president of the A.F.L.
In nineteen thirty-five, Lewis formed the Committee for Industrial Organization within the A.F.L. He wanted the C.I.O. to organize workers in mass production industries, such as automobile industry. The A.F.L. mainly organized unions of workers who had the same skills. But Lewis believed skilled and unskilled workers in the same industry should be organized into the same union.
Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in nineteen thirty-five. It gave workers the legal right to join unions and to negotiate with employers. John L. Lewis thought it was the right time to press the large industries to recognize workers’ rights.
The A.F.L., however, decided not to support such action and expelled the unions that belonged to the C.I.O. In nineteen thirty-six, the C.I.O. began operating as another national labor organization. Lewis was its leader.
John L. Lewis was an extremely colorful and effective speaker. He had worked as a coal miner and could relate to the most terrible conditions workers faced. More than three million workers joined the C.I.O. in its first year as a separate organization. For the first time, labor won many strikes and permanent improvements in workers conditions.
For many years, presidents, members of Congress, and business leaders considered John L. Lewis the voice of labor. And, American workers saw Lewis as their hero. By the nineteen fifties, the labor movement an established part of American life.
Walter Reuther was the vice president of the C.I.O. under Lewis, and became its president in nineteen fifty-two. Reuther believed unions had a social responsibility. His ideas were partly influenced by his German father who was a socialist.
Walter Reuther was trained to make tools to cut metal. He joined the United Automobile Workers union when it first formed in nineteen thirty-five.
Walter Reuther was president of the United Auto Workers for twenty-three years beginning in nineteen forty-six. He shaped the U.A.W. into one of the most militant and forward-looking unions. He held strikes to gain increased wages for workers, but, at the same time, he expected workers to increase their rate of production. He was the first to link pay raises to productivity increases. Reuther also was greatly concerned about civil rights and the environment.
In nineteen fifty-five, Reuther helped the A.F.L. and C.I.O. re-join as one organization.
Reuther’s ideas were recognized worldwide. But they also brought him enemies. He survived three murder attempts. He said: “You have to make up your mind whether you are willing to accept things as they are or whether you are willing to try to change them.”
A. Philip Randolph is known for combining the labor and civil rights movements. Randolph became involved with unions in nineteen-twenty-five. A group of black workers on passenger trains asked him to organize a union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
Randolph was not a laborer. He was the college educated son of a minister. He published a socialist magazine in New York City. He was known as a fighter for black rights. Randolph strongly believed that economic conditions affected rights and power for African Americans.
For twelve years, Randolph fought the Pullman Company that employed the passenger train workers. In nineteen thirty-five, Pullman finally agreed to negotiate with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Two years later, the porters’ union signed the first labor agreement between a company and a black union.
A. Philip Randolph led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters for forty-three years. In nineteen fifty-seven he became vice president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
Randolph used large group protests to change work conditions. He planned marches on the capital in Washington to protest the unequal treatment of black workers by the government.
In nineteen sixty-three, Randolph planned the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. At this huge peaceful gathering, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Junior made his famous “I have a dream” speech. Within a year the civil rights amendment passed guaranteeing equal rights for blacks and other minorities.
Cesar Chavez created the first farmers union in nineteen sixty-two. That union later became the United Farm Workers of America.
Farm workers had been considered too difficult to organize. They worked during growing seasons. Many farm workers did not speak English or were in the country illegally. Farm workers earned only a few dollars each hour. They often lived in mud shelters and had no waste removal systems. Many farm workers were children.
Cesar Chavez went to school for only eight years. But he read a lot. He was greatly influenced by the ideas of famous supporters of non-violence such as Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi. Chavez led his workers on marches for better pay and conditions. Workers walked hundreds of miles carrying cloth banners with the Spanish words “Viva la Causa” — long live our cause.
Cesar Chavez created a new strike method called a boycott. People refused to buy products of a company accused of treating farm workers badly. Chavez also publicized the dangers of some farm chemicals. Cesar Chavez improved the conditions of farm workers by making their mistreatment a national issue.
Union membership has dropped sharply since its highpoint in the nineteen forties. Yet conditions for American workers continue to improve as employers realize that treating their workers well is good for business. The efforts of leaders of the American labor movement during the past one hundred years continue to improve the lives of millions of workers.