While the 1920s were years of relative prosperity in the United States, the workers in industries such as steel, automobiles, rubber and textiles benefitted less than many others. Working conditions in many of these industries remained as onerous as they had been in the previous century. Until 1923, for example, the average U.S. steel worker was expected to work a 12-hour day, with one day off every two weeks.
The 1920s saw the owners of the mass production industries redouble their efforts to prevent the growth of unions, which under the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had enjoyed some success during World War I. This took many forms, including the use of spies, armed strikebreakers and firing of those suspected of union sympathies. Independent unions were often accused of being communist. At the same time, many companies formed their own union organizations.
Traditionally, state legislatures supported the concept of the "open shop," which prevented a union from being the exclusive representative of all workers. This made it easier for companies to deny unions the right to collective bargaining and block unionization through court enforcement. On a more positive note, some companies in the 1920s began offering workers various pension, profit-sharing, stock option and health plans to ensure their loyalty.
Beginning with steel in 1919, companies harshly suppressed a series of strikes in the mass production industries. Between 1920 and 1929, as a result, union membership in the United States dropped from about five million to three-and-a-half million.
The onset of the Great Depression led to a precipitous drop in demand for all types of industrial production. The result was widespread unemployment. By 1933 there were over 12 million Americans out of work. In the automobile industry, for example, the work force was cut in half between 1929 and 1933. At the same time, wages dropped by two-thirds.
The election of Franklin Roosevelt, however, was to change the status of the American industrial worker forever.
The first indication that Roosevelt was interested in the well-being of workers came with the appointment of Frances Perkins, a prominent advocate of workplace reform, to be his secretary of labor. (Perkins was also the first woman to hold a Cabinet-level position.) In June 1933 Congress passed the far-reaching National Industrial Recovery Act. It sought to raise industrial wages, limit the hours in a work week and eliminate child labor. Most important, the law prohibited companies from forcing employees to join "company" unions, and recognized the right of employees "to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing."
It was John L. Lewis, the feisty and articulate head of the United Mine Workers (UMW), who understood more than any other labor leader what the New Deal meant for workers. Stressing Roosevelt's support, Lewis engineered a major unionizing campaign, building the UMW's membership from 150,000 to over 500,000 within a year.
Lewis was eager to get the AFL, where he was a member of the Executive Council, to launch a similar drive in the mass production industries. But the AFL, with its historic focus on the skilled trade worker, was unwilling to do so. After a bitter internal feud, Lewis and a few others broke with the AFL to set up the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), later called the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
The first targets for Lewis and the CIO were the notoriously anti-union auto and steel industries. In late 1936, a series of spontaneous sit-down strikes erupted at General Motors plants in Cleveland, Ohio, and Flint, Michigan. Lewis responded quickly by sending a team of union organizers and funds of $100,000 to help the strikers. Soon 135,000 workers were involved and the industry ground to a halt.
With the help of the sympathetic governor of Michigan, a settlement was reached in 1937. By September of that year, the United Auto Workers had contracts with 400 companies involved in the automobile industry, assuring workers a minimum wage of 75 cents per hour and a 40-hour work week.
In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the steel-making capital of the United States, representatives of the steel industry attacked Lewis in print for being a "red" and a "bloodsucker." Labor, however, was buoyed by Roosevelt's re-election as well as the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1936. In the first six months of its existence, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), headed by Lewis lieutenant Philip Murray, picked up 125,000 members.
The capitulation of General Motors had a marked effect on the company, U.S. Steel. Realizing that times had changed, it came to terms with the CIO in 1937. That same year the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the NLRA. Subsequently, smaller companies, traditionally even more anti-union than U.S. Steel, reached agreements with the CIO unions. One by one other industries -- rubber, oil, electronics and textiles -- also followed suit. The mass production worker was no longer alone.