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Labor Day 2017: A Look to the Past (Part One)

September 1, 2017 by

Labor Day traditionally is the time to reflect on the state of the American labor movement, and Labor Day 2017 brings an opportunity to mark the anniversaries of several events in American history instrumental to shaping where the labor movement has been and how we got to where we are today. We’re going to take a look at historic labor events in 1877, 1937, 1947, and 1977.


1877: The Great Strike

2017 brings the 140th anniversary of the Great Strike of 1877. The 1870’s were a time of recession for the country and retraction for the labor movement. Between 1870 and 1875, union membership declined by 80%, down to only 50,000.

Employers responded to bleak times by cutting wages and hours. It was just such a cut that triggered a strike that eventually spread throughout the nation in 1877. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad rolled out a 10% cut in daily pay and a reduction in the number of days available to work. B&O workers walked off the job and refused to permit trains to run through West Virginia.

Soon, the strike spread to the Pennsylvania Railroad which had doubled work assignments and laid off half its train crews. President Rutherford Hayes dispatched federal troops to Pittsburgh to quash the strike and get the trains rolling again. When the troops confronted strikers and their supporters, the troops opened fire, killing 20.

But the strike continued to spread, and spread spontaneously, like wild fire. No labor union led the way – workers were fed up with hard working conditions and abusive bosses. In San Francisco, workers walked out in sympathy with the rail strikers; in Galveston, Texas, longshoremen went on strike; in Louisville, Kentucky, it was sewer workers; and in St. Louis a general strike broke out. In Chicago, police and demonstrators battled, killing 30.

The steam eventually ran out of the strike movement, but the bloody results had a lasting impact on the country. Middle class citizens, who tended to favor government non-interference in economic affairs, came to see the dangers of the economic inequality industrialization was spawning; there came a new openness to using government to curb corporate excesses. The “Progressive Era” in American politics, with new government regulation of big business, followed.


1937: U.S. Supreme Court OK’s the NLRA

Sixty years later, the country remained the grips of the Great Depression. Employers were again cutting wages and hours. Union membership was again down, representing about 6% of workers (about where it is today in the private sector). FDR was elected in 1932 on the promise to do something, anything, to turn things around.

In 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act to guarantee the right of employees to organize and to bargain collectively. The goals of the NLRA were twofold. First, to enable unions to drive up workers’ wages to restore consumer spending and boost the economy. Second, to stabilize labor relations and minimize strikes (1934 in particular had seen several huge and disruptive strikes, including the San Francisco General Strike) by providing federally enforced procedures for organizing and collective bargaining.

But it was no foregone conclusion the NLRB would survive judicial scrutiny. Just before the NLRA was passed, the Supreme Court rejected an earlier version of the NLRA (the NIRA) on the grounds that the law exceeded Congress’s Constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce. Nothing about the NLRA distinguished it from its older sibling in this regard.

Yet in April 1937, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, reversed course and in the case of NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel, upheld the NLRA against Constitutional challenge. Two justices had switched their votes since the 1935 rejection of the NIRA. This decision broke the floodgates, and the Court proceeded to give the OK to successive New Deal legislation.

The passage and approval of the NLRA led to a massive growth in union membership. In the next installment of this piece, we’ll take a look at how, 80 years on, we’ve returned to a labor movement representing no larger portion of the private work sector than before passage of the NLRA.


Next time we’ll take a look at another historic development for labor in 1937, along with significant events in 1947 and 1977.

The material on this website is provided by Beeson, Tayer & Bodine for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Readers should consult with their own legal counsel before acting on any of the information presented. Some of the articles are updated periodically, and are marked with the date of the last update. Again, readers should consult with their own legal counsel for the most current information and to obtain professional advice before acting on any of the information presented.