American Labor Movement Essay Paper

American Labor Movement

The “labor question,” its origins, components, and whether or not it is still relevant.

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The “labor question” is the foundation of the American Labor Movement. Drawing from our classwork and paraphrasing Rosanne Currarino’s modern restatement of the “labor question(s)”: “What should constitute full participation in American society? What standard of living should citizens expect and demand?” (Currarino 112). Concerned with the ideal of an industrial democracy, including a more equitable society with social and financial betterment of working class people, the “labor question” arose during and in response to America’s 19th Century (Second) Industrial Revolution. America’s Industrial Revolution occurred within the “Gilded Age,” named by Mark Twain (Mintz), and lasting roughly from the end of the U.S. Civil War until the beginning of World War I (D.C. Shouter and RAKEN Services). Fueled in part by refined coal and steam power, the American Industrial Revolution transformed America from an agrarian society to an industrialized society and gave rise to significantly wealthy railroad barons such as Jay Gould, banking princes such as Jay Cooke, oil kings such as John D. Rockefeller and industrial tycoons such as Andrew Carnegie (D.C. Shouter and RAKEN Services).

While the Industrial Revolution created enormous wealth for the few who controlled railroads, banks, fuel, utilities and industry, it developed into an unofficial “Dark Ages” for the industrial working class. The pre-union Industrial Revolution feasted on child labor, convict labor and work schedules of 10 — 16-hour per day, six days per week (, for wages of approximately $1.00 per day (Grimes). At that time, “the richest 1% owned 26% of the wealth, and the richest 10% owned 72%” (Grimes). Illustrating the arrogance of the wealthy toward the near-powerless and desperately impoverished industrial working class, railroad baron Jay Gould bragged, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half” (Grimes).

This widely disproportionate division of wealth and power between affluent capitalists and their industrial workers was rightfully considered by the workers to be unjustifiable in America’s democratic society. This gave birth to the “labor question,” which Eugene V. Debs called “the movement of men that earn their living with their hands; that are employed, and paid in wages; are gathered under roofs of factories, sent out on farms, sent out on ships, gathered on the walls” (Phillips 16-17). American workers took up the “labor question” and, as the evolving American Labor Movement, they have pursued the answer to that question through a rollercoaster ride of growth and decline, marked by notable movements, strikes and legislation. As we learned in class, the struggle for industrial democracy resulted in material gains such as: better wages and working conditions; and increased job security, both through the American Federation of Labor style of monopolization of work and the Congress of Industrial Organizations style of grievance machinery and protections from arbitrary firing. We also learned in class that there was some progress, especially for white men, in the areas of: dignity at work and right to complain; greater control over work; democratic unions, end of the Depression; and increased government regulation.

The “labor question” is still vital in American society because “the central problems of the labor question — the basis of American democracy; the relationships among civil, political, and economic participation; the meanings of citizenship…remain central still” (Currarino 9-10). In addition, global pressures (Greenhouse 97) compel a hybrid “labor question”: in The Role of Trade Unions in the Global Economy and the Fight Against Poverty, the International Workers’ Symposium concluded that: globalization is one of the greatest challenges to unions; and the International Labor Organization responds to these challenges by promoting decent work as a way out of poverty and toward universal human rights (International Workers’ Symposium 13).

2. The roles of racism, sexism and xenophobia in the history of the labor movement and how unions can overcome them among their members.

While the “labor question(s)” focused on the ideals of democracy and financial/social equality, the proponents did not mean that those ideals were for everyone. Racism, sexism and xenophobia — “hatred or fear of foreigners or strangers or of their politics or culture” (, LLC) – certainly played a role in the history of the American Labor Movement. As we learned in class, unions tended to be the bastion of the working-class white American male and the American Federation of Labor, founded in 1886, was often overtly racist and anti-communist (Fantasia and Voss 39, 104-105).

