The paper examines in detail one of the most famous labor movements in the USA which is known as the National Labor Union. Along with this, there is a profound description of the motives, aims, and actions the Union aimed to achieve the expected results. Having united millions of the representatives of the working class, the National Labor Union succeeded in meeting the expectations of the workers. Furthermore, to show the environment in which the National Labor Union functioned, the deeply determined historical context is also provided. It is done in order to discuss the reasons why the National Labor Union appeared, and what labor conditions used to exist before the emergence of the National Labor Union and afterward. Also, the opinions of the scholars in this field of expertise are provided to simplify the understanding of the essential stages of the labor movement developed in the USA. Such approaches helped single out the advantages of the National Labor Union and the crucial weaknesses of the organization.
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Labor in the USA
Labor movements in the USA are an essential way by which the working class expresses their needs and expectations. One of the labor movements in the USA is the US National Labor Union. It represents a protest organization, operating in a number of north-eastern states in the late 1820s and beginning of the 1830s. The US National Labor Union tried to introduce the ten-hour day, improve the conditions of the wage labor in the circumstances wherein the authorities sought to ensure access to education for children of the workers and low-income citizens, and insisted on the prohibition of imprisonment for debt (Mosoetsa, Stillerman and Tilly 2016). They defended the nascent trade unions and urged to enact laws for the benefit of salaried workers. The US National Labor Union insisted on the prohibition of cheap labor exploitation of prisoners and criminals under the contract. Therefore, the current paper focuses on the US National Labor Union and its essential aims and actions to protect the rights of the working class of the USA and improve their working conditions.
In the historical context, the US workers have always supported the democratization of social and political life in the country and demanded reforms in the electoral system of law. The US National Labor Union in the US also insisted on the facilitation of land acquisition from the National Fund in the West. Some provisions of the political and economic program of the US National Labor Union were utopian and bore anti-capitalist nature, but they put forward their demands and testified that their programs went beyond the pure workers’ interests (Mosoetsa et al. 2016). This is due to the fact that they largely reflected the interests of developing the petty bourgeoisie. In addition, the US National Labor Union promoted the idea of turning workers into small landowners. Soviet scientists stressed that the persistence of this ‘utopia’ provided a huge amount of unsettled land in the West. In fact, the ‘utopian project’ was largely realized in practice through giving two million homesteads (plots for their own farm) during the Civil War and after it (Mosoetsa et al. 2016).
Workers in American cities in the first half of the 19th century did not constitute a homogeneous mass. The working class consisted of various national, racial and religious groups. This diversity has led to the ideological fragmentation, local specificity in the activities of the workers, and the increased importance of the ethnic factor, which has been gradually overcome over decades (Mosoetsa et al. 2016). Among American workers, nationalist ideas were prevalent along with racism, religion, hostility towards people of other faiths, and proprietary aspirations. These sentiments were reflected in the political actions of the US National Labor Union.
The US National Labor Union developed under very harsh conditions. The labor of women and children was widely used in enterprises. A large share of the economy had still been held by the craft and handicraft sector, and the capital of organized rural crafts (Mosoetsa et al. 2016). There was also an independent craft in farmers’ families. The researchers claimed that the high personnel turnover among wage-contingent workers had taken place due to the influx of foreigners and the resettlement of the population in the West. Hence, the American industrial proletariat in the period under discussion amounted to 10-15% of the workforce in the country, several times more for farmers and almost three times more for the slaves of the South (Evans 2014). It was divided into the manufacturing and crafting layer (about 90%) and factory workers (10%, or about 250 000 people).
Additionally, it is significant to discuss what the conditions of the workers during the industrial revolution were (Arestis, Charles and Fontana 2013). A decrease in the income of workers was compounded by a difficult socio-psychological state, and there were other life difficulties as well. This happened due to several reasons. The first reason is the cyclical economic crisis. The second one is the sharp increase in immigration, which inhibited the growth of wages of the native workers (Mosoetsa et al. 2016). Finally, the third reason was the significant reduction in skilled labor artisans and craftsmen who produced ‘piece-products,’ due to the massive transition to impersonal and cheaper labor in the form of mechanical equipment.
