Antiunion PoliciesPosition taken by the federal government toward labor unions during the nineteenth century.
After the Civil War the start of the industrial revolution in the United States led to dramatic changes in labor. Traditionally, Americans owned small proprietorships or worked as apprentices for a skilled master. With the introduction of automated machinery and the specialization of tasks, workers found their economic position declining. Employers hired unskilled laborers for many of the positions and increasingly demanded longer and longer hours at a lower wage from their workers. Consequently, various occupations formed societies similar to the guilds of Europe. At first these organizations focused on a particular skilled craft, but eventually unions accepted unskilled workers to their ranks as well.
The rise of labor unions led to an increase in demands on the part of the workers for shorter hours, better pay, and safer working conditions. Employers realized that any concessions to labor would ultimately reduce profits, so negotiations usually proved futile to the labor unions. By the 1880s labor strikes began to occur with some frequency, often resulting in violence and bloodshed. The first of the big strikes occurred in 1892 at Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead Steel Plant, where workers staged a sit-in until management agreed to their demands. The manager of the plant called in Pinkerton detectives to remove the strikers, and violence erupted.When the management asked the federal government for assistance, the president authorized the use of the National Guard. From this first involvement through the end of the nineteenth century, the federal government continued this policy of assisting business owners against the workers.
The Supreme Court maintained a similar policy. As reformers within the government fought for increased restrictions on the monopolistic practices of big business, Congress debated and passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which outlawed such monopolies. On several occasions the Supreme Court heard cases involving alleged monopolistic practices, the most famous being United States v. E. C. Knight & Co. In this case, the high Court ruled that the company had not violated the Sherman Anti-Trust Act since it only controlled 98 percent of the sugar market—that left 2 percent for the competition. Yet when the American Railways Union went on strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company in 1894, the Court ruled that the union had violated the act and held the union president, Eugene V. Debs, responsible. The majority opinion declared that because the union had joined with other unions to shut down the entire railroad, it had in essence created a monopoly.
As the era of big business passed and legislative reformers successfully reduced the high tariffs that had protected these businesses, labor unions earned more respect from the government. By the time of the Great Depression, Congress had passed measures such as Section 7a of the National Industrial Recovery Act, allowing unions to picket, strike, and engage in collective bargaining. The Supreme Court declared the entire act unconstitutional, but Congress replaced Section 7a with the Wagner Act, thus ensuring continued protection of union activities. Although the federal government restricted some of the power of the unions in the immediate post–World War II period, no efforts have occurred to deny unions protection under federal law.
—Cynthia Clark Northrup
Dubofsky, Melvyn. Hard Work: The Making of Labor History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
See also: National Industrial Recovery Act; New Deal; Pullman Strike; Sherman Anti-Trust Act; United States v. E. C. Knight & Co.; Wagner Act.