A virulent form of early union racism and xenophobia was aimed at Chinese immigrants. Early proponents of the “labor question(s)” believed that “Chinese immigrants threatened to overtake American workers” (Currarino 45). Consequently, white workers distinguished themselves not only from African-Americans, but also from the Chinese (Currarino 49), and in the 1880’s, “many Americans had no trouble directly blaming the Chinese for willfully injuring the American economy” (Currarino 53). Indeed, Samuel Gompers, the first and longest-serving president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO), “objected to the Chinese laborer because he was unnatural and unlike any other man; he had no wants” (Currarino 57). Considering the history of American society, the sexism of the American Labor Movement is no surprise, either. In fact, sexism and racism were useful. For example, according to the Economic History Association, “both racism and sexism were constructed ideologies that provided grounds for collective action and won essential allies from state authorities” (Economic History Association). Racism and sexism were also politically vital because the Brotherhoods “used racism and sexism to build a new Americanism that united the ‘people’ in defense of good working conditions and decent wages, the ‘people’ defined as white men” (Economic History Association). At least some vestiges of racism and sexism continue to this day: “Union representation differs by gender and race, allowing some groups to benefit more from union employment than others” (Oxford Companion to American Politics 4); in addition, “[a] higher percentage of men than women are in unions” (Oxford Companion to American Politics 5); also, women and racial minorities are sometimes considered “marginalized members” (Levi, Olson and Agnone 206).

Scholars suggest some methods of overcoming racism, sexism and xenophobia. Levi et al. mention the idea “that a truly democratic union is one that encourages marginalized members such as women and sexual minorities to exercise more political voice” (Levi, Olson and Agnone 206). In addition, the Economic History Association states that the very racism and sexism that helped union leaders forge union-building alliances eventually made it “impossible for American unions to campaign as champions of democracy and solidarity, ultimately denying labor critical allies and the tools to build a social movement” (Economic History Association). Recognizing the “Faustian bargain” made by former union movements, the Economic History Association states that the only grounds capable of giving legitimacy to the Labor Movement are true democracy and equality (Economic History Association). Researchers have noted some gains: the gap between male and female union membership has decreased in the past 3 decades (Oxford Companion to American Politics); in addition, “Black workers have the highest union representation at 14.9%” (Oxford Companion to American Politics). Finally, the pervasive forces of our global economy are forcing unions that were formerly proudly xenophobic to reassess their positions, concluding that they must globally promote decent work as a way out of poverty and toward universal human rights (International Workers’ Symposium 13).

Works Cited

AFL-CIO. Samuel Gompers (1850-1924). 2012. Web. 7 February 2012.

Currarino, Rosanne. The Labor Question in America: Economic Democracy in the Gilded Age. Urbana, Chicago and Springfield, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2011. Print.

D.C. Shouter and RAKEN Services. “The Gilded Age – Industrial Revolution in America.” 2011. Web site. Web. 7 February 2012., LLC. Xenophobia. 2012. Web. 7 February 2012.

Economic History Association. Good, Reliable, White Men: Railroad Brotherhoods, 1877-1917. 10 May 2010. Web. 7 February 2012.

Fantasia, Rick and Kim Voss. Hard work: Remaking the American Labor Movement. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004. Print.

Greenhouse, Steven. The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., 2008. Print.

Grimes, William. “Looking Back in Anger at the Gilded Age’s Excesses.” 18 April 2007. New York Times Web site. Web. 7 February 2012.

International Workers’ Symposium. “The Role of Trade Unions in the Global Economy and the Fight Against Poverty.” International Labour Office. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Organization, 2005. 1-54. Print.

Levi, Margaret, et al. “Union Democracy Reexamined.” Politics & Society 37.2 (2009): 203-228. Print.

Mintz, S. The Gilded Age | Digital History. 2007. Web. 7 February 2012.

“Oxford Companion to American Politics.” Oxford University Press (Forthcoming June 2012): 1-7. Web.

Phillips, Wendell. “The Labor Question.” 1884. Web site. Web. 7 February 2012. “History of Labor Unions.” 2012. Web site. Web. 7 February 2012. .

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