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In such conditions, the US National Labor Union, at the beginning of the 1830s, consisted of urban workers, artisans, and the radical intelligentsia. They were supported in the elections. They were also the representatives of the urban middle class. In total, in the period of 1828-1834, there was such a movement in 61 US cities (Mosoetsa et al. 2016). Approximately 50 newspapers were published, expressing the interests of the ‘working classes’ (Evans 2014). The US National Labor Union was created by professional American workers, but their functioning at the early stages was attended by various social reformers, intellectuals, and representatives of the radical liberal policies related to the interests of the middle class. The US National Labor Union claimed to represent the interests of not only the workers but also farmers and rural tenants.
As a rule, professional workers in the federal elections voted for Jackson and his party, which opposed the US Bank and a number of democratic measures. They were unanimous, and many leaders of the ‘workers’ parties’ including the US National Labor Union supported Jackson (Evans 2014). Thus, Jackson initiated the process of freeing America from the impact of the Bank of England (which was under the control of the British Parliament) and financial institutions in Europe. His successor Van Buren continued to promote the independence of the American economy and the formation of independent government policy. There was a return to great principles (Mosoetsa et al. 2016). However, during the elections campaign in 1832, in some states, there was a movement for the promotion of individual candidates for the presidency, i.e. the representatives of the working class. The radicals of the former Working Party of New York supported Johnson of Kentucky, one of the three candidates for the position of the Democratic vice president. But at the convention, he received only 26 votes of delegates (Arestis et al. 2013). Because of these events, the US government had implemented the provision of programs for ‘working parties,’ which stated that in 1833 the federal debt prisons would be eliminated (Rhomberg 2016). An important role in this event was played by the US National Labor Union who stood for the rights of workers and was against the free labor of prisoners.
Prior to this imprisonment of insolvent debtors (both men and women), it was a widespread practice in the United States. However, the economic situation worsened and this stimulated the development of the US National Labor Union as well as other labor movements in the USA (Evans 2014). The debtor’s prisons kept even some prominent politicians who signed the Declaration of Independence and the famous generals of the American Revolution. In 1841, Congress passed a federal law on individual bankruptcy (Arestis et al. 2013). At the beginning of the 1830s, in some states, the new laws have abolished compulsory service in the police. At the same time, there was established a network of accessible public schools (this process was initiated by the states of New York and Pennsylvania). This aspect was also included in the program of the US National Labor Union.
One of the demands of the workers and artisans who joined the US National Labor Union was the elimination of the system of cheap labor exploitation of the prisoners (which was ranked lower than free labor by 40-60%) (Arestis et al. 2013). Legislators were forced to pass the bill prohibiting the employment of citizens detained in prisons in 1835 (Arestis et al. 2013). However, a number of loopholes remained in the legislation that allowed the circumvent bans until the end of the 19th century.
An important measure of the US National Labor Union was the introduction of administrations in 1840, presupposing a ten-working day for federal employees involved in public service with the preservation of their former wages (Evans 2014). In the majority of the states, a legal working day for the factory workers had been reduced from twelve to thirteen and then to ten hours only in the period 1847-1860 (Makhlouf 2016). This happened due to the successful attempts of the US National Labor Union. With regard to the strike movement and the trade unions, the democratic governments tended to take the side of the business class.
In 1837-1840, under the influence of the economic crisis, a wave of bankruptcies across enterprises and the growth of unemployment, the labor movement began to wane dramatically (Arestis et al. 2013). Many trade unions and the US National Labor Union ceased to exist during that period. If to compare the British Chartism and the US National Labor Union in the United States, a mass character of the first one and the relative moderation of this program should be noted (Arestis et al. 2013). The standard of living among workers in America was higher than in Europe, which mitigated the social conflicts and reduced the degree of radicalization of the movement of the working classes. Presidents Jackson and Van Buren intercepted some ideas of the US National Labor Union and radicals, ensuring the dominance of the Democratic Party in the 1830s. The supporters of Jackson managed to ensure that their relatively moderate political views were shared by the working masses.
The US National Labor Union was characterized by a rather complicated and therefore interesting symbiosis of ideas, the compound ‘archaic’ equality of the 17th and 18th centuries (Arestis et al. 2013). The new legal ideas and principles of state regulation were taken into account according to the requirements of the labor movements in the USA, including the US National Labor Union (Arestis et al. 2013). This combination of elements of modern utopian socialism was added with related ideas on the public education of children. The ideological syncretism was a phenomenon peculiar to this historical period which was characