In the early days strikes were a crime

Throughout their history unions have been illegal quasi-legal and legal organizations.

Courtesy Photo

Labor Day celebrates working people’s contribution to the economy. Institutions representing working people are mostly absent in high school and college curriculums.

Labor is the largest expenditure for most businesses 70 percent to 80 percent of cost. The conflict is clear. Increase wages with revenues constantly and the profit of the owners will decline. The conflict and the institutions it produced are fascinating and as old as our nation.

In 1792 the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers was formed by Philadelphia shoemakers. Resisting wage cuts they went on strike and were promptly taken to court by their employers.

The court found the shoemakers guilty of a criminal conspiracy. A union negotiating for the collective interest of employees was a criminal act. Throughout their history unions have been illegal quasi-legal and legal organizations.

Textile workers from 20 mills in Massachusetts went on strike in 1835 to reduce the length of the work day. The strike lasted six weeks with 1500 children and parents walking out.

Strikebreakers were brought in. When the strike ended the workers had managed to reduce their work day from 13.5 hours six days a week to 12 hours a day with a nine-hour Saturday.

The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor excluding undesirables like liquor dealers lawyers and bankers organized farmers farm workers and the unskilled for better wages and an end to child labor.

More than a million children one out of every six were in the workforce.

In 1886 the Texas & Pacific Railroad fired a leader of the Knights of Labor leading to a strike that spread through the Southwest tying up rail traffic all the way to St. Louis and Kansas City.

Nine young men recruited from New Orleans as marshals to protect company property learned of the strike and quit their jobs refusing to take bread out of ”fellow-workmen’s mouths.”

Arrested for defrauding the company they were sentenced to three months in the Galveston County jail. The Knights of Labor won wage increases from the railroads and their membership reached 700000.

In 1929 the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. By 1932 stocks values had fallen by 78 percent unemployment reached 25 percent 5000 banks failed and 85000 businesses went bankrupt.

Unemployment and social unrest led to the Wagner Act of 1935 making unions legal. The Congress of Industrial Organizations added 9 million new union members by 1940.

World War II ended and the U.S. government owed more than 120 percent of GDP in debt 20 percent more than today. The largest economic expansion in U.S. history began.

The AFL and the CIO competed with each other until 1955 when they combined. Unions bargained over wage hours and working conditions allowing working people to be included in the economic gains.

Real average hourly wages increased from $8 per hour in 1947 to $14 per hour in 1977.

The age of ReaganThatcher began in 1980 and real wages have decreased.

Remember unions are the folks that brought you weekends; enjoy yours.

Bob Young is an associate professor of economics at College of the Mainland.

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