The Seven-and-a-Half Cent Solution: The Birth of the Labor Movement in America

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By Gretchen Douma, Arts Writer

In 1955, The Pajama Game took home the Tony Award for Best Musical. Who would have thought that a musical humorously focusing on the labor troubles at a pajama factory would have been such a success?

But consider this. That same year, the two most powerful unions in the United States merged. The American Federation of Labor, founded in 1886 and the Committee for Industrial Organization, founded in 1935 joined forces to become the AFL-CIO, working to expand the country’s union movement and to more effectively champion workers’ rights. So maybe a musical about labor relations was a concept whose time had come.

In fact, the union movement in America precedes this milestone by more than a few decades. The birth of a united labor movement in the United States dates back to the late 1800s. A significant milestone took place in 1881 when carpenters, cigar makers, steel workers, merchant seamen, printers and delegates from the Knights of Labor, inspired by the British Trades Union Congress, met in Pittbsurgh and formed the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions (FOTLU). Led by Samuel L. Gompers, the FOTLU had as one of its chief goals the establishment of the eight-hour work day.

It is easy to forget just how many aspects of modern workplace life we owe to the early labor movement. The eight-hour work day, federal minimum wage, workplace health and safety regulations, the right to strike, boycott and peacefully protest, the right to bargain collectively—all are the result of efforts by the American labor movement to protect working men and women.

The progress of the American labor movement has been one of fits and starts from the very beginning. The founding in Chicago in 1905 of the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW; known as “Wobblies” for short) galvanized the most radical elements of the labor movement, bringing together self-avowed socialists, anarchists, Marxists and radical trade unionists from all over the United States. From the outset, the IWW and the AFL were fiercely at odds about the correct tactics for making change.

labor-movementsFor every success, labor’s stride forward was thwarted by pressures from employers and the political and economic realities of the times. We took a step back with the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire which killed 150 New York workers, and another step back as a result of the 1912 “Bread and Roses” strike, when immigrant textile workers exposed the terrible pay and devastating working conditions in American factories. These events helped garner public support for the protesting workers.

But following World War I, a combination of often hysterical fear of “Bolsheviks,” economic depression, and creeping unemployment fueled public anti-union sentiment and anti-labor actions. Strike-breaking, blacklisting and vigilantism ran rampant. The Seattle General Strike of 1919 is just one such example. The first general strike the country had ever seen, it was a remarkable demonstration of solidarity between workers from across diverse industries and trades. In the space of four days, 65,000 workers walked off their jobs. What began as a protest against the low wages paid to shipyard workers effectively brought the city to a stand-still. But actions by local government officials, anti-union sentiment from the public, and pressure from the International AFL (which feared that the ongoing conflict would damage union-organizing efforts in other parts of the country) eventually broke the strike. What began on February 6 was over by February 10; however, the strike’s legacy of change through protest remains a vital part of Seattle’s psyche to this day.

It wasn’t until 1935 that Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act. This law set collective bargaining as national policy required by law, mandated secret ballots for workers voting on whether to unionize, and protected union members from employer intimidation and harassment. That same year, support from the AFL and the CIO helped the passage of national social programs including Social Security, unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation, and a federal minimum wage.

The late ‘30s into the 1940s was a period of strong union growth and labor activity, and in 1946, the country saw the largest wave of strikes in U.S. history to date. In 1947, in reaction to what was seen as unfair practices on the part of the strikers, the Taft-Hartley Act was passed specifically to curtail certain types of union-driven boycott activities. Following the end of World War II and into the early 1950s, the American labor movement was splintering, as those with far left or suspected Communist leanings were expelled from the CIO. However, in 1955, the AFL and CIO made the decision to merge, bolstering the efforts and political clout of both organizations and the labor movement in general.

The 1960s brought a decade of social and political change. In 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice and the passage of the Equal Pay Act banning wage discrimination based on gender were enacted. In 1964, the U.S. saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act banning institutional forms of racism. Fueled by the unfair wages and working conditions plaguing California itinerant farm workers and buoyed by the energy of the Civil Rights movement, Cesar Chavez formed the National Farm Workers Association, organizing a series of successful strikes against grape growers. The NFWA later joined the AFL-CIO as the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee.

Change continued to come, but come slowly. It took until 1970 for Congress to enact the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), authorizing the Secretary of Labor to establish and enforce workplace health and safety standards. Between 1970 and 2000, more organized labor groups raised their voices to protest workplace discrimination including the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance and Pride at Work. As international trade has grown, especially in the latter half of the 20th century, the issues facing American workers and employers alike have become ever more complex. The arguments for and against the NAFTA agreement are just one example of that complexity. The fight for a seven-and-a-half cent raise at the center of The Pajama Game seems quaint by comparison.

As we head toward the second decade of the 21st century, it is useful to remember what lies at the heart of the American labor movement. Perhaps the mission of the AFL-CIO states it best:  “We resolve to fulfill the yearning of the human spirit for liberty, justice, and community; to advance individual and associational freedom; to vanquish oppression, privation and cruelty in all their forms and to join with all persons of whatever nationality or faith who cherish the cause of democracy and the call of solidarity, to grace the planet with these achievements. We dedicate ourselves to improving the lives of working families, bringing fairness and dignity to the workplace and securing social equity in the Nation.”

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