Social Studies Help Center
Social Studies help for American History, Economics and AP Government. There are class notes, numerous Supreme Court case summaries and information on how to write a research paper inside.

How successful were efforts to organize a national labor movement in America?

With increasing industrialization after the Civil War unionism became more and more important. The National Labor Union (NLU), a federation of national and local unions and of city federations, was founded in 1866. Was the first national union. Within two years it had more than 600,000 members. The NLU collapsed in in 1872 as the result of a national depression.

The 1870's was a period of widespread activity, largely because of the terrible working conditions faced by workers after the disastrous economic crisis of 1873. Many unions struck against pay cuts and the replacement of workers by machines. Most employers strongly opposed unions. The struggle between workers and employers often took violent forms. In the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, federal troops had to be used to restore order.

The 1870's saw the creation of the Knights of Labor. The Knights of Labor were a true national union. The Knights admitted both skilled and unskilled workers as well as those of each race. The Knights declined after the Haymarket Square Riot.

In 1886 the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was founded by Samuel Gompers, president of the Cigarmakers International Union. The initial membership of the AFL was estimated at about 140,000 workers grouped in 25 national unions. The AFL was a national federation of independent unions. The AFL concerned itself primarily with organizing skilled workers.

In the Supreme Court case called In Re Debs, in 1895, the court ruled on union strikes. In this case Eugene V. Debs, an American railway union officer and one of the leaders of the Pullman Railroad Car workers' strike in 1894, refused to honor a federal court "injunction" ordering him to halt the strike. Debs appealed his "contempt of courts conviction. At issue was whether the federal government has the constitutional authority to stop railroad workers from striking.

The Supreme Court of the United States, in a unanimous decision, upheld the authority of the federal government to halt the strike. The Court reasoned that the federal government has "enumerated powers" found in Article 1, Section 8, to "regulate commerce ... among the several states," and to establish post offices and post roads. When the American Railway Union struck, it interfered with the railroad's ability to carry commerce and mail which benefited the needs and "general welfare" of all Americans.

While Debs lost the case he did not lose the support of the workers. In fact, Debs ran for President of the United States from his jail cell and millions voted for him!

In 1905 the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), was organized in Chicago to represent unskilled workers. The IWW never had more than about 100,000 members, who were called Wobblies, but it conducted numerous strikes, many marked by bloodshed, and exerted a major influence on the American labor movement until the early 1920's. In the early 20th century, the first woman workers became members of unions, notably of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU).

In 1933 a faction of the AFL led by John L. Lewis calling itself the Committee for Industrial Organizations staged a battle within the AFL for the representation of industrial unions to represent unskilled workers. In 1938 the committee split from the AFL and formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The CIO as it was called grew in strength and in 1955 after many years of acrimonious competition the AFL and CIO merges under Lewis' leadership. Today the AFL-CIO is the nations largest union organization.


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