Our History Exists -- But You Have to Look for It!

For really serious study, the labor history archives on the top floor of the library at UT-Arlington contain the largest compilation west of the Mississippi, according to Professor George Green. They have boxes and boxes referring to the Dallas CouncilOur predecessors started organizing Dallas laborers before 1910!

The shortest of labor histories

The great turning points in organized labor history came in 1886, 1935, 1947, and 1995. The first successful federation of labor unions, the American Federation of Labor, took on its name in 1886 under Samuel Gompers. It offered a more moderate relationship with employers than previous organizations. Nearly all of its members were highly skilled craftsmen. Ordinary laborers, especially women and minorities, were largely ignored. It very actively opposed more militant organizations and posed itself as more of a "partner" with employers.

Government Set the Rules in 1935

In general, employers always counted on government intervention to keep workers down. Local police, militiamen, National Guardsmen, and the U.S. Army were used against our efforts. The Railroad unions were a particular problem for employers and government. Beginning in 1926, the government passed legislation to set themselves up as arbitrators between the militant railroad unions and employers. The Railway Labor Act set up mediation as a way to avoid strikes or militant action by transportation workers or anybody with national contracts.

In 1935, the Wagner Act set up the National Labor Relations Board to cover all the other union activity. The idea, once again, was to set up the government as a mediator so that the basic battles between employers and employees could be avoided. Our "outlaw" days were over. From the point of view of union organizers, the two major bills had legitimized union organizing for the first time in American history. Organizers stepped up activity under the slogan "President Roosevelt wants you to join the union!"

Prior to 1935, the miners were the only long-term successful union that organized everybody in the workplace. Nearly all AFL unions were narrow craft unions for skilled workers only. The Industrial Workers of the World had begun, in 1905, to organized everybody who worked. Government intervention, especially during World War I, held the IWW back. However, the idea of "industrial organizing" -- organizing all workers --  eventually penetrated the AFL and they set up a "Committee for Industrial Organizing" under the mineworkers. In 1938, still determined to divide everybody up by craft, the AFL expelled the unions that had been set up under their committee. Those new unions, still with the mineworkers, broke apart and called themselves the "Congress of Industrial Organizations," the CIO.

Industrial organization was so successful that many AFL unions adopted it. From 1935 to 1947, America saw its greatest organizing. By 1955, about 35% of all American workers had union contracts! At that point, the old AFL and the new CIO re-united into the AFL-CIO.

Government took an anti-union turn in 1947

In 1946, the governments of England and the United States turned against their military partner of World War II, the Soviet Union. In 1947, Republicans passed the Taft-Hartley anti-union act over Democratic President Harry Truman's veto. Unions vigorously opposed Taft-Hartley, but gave in to it after it became law. The CIO expelled fourteen of their most militant unions and purged every member suspected of communist or socialist leanings. They raided the independent unions to the point that only two of the strongest survived.

The CIO joined the AFL and carried out its existence between the pressures of government and employers. Union members continued to do well, but they were increasingly isolated from their non-organized allies. The traditional push for shorter working hours, our only defense against automation, was forgotten. By 1980, it was clear that there was no partnership between workers, government, and employers. Union membership had nose-dived from 35% of the workforce to around 15%.

Union Leadership Began to Change in 1995

In 1995, the outgoing leadership of the national labor movement failed to choose its own successors for the first time in a century. The new leadership was more like the old CIO than the old AFL. They began policies of inclusion with allies rather than further alienation. For example, in 1999 they dropped their call for deportation of undocumented workers and, instead, put full effort into organizing them. For another example, they encouraged cooperation with all unions, including the ones that had been expelled after 1947. Organizing of  women and minorities picked up, and the bleeding of membership was less chronic. 

The new policies of inclusion and cooperation worked their way through the various unions of the AFL-CIO and through its subordinate bodies. Today in Dallas and Tarrant Counties, the Central Labor Councils work hard for solidarity with all workers. 

--Gene Lantz

My time-line of labor history is available on the internet.

CWA 6215 has posted a fine history lesson. Two people formed it in a Dallas garage!

"Right to work/scab" is Exposed

UAW 848 history is hard to find on the internet, but still exists!

"The Handbook of Texas History is traditional history, but some labor history can be found. The treatment of the CIO in Texas worth a look. The Knights of Labor was probably the first labor federation active in Texas.

Roy Evans headed the Dallas CIO and the Texas AFL-CIO

The original UAW local in Texas, Local 870, was begun at the old Ford plant in East Dallas. Most of the old building is still there in 2016. See a short video at: https://youtu.be/oTCPu25bkRE

Prior to World War II, most of our ancestors lived on farms. Many of us were tenant farmers. There is a good exposition of heroic efforts to organize tenant farmers on line.

Know anything about the strike(s) at Lone Star Steel? It's important Texas labor history and Michele Goodwin is collecting info. She lived through it. See https://m.facebook.com/LSSWildcatStrike/

Not all the books recommended by Union Communications Services paint a pretty picture of American unions. One 2010 book says that the "last days of the working class" happened in the 1970s.