Since the turn of the 20th century, teachers have tried to find a balance between bettering their own career prospects as workers and educating their students as public servants. To reach a workable combination, teachers have utilized methods drawn from union movements, the militant and labor-conscious approach favored by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), as well as to professional organizations, the tradition from which the National Education Association (NEA) arose. Because teachers lacked the federally guaranteed labor rights that private-sector workers enjoyed after Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, teachers’ fortunes—in terms of collective bargaining rights, control over classroom conditions, pay, and benefits—often remained tied to the broader public-sector labor movement and to state rather than federal law.
Opponents of teacher unionization consistently charged that as public servants paid by tax revenues, teachers and other public employees should not be allowed to form unions. Further, because women constituted the vast majority of teachers and union organizing often represented a “manly” domain, the opposition’s approach worked quite well, successfully preventing teachers from gaining widespread union recognition. But by the late 1960s and early 1970s, thanks to an improved economic climate and invigoration from the women’s movement, civil rights struggles, and the New Left, both AFT and NEA teacher unionism surged forward, infused with a powerful militancy devoted to strikes and other political action, and appeared poised to capture federal collective bargaining rights. Their newfound assertiveness proved ill-timed, however.
After the economic problems of the mid-1970s, opponents of teacher unions once again seized the opportunity to portray teacher unions and other public-sector unions as greedy and privileged interest groups functioning at the public’s expense. President Ronald Reagan accentuated this point when he fired all of the more than 10,000 striking air traffic controllers during the 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike. Facing such opposition, teacher unions—and public-sector unions in general—shifted their efforts away from strikes and toward endorsing political candidates and lobbying governments to pass favorable legislation.
Given these constraints, public-sector unions enjoyed a large degree of success in the 1990s through the early 2000s, even as private-sector union membership plunged to less than 10 percent of the workforce. After the Great Recession of 2008, however, austerity politics targeted teachers and other public-sector workers and renewed political confrontations surrounding the legitimacy of teacher unions.
James R. Barrett
The largest and most important revolutionary socialist organization in US history, the Communist Party USA was always a minority influence. It reached considerable size and influence, however, during the Great Depression and World War II years when it followed the more open line associated with the term “Popular Front.” In these years communists were much more flexible in their strategies and relations with other groups, though the party remained a hierarchical vanguard organization. It grew from a largely isolated sect dominated by unskilled and unemployed immigrant men in the 1920s to a socially diverse movement of nearly 100,000 based heavily on American born men and women from the working and professional classes by the late 1930s and during World War II, exerting considerable influence in the labor movement and American cultural life. In these years, the Communist Party helped to build the industrial union movement, advanced the cause of African American civil rights, and laid the foundation for the postwar feminist movement. But the party was always prone to abrupt changes in line and vulnerable to attack as a sinister outside force because of its close adherence to Soviet policies and goals. Several factors contributed to its catastrophic decline in the 1950s: the increasingly antagonistic Cold War struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States; an unprecedented attack from employers and government at various levels—criminal cases and imprisonment, deportation, and blacklisting; and within the party itself, a turn back toward a more dogmatic version of Marxism-Leninism and a heightened atmosphere of factional conflict and purges.
The relationship between organized labor and the civil rights movement proceeded along two tracks. At work, the two groups were adversaries, as civil rights groups criticized employment discrimination by the unions. But in politics, they allied. Unions and civil rights organizations partnered to support liberal legislation and to oppose conservative southern Democrats, who were as militant in opposing unions as they were fervent in supporting white supremacy.
At work, unions dithered in their efforts to root out employment discrimination. Their initial enthusiasm for Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed employment discrimination, waned the more the new law violated foundational union practices by infringing on the principle of seniority, emphasizing the rights of the individual over the group, and inserting the courts into the workplace. The two souls of postwar liberalism— labor solidarity represented by unions and racial justice represented by the civil rights movement—were in conflict at work.
Although the unions and civil rights activists were adversaries over employment discrimination, they united in trying to register southern blacks to vote. Black enfranchisement would end the South’s exceptionalism and the veto it exercised over liberal legislation in Congress. But the two souls of liberalism that were at odds over the meaning of fairness at work would also diverge at the ballot box. As white workers began to defect from the Democratic Party, the political coalition of black and white workers that union leaders had hoped to build was undermined from below. The divergence between the two souls of liberalism in the 1960s—economic justice represented by unions and racial justice represented by civil rights—helps explain the resurgence of conservatism that followed.
Janine Giordano Drake
The term “Social Gospel” was coined by ministers and other well-meaning American Protestants with the intention of encouraging the urban and rural poor to understand that Christ cared about them and saw their struggles. The second half of the 19th century saw a rise of both domestic and international missionary fervor. Church and civic leaders feared a future in which freethinkers, agnostics, atheists, and other skeptics dominated spiritual life and well-educated ministers were marginal to American culture. They grew concerned with the rising number of independent and Pentecostal churches without extensive theological training or denominational authority. American Protestants especially feared that immigrant religious and cultural traditions, including Roman Catholicism, Judaism, and Eastern Orthodox Christianity, were not quintessentially American. Most of all, they worried that those belief systems could not promote what they saw as the traditional American values and mores central to the nation.
However, at least on the surface, the Social Gospel did not dwell on extinguishing ideas or traditions. Rather, as was typical of the Progressive Era, it forwarded a wide-ranging set of visions that emphasized scientific and professional expertise, guided by Christian ethics, to solve social and political problems. It fostered an energetic culture of conferences, magazines, and paperback books dedicated to reforming the nation. Books and articles unpacked social surveys that sorted through possible solutions to urban and rural poverty and reported on productive relationships between churches and municipal governments. Pastoral conferences often focused on planning revivals in urban auditoriums, churches, stadiums, or the open air, where participants not only were confronted with old-fashioned gospel messages but with lectures on what Christians could do to improve their communities.
The Social Gospel’s theological turn stressed the need for both individual redemption from sinful behavior, and the redemption of whole societies from damaged community relationships. Revivalists not only entreated listeners to reject personal habits like drinking, smoking, chewing tobacco, gambling, theater-going, and extramarital sex. They also encouraged listeners to replace the gathering space of the saloon with churches, schools, and public parks. Leaders usually saw themselves redeeming the “social sin” that produced impoverished neighborhoods, low-wage jobs, preventable diseases, and chronic unemployment and offering alternatives that kept businesses intact. In the Social Creed of the Churches (1908), ministers across the denominations proposed industrial reforms limiting work hours and improving working conditions, as well as government regulations setting a living wage and providing protection for the injured, sick, and elderly. Sometimes, Social Gospel leaders defended collective bargaining and built alliances with labor leaders. At other times, they proposed palliative solutions that would instill Christian “brotherhood” on the shop floor and render unions unnecessary. This wavering on principles produced complicated and sometimes tense relationships among union leaders, workers, and Social Gospel leaders.
Elements of the Social Gospel movement have carried even into the 21st century, leading some historians to challenge the idea that the movement died with the close of the Great War. The American Civil Liberties Union and Fellowship of Reconciliation, for example, did not lose any time in keeping alive the Social Gospel’s commitments to protecting the poor and defenseless. However, the rise of “premillennial dispensationalist” theology and the general disillusionment produced by the war’s massive casualties marked a major turning point, if not an endpoint, to the Social Gospel’s influence as a well-funded, Protestant evangelical force. The brutality of the war undermined American optimism—much of it fueled by Social Gospel thinking—about creating a more just, prosperous, and peaceful world. Meanwhile, attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer’s campaign against alleged anarchists and Bolsheviks immediately after the war—America’s first “Red Scare”—targeted a large number of labor and religious organizations with the accusation that socialist ideas were undemocratic and un-American. By the 1920s, many Social Gospel leaders had distanced themselves from the organized working classes. They either accepted new arrangements for harmonizing the interests of labor and capital or took their left-leaning political ideals underground.
Between the 1790s and the 1990s, the Irish American population grew from some 500,000 to nearly 40 million. Part of this growth was due to immigration, especially in the years of the Great Irish Famine, though significant emigration from Ireland both preceded and followed the famine decade of 1846–1855. For much of this 200-year period, Irish-born men and women and their descendants were heavily concentrated in working-class occupations and urban communities. Especially in the years around the opening of the 20th century, Irish Catholic immigrants and their descendants put a distinctive stamp on both the American labor movement and urban working-class culture and politics as a whole. Their outsized influence diminished somewhat over the course of the 20th century, but the American Irish continued to occupy key leadership positions in the U.S. labor movement, the Democratic Party, and the American Catholic Church, even as the working-class members or constituents of these institutions became increasingly ethnically diverse. The experience of Irish American working people thus constitutes an important dimension of a larger story—that of the American working class as a whole.
In the years after the Civil War, Polish immigrants became an important part of the American working class. They actively participated in the labor movement and played key roles in various industrial strikes ranging from the 1877 Railroad Strike through the rise of the CIO and the post-1945 era of prosperity. Over time, the Polish American working class became acculturated and left its largely immigrant past behind while maintaining itself as an ethnic community. It also witnessed a good deal of upward mobility, especially over several generations. This ethnic community, however, continued to be refreshed with immigrants throughout the 20th century.
