Labor Movements in the 20th Century Article

20th Century a Good Century for Labor?

By all accounts, the early 20th century was a terrible time to be a worker in the United States. Wages were low, benefits were virtually nonexistent, and safety considerations were not even a consideration. There was no unemployment or disability insurance for the vast majority of workers, and the labor movements that emerged during the early and middle 20th century were largely in response to these conditions. Further, a number of key pieces of legislation were passed during the 20th century that helped to address these inequities in the workplace. Unfortunately, a downside to the emergence of labor unions was a concomitant increase in the corruption and collusion between big business and labor leaders who did not always have their constituents’ best interests at heart. To determine whether the 20th century ended up being a good century for labor or not, this paper provides a background and overview of labor movements in the 20th century, the guiding legislation that was passed in response, and what implications these forces had on the American worker in the 21st century. A summary of the research and relevant findings are provided in the conclusion.

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Review and Discussion

Labor Movements in the 20th Century. The early years of the 20th century were a turbulent period for American labor and big business. The trust-busting legislation, clean food and drug acts, as well as the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements were still far in the future, but the foundation for a fundamental shift in the social order was clearly in the offing. In his book, National Labor Movements in the Postwar World, Everett M. Kassalow (1963) reports that during the early 20th century, “In the United States, the dominant labor movement, as ultimately epitomized in the Knights of Labor, in common with the farmer and small businessman, also aspired to realizing the middle-class ideal of self-employment. This movement consisted primarily of indigenous workers, and leaders” (7). The introduction of innovations in transportation and agriculture resulted in many of these workers being forced to leave rural areas where they had previously worked as handicraftsmen or small merchants, but they did not abandon their visions behind them: “To attain or retain their ideal, they embarked on political action, since they had the ballot. Usually, they collaborated with small businessmen and farmers, reaching the political pinnacle in the Populist movement” (Kassalow 8). Likewise, as the century progressed, female workers began to organize, demanding much more than just the right to vote, and by the time millions of Rosies stopped riveting and returned home after World War II, there was no turning back the clock on labor relations in the United States, just as Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” message helped to level the playing field for millions of minority workers (Tichenor 14).

Following a series of scandals involving numerous unions in the last half of the century, most notably the Teamsters but certainly not restricted to them, union membership in the United States began to decline, but unions still represented a powerful, but diminishing, political force that was receiving an increasingly negative view from the American public in general (Cooper 18). According to Steven E. Abraham’s essay, “The Impact of the Taft-Hartley Act on the Balance of Power in Industrial Relations” (1996), “Recent outcomes in industrial relations have been decidedly detrimental for unions. The two most obvious examples are the declining unionization rate, especially in the private sector, and the frequent inability of unions to obtain favorable collective bargaining agreements for the employees they represent. It is generally agreed that U.S. unions are in a crisis” (341). Despite these constraints to their current success, though, labor unions clearly played a critical role in helping to secure a wide range of protections that have been codified by several key pieces of federal legislation including the Wagner Act of 1935 and the Taft-Hartley Act, discussed further below.

Key Legislation. The Wagner Act (National Labor Relations Act of 1935) may be the most progressive labor legislation enacted in the United States. The Wagner Act established the National Labor Relations Board and guaranteed workers the right to organize and bargain collectively. After decades of federal promises, workers at last had a legal body that could punish employers for violating rights to organize. Legislation-including the Clayton Act of 1914, the Railway Labor Act of 1925, the Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932, and the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933-acknowledged workers’ right to organize into independent bargaining units but provided no means for protecting this right. Employers’ resistance to unionization included paying spies to infiltrate workers’ groups, firing organizers, and using armed, private security forces against strikers. Consequently, the Wagner Act represented a fundamental shift in status of labor in the United States by having their rights formalized into the body of law. According to Condit and Sefocivic:

Unionization and collective bargaining were transformed from legally-acknowledged rights into federally-protected rights that one need not risk one’s life or livelihood to enjoy. By establishing conditions in which unions could bargain effectively with corporate powers, the Wagner Act set the stage for that period in American history when “Big Labor” was recognized as one of a triumvirate of powerful social forces, along with Big Government and Big Business, throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s (emphasis added) (285).

