American Labor Movement History of Labor Movement Essay

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American Labor Movement

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

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…[continue]

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