As with the larger American working class, Polish American workers were hard hit by changes in the industrial structure of the United States. Deindustrialization turned the centers of much of the Polish American community into the Rust Belt. This, despite a radical history, caused many to react by turning toward conservative causes in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
The history of dockworkers in America is as fascinating and important as it is unfamiliar. Those who worked along the shore loading and unloading ships played an invaluable role in an industry central to both the U.S. and global economies as well as the making of the nation. For centuries, their work remained largely the same, involving brute manual labor in gangs; starting in the 1960s, however, their work was entirely remade due to technological transformation. Dockworkers possess a long history of militancy, resulting in dramatic improvements in their economic and workplace conditions. Today, nearly all are unionists, but dockworkers in ports along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts belong to the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), while the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) represents them in Pacific Coast ports as well as in Hawaii and Alaska (along with British Columbia and Panama). In the mid-1930s, the ILA and ILWU became bitter rivals and remain so. This feud, which has cooled slightly since its outset, can be explained by differences in leadership, ideology, and tactics, with the ILA more craft-based, “patriotic,” and mainstream and the ILWU quite left wing, especially during its first few decades, and committed to fighting for racial equality. The existence of two unions complicates this story; in most countries, dockworkers belong to a single union. Similarly, America’s massive economy and physical size means that there are literally dozens of ports (again, unlike many other countries), making generalizations harder. Unfortunately, popular culture depictions of dockworkers inculcate unfair and incorrect notions that all dockworkers are involved with organized crime. Nevertheless, due to decades of militancy, strikes, and unionism, dockworkers in 21st-century America are—while far fewer in number—very well paid and still do important work, literally making world trade possible in an era when 90 percent of goods move by ship for at least part of their journey to market.
One of the pervasive myths about the United States is that it has never had a socialist movement comparable to other industrialized nations. Yet in the early 20th century a vibrant Socialist Party and socialist movement flourished in the United States. Created in 1901, the Socialist Party of America unsurprisingly declared its primary goal to be the collectivization of the means of production. Yet the party’s highly decentralized and democratic structure enabled it to adapt to the needs and cultures of diverse constituencies in different regions of the country. Among those attracted to the movement in its heyday were immigrant and native-born workers and their families, tenant farmers, middle-class intellectuals, socially conscious millionaires, urban reformers, and feminists. Party platforms regularly included the reform interests of these groups as well as the long-term goal of eradicating capitalism. By 1912, the Socialist Party boasted an impressive record of electoral successes at the local, state, and national levels. U.S. Socialists could also point with pride to over three hundred English and foreign-language Socialist periodicals, some with subscription rates that rivaled those of the major urban daily newspapers.
Yet Socialists faced numerous challenges in their efforts to build a viable third-party movement in the United States. On the one hand, progressive reformers in the Democratic and Republican parties sought to coopt Socialists. On the other hand, the Socialist Party encountered challenges on the left from anarchists, syndicalists, communists, and Farmer-Labor Party activists. The Socialist Party was particularly weakened by government repression during World War I, by the postwar Red Scare, and by a communist insurgency within its ranks in the aftermath of the war. By the onset of the Great Depression, the Communist Party would displace the Socialist Party as the leading voice of radical change in the United States.
Domestic work was, until 1940, the largest category of women’s paid labor. Despite the number of women who performed domestic labor for pay, the wages and working conditions were often poor. Workers labored long hours for low pay and were largely left out of state labor regulations. The association of domestic work with women’s traditional household labor, defined as a “labor of love” rather than as real work, and its centrality to southern slavery, have contributed to its low status. As a result, domestic work has long been structured by class, racial, and gendered hierarchies. Nevertheless, domestic workers have time and again done their best to resist these conditions. Although traditional collective bargaining techniques did not always translate to the domestic labor market, workers found various collective and individual methods to insist on higher wages and demand occupational respect, ranging from quitting to “pan-toting” to forming unions.
Joseph E. Hower
Government employees are an essential part of the early-21st-century labor movement in the United States. Teachers, firefighters, and police officers are among the most heavily unionized occupations in America, but public-sector union members also include street cleaners and nurses, janitors and librarians, zookeepers and engineers. Despite cultural stereotypes that continue to associate unions with steel or auto workers, public employees are five times more likely to be members of unions than workers in private industry. Today, nearly half of all union members work for federal, state, or local governments.
It was not always so. Despite a long, rich history of workplace and ballot box activism, government workers were marginal to the broader labor movement until the second half of the 20th century. Excluded from the legal breakthroughs that reshaped American industry in the 1930s, government workers lacked the basic organizing and bargaining rights extended to their private-sector counterparts. A complicated, and sometimes convoluted, combination of discourse and doctrine held that government employees were, as union leader Jerry Wurf later put it, a “servant to a master” rather than “a worker with a boss.” Inspired by the material success of workers in mass industry and moved by the moral clarity of the Black Freedom struggle, government workers demanded an end to their second-class status through one of the most consequential, and least recognized, social movements of late 20th century. Yet their success at improving the pay, benefits, and conditions of government work also increased the cost of government services, imposing new obligations at a time of dramatic change in the global economy. In the resulting crunch, unionized public workers came under political pressure, particularly from fiscal conservatives who charged that their bargaining rights and political power were incompatible with a new age of austerity and limits.