The right to unionize seems like a fundamental right that many take for granted, yet it was not always that way. The fight for unionization was a long war that often led to violence with workers, their families, and company representatives injured or killed.
The quest for unionization began soon after The Civil War ended. During that time, often referred to as “reconstruction,” the Industrial Revolution began. Railways were expanding, steel production was up, and the South was being rebuilt. This brought with it a boom in employment and unimaginable profits for industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and J.D. Rockefeller. The workers, on the other hand, were often forced to work long hours with little breaks in deplorable conditions for mere pennies.
Many workers decided to form unions. Most companies vigorously fought unionization. The companies felt they had the right to control their “private property” and manage their businesses and employees as they saw fit. This led to a number of violent encounters. The first significant labor riot was on December 4, 1874. A group of Irish miners, known as the Molly Maguires, attacked their company’s operators and foremen. In the end, twenty Molly Maguires were sentenced to death by hanging.
Violence between labor and management continued into the twentieth century. Most notably, on April 20, 1914, National Guard troops and security guards from the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company attacked a tent colony housing 1,200 striking coal miners. More than twenty people, including eleven women and two children, were killed. On May 19, 1921, hundreds of coal miners attacked the coal mines along the Tug River in West Virginia. This was known as the Three Day War. Of course, there are hundreds of other examples of violence between labor and management.
There have also been a number of incidents that did not involve violence but led to entire workforces being fired. As an example, on September 9, 1919, Boston Police Officers went on strike. The City fired all the strikers and hired a new police force. The fired officers had no recourse.
Conflicts between labor and management threatened to tear the county apart for a better part of fifty years; thus, the government finally decided to get involved. On March 23, 1932, President Herbert Hoover signed the Norris-LaGuardia Act into law. A year later, newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Industrial Recovery Act into law. These laws made it possible for workers to finally unionize without threats of retaliation. Furthermore, these two laws laid the groundwork for the National Labor Relations Act, signed into law by FDR on July 6, 1935.
The National Labor Relations Act, although updated over the years, gives labor unions the rights and privileges that we know today. The purpose of the act was “to protect the rights of employees and employers, to encourage collective bargaining, and to curtail certain private sector labor and management practices, which can harm the general welfare of workers, businesses, and the U.S. economy.”
Like many chapters in American History, labor unions were born from hard times, inconceivable working conditions, and offensively low wages. It was a hard fought battle, culminating in many deaths, but the rights of unionized employees are stronger than ever.
Before you take your union rights for granted, remember the history of the labor movement and those who sacrificed everything to get us to where we are today.