The shaping of the labor movement in the early 1900s
By DEBORAH A. MILES
During the first decades of the 1900s, dozens of incidents involving workers and the labor movement made headlines. The strikes, tragedies and federal legislation are still remembered today for their pivotal effects on society and the rights of workers.
To begin, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union called a strike in November 1909, in New York City. It demanded a 20 percent pay raise and a 52-hour workweek. Within two days, more than 20,000 workers from 500 factories walked off the job. This largely successful “uprising of 20,000” was the largest labor action by women during that century.
In 1910, unionists John T. and James B. McNamara placed a bomb in the alley next to the Los Angeles Times building, and had planned that it would detonate when the building was unoccupied.
The newspaper was strongly conservative and anti-union.
Unfortunately, the timing went askew. The bomb went off early and caused a gas explosion. The fire killed 20 people.
The two brothers, John and James, were sentenced to 15 years and life, respectively.
A year later, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire killed 146 young, mostly immigrant, girls and women. The tragedy highlighted the harsh conditions under which the young women worked, and not only evoked public sympathy, but helped launch occupational health and safety reform.
Massachusetts adopted the first minimum wage law in June 1912, setting the pay floor for women and minors. Other states passed similar laws during the same year.
President William Howard Taft signed the March 4, 1913, bill (the last day of his presidency) establishing the Department of Labor as a cabinet-level department. William B. Wilson, one of the founding fathers of United Mine Workers of America, was appointed the first secretary of labor, and helped promote the pro-labor stance of the incoming president, Woodrow Wilson.
The Ludlow Massacre took place April 20,1914, where violence broke out in a camp that housed striking miners in Ludlow, CO. It emanated from a labor conflict and ended when the Colorado National Guard and Colorado Fuel and Iron Company guards attacked a tent colony of 1,200 striking mine workers and their families. The National Guard used machine guns, and killed more than two dozen people, including women and children. The chief owner of the mine, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was widely excoriated for having orchestrated the massacre.
On December 13,1924, Samuel Gompers died. He was the founder of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and served as president from 1886 to 1894, and again from 1895 until his death. He promoted harmony among the different craft unions that comprised the AFL.
The Davis-Bacon Act is a federal law that established the requirement for paying the local prevailing wages on public-works projects for laborers and mechanics. It was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Herbert Hoover March 3, 1931. The law keeps employers from importing cheaper workers from outside the region.
Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve as U.S. secretary of labor, was appointed in 1933 and served to 1945, the longest serving in that position. She was appointed by Franklin Roosevelt and favored a comprehensive pro-labor agenda that included minimum-wage laws, unemployment insurance, pensions and the abolition of child labor.
Employee rights came about under the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act that set the federal minimum wage at $7.25 per hour. It also set a 40-hour workweek, with time-and-a-half for additional hours, and put strong restrictions on child labor.
In 1946, a post World War II strike wave occurred. Workers across the country went on strike to win wage increases in the face of postwar inflation. This wave of strikes was the worst since 1919, and included general strikes in Hartford, Houston, Oakland and other cities.
There was a growing fear of communist infiltration of labor unions in 1947. To address this, Congress enacted the Labor Management Relations Act, better known as the Taft-Hartley Act, over a veto from President Harry S. Truman. The Taft-Hartley Act repealed significant provisions of the 1935 Wagner Act, also known as the National Labor Relations Act. That law safeguarded union organizing efforts and authorized the National Labor Relations Board to assure fairness in union elections and during collective bargaining with employers. That law tilted the playing field in labor’s favor, prompting a huge unionization drive throughout the late 1930s.