Despite these gains, though, Yates reports that the protections afforded workers by the Wagner Act were almost completely repudiated by the Taft-Hartley act though, reinforced by a big business mentality that pervaded the American political arena that created a distinct “we” and “they” scenario in most workplaces. “The underlying philosophy of Taft-Hartley,” Yates says, “is that workers and society must be protected from unions, which can be expected to act in ways antithetical to workers’ freedoms” (25). Although a number of the basic protections of the Wagner Act remain a part of Taft-Hartley, they are now subject to negation on the grounds that they have the potential to somehow harm American “society” or constraint the “freedom” of the individual worker. Yates emphasizes that so long as the labor movement had political clout, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the various courts were reluctant to completely dismantle the Wagner Act; however, this was made possible by Taft-Hartley. In fact, Yates emphasizes that:

Taft-Hartley itself gravely weakened the labor movement, and economic and technological changes have crippled those strong industrial unions which survived it. The results have been a stunning legal victory for capital. It is now extremely difficult to organize a workplace in the face of legal employer opposition. But employers also routinely violate the law, making it all but impossible to win certification elections. Employer unfair labor practices have skyrocketed, increasing more than fivefold in the past 30 years despite rapidly declining union membership. One in every twenty workers is now illegally fired in union organizing campaigns. Should a union win an election, it has about a 50% chance of getting a contract. Employers simply refuse to bargain, an illegal act for which there are no monetary penalties, and they hire scabs if the workers have the temerity to strike (25).

Despite these setbacks for unions, other changes in the workplace, most notably technological and transportation, have created a new playing field in which the American worker is no longer bound by many of the same social contract tenets that mandated employee loyalty above all, and corporations have been forced to keep pace in order to remain competitive, as well as to attract and retain qualified personnel. According to Kaysen (1996), “The failure of employment regulations to keep pace with changes in the economy have both created pressures on American corporations to change their employment practices and given them more discretion over how to do so. As a result, there is more variation in the employment practices of American corporations today than was true in previous decades” (263). These changes have benefited workers in many cases as increased managerial discretion has been used to improve the quality of employment opportunities and relationships available to the American workforce, in other words, to create mutual gains for workers and shareholders alike (Kaysen 263).


We may never know the fate of Jimmy Hoffa, but it is easy enough to discern a winner from a loser when it comes to labor movements in the United States during the 20th century. Although labor was horsewhipped during the final rounds, the American worker still emerged from the fight a clear and overwhelming winner. Despite the scandals and Taft-Hartley, the fact remains that almost all American workers enjoy a wide range of important protections both in terms of employment and workplace safety practices that simply did not exist when the 20th century began; in fact, by the time the clock struck the close the 20th century, Americans workers were probably able to take more workplace protections for granted than most other workers in the world ever had in the first place. All in all, it was not even close: labor came out a bloodied but still powerful fighter for the American worker in general and union members in particular.

Works Cited

Abraham, Steven E. (1996). “The Impact of the Taft-Hartley Act on the Balance of Power in Industrial Relations.” American Business Law Journal, 33(3):341.

Condit, Celeste M. And Enid M.I. Sefcovic. (2001). “Narrative and Social Change: A Case

Study of the Wagner Act of 1935.” Communication Studies, 52(4):284.

Cooper, Marc. (2002, December 9). “Labor Pains: Unions Are Edging into the Peace

Movement, but They Are Still Minor Players.” The Nation, 275(20):18.

Kassalow, Everett M. National Labor Movements in the Postwar World. Special Research

Seminar on Comparative Labor Movements, 1959-1960. Evanston, IL: Northwestern

University Press, 1963.

Kaysen, Carl, The American Corporation Today. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Tichenor, Daniel J. (1999). “The Presidency, Social Movements, and Contentious Change:

Lessons from the Woman’s Suffrage and Labor Movements.” Presidential Studies

Quarterly, 29(1):14.

Yates, Michael D. (1990, June). “From the Coal Wars to the Pittston Strike. Monthly Review,


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