The Development of Organized Labor in America
If the sun peeked through the Great Depression’s clouds on anyone, it may have been organized labor. The 1930s saw captains of industry and business lose much of their political clout to unions, and new laws made organizing easier.
The decade also saw a telling split in labor. The traditionalists who ran the American Federation of Labor (AFL) wanted to concentrate on organizing workers according to their specific skills or craft. But that left out thousands of workers who had no specific skills and also sometimes pitted workers for the same company against one another.
In 1936, John L. Lewis, the bombastic leader of the United Mine Workers, led a split from the AFL and formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The CIO was more receptive to not only unskilled workers but also women and minorities. By 1938, it had 4 million members.
The United Auto Workers (UAW) also flexed its muscles in the decade. The UAW used sit-down strikes, where workers would simply stop and sit down at their posts, making it much more difficult to use strikebreakers. In 1937, General Motors, the third-largest company in the country, recognized the UAW after a 44-day strike.
That same year, steelworkers won recognition of their union by U.S. Steel, the giant of the industry. Other steel companies, however, refused to go along, and confrontations were often violent. On Memorial Day, 1937, police opened fire on marching strikers and their families in South Chicago, killing 10 and wounding 90. The tragedy became known as the Memorial Day Massacre and served as a rallying cry for labor.
All told, there were more than 4,500 strikes in 1937, and labor won more than three-quarters of them. By 1940, more than 8 million Americans were members of organized labor.