Trade Unions in the United States remained weak throughout the 19th century. Only 2 per cent of the total labor force and less than 10 per cent of all industrial workers, were members of unions. In 1881 the Federation of Trades and Labor Unions was founded. Five years later the organisation changed its name to the American Federation of Labor. Based on the Trade Union Congress in Britain, the AFL's first president was Samuel Gompers. He held fairly conservative political views and believed that trade unionists should accept the capitalist economic system.
In 1894 the Pullman Palace Car Company reduced the wages of its workers. When the company refused arbitration, the American Railway Union called a strike. Starting in Chicago it spread to 27 states. The attorney-general, Richard Olney, sought an injunction under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. As a result, of Olney's action, Eugene Debs, president of the American Railway Union, was arrested and despite being defended by Clarence Darrow, was imprisoned.
The case came before the Supreme Court in 1895. David Brewer spoke for the court on 27th May, explaining why he refused the American Railway Union's appeal. This decision was a great set-back for the trade union movement. This decision made some workers question the AFL's moderate approach. One of those imprisoned during the Pullman Strike, Eugene Debs, was converted to socialism and now argued that capitalism should be replaced by a new cooperative system.
In 1905 representatives of 43 groups, who opposed the policies of American Federation of Labour, formed the radical labour organisation, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Important leaders of this organization included William Haywood, Daniel De Leon, Eugene V. Debs, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Mary 'Mother' Jones, Carlo Tresca, Joseph Ettor, Arturo Giovannitti, William Z. Foster, Joe Hill, Frank Little and Ralph Chaplin.
After the war leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World were harassed by the police and suffered legal prosecutions. Two important members, Frank Little and Walter Everett, were lynched. This approach was highly effective and by 1925 membership had declined dramatically.
In 1921 John L. Lewis, leader of the United Mine Workers of America, failed in his attempt to challenge Samuel Gompers for the presidency of the American Federation of Labour. Gompers finally left in 1924 and was replaced by William Green.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1932 with the support of most trade unionists. He appointed Frances Perkins as US Secretary of Labor and Robert Wagner, chairman of the National Recovery Administration. Both Perkins and Wagner were known for their sympathy for the trade union movement.
In 1933 Wagner introduced a bill to Congress to help protect trade unionists from their employers. With the support of Perkins, Wagner's proposals became the National Labour Relations Act. It created a three man National Labor Relations Board empowered to administer the regulation of labour relations in industries engaged in or affecting interstate commerce. The act also established the rights of workers to join trade unions and to bargain collectively with their employers through representatives of their own choosing. Workers were now protected from their employers and as a result union membership grew rapidly.
In 1935 John L. Lewis joined with the heads of seven other unions to form the Congress for Industrial Organisation(CIO). Lewis became president of this new organization and over the next few years attempted to organize workers in the new mass production industries. This strategy was successful and by 1937 the CIO had more members than the American Federation of Labour.
In June, 1938 Frances Perkins managed to persuade Congress to pass the Fair Labor Standards Act. The main objective of the act was to eliminate "labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standards of living necessary for health, efficiency and well-being of workers".
The act established maximum working hours of 44 a week for the first year, 42 for the second, and 40 thereafter. Minimum wages of 25 cents an hour were established for the first year, 30 cents for the second, and 40 cents over a period of the next six years. The Fair Labor Standards Act also prohibited child labour in all industries engaged in producing goods in inter-state commerce and placed a limitation of the labor of boys and girls between 16 and 18 years of age in hazardous occupations.
Another important act initiated by Frances Perkins and the vice-president, Harry S. Truman, was the Fair Employment Act. This act, passed in 1942, required that all federal agencies include in their contracts with private employers a provision obligating such employers not to "discriminate against persons of any race, color, creed, or nationality in matters of employment." The act set up theCommittee on Fair Employment Practice (FEPC), a body that was empowered to investigate all complaints of discrimination, take appropriate steps to eliminate such discrimination, and make recommendations to Franklin D. Roosevelt concerning discrimination in war industry.
The Republican Party and right-wing elements in the Democratic Party objected to what they believed was the pro-trade union legislation of the Roosevelt administration. On 23rd June, 1947, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, over the veto of Harry S. Truman, who denounced it as a "slave-labor bill".
The act declared the closed shop illegal and permitted the union shop only after a vote of a majority of the employees. It also forbade jurisdictional strikes and secondary boycotts. Other aspects of the legislation included the right of employers to be exempted from bargaining with unions unless they wished to.
The act forbade unions from contributing to political campaigns and required union leaders to affirm they were not supporters of the Communist Party. This aspect of the act was upheld by the Supreme Court on 8th May, 1950.
The Taft-Hartley Act also established the National Labor Relations Board, a body that had the power to determine the issuance or prosecution of a complaint. Under the terms of the act the United States Attorney General had the power to obtain an 80 day injunction when a threatened or actual strike that he/she believed "imperiled the national health or safety".
William Green remained president of the American Federation of Labour until 1952 when he was replaced by George Meany. In 1955 the CIO merged with the AFL. Walter Reuther, the president of the CIO became vice-president of the AFL-CIO. Meany became president of this new organisation that now had a membership of 15,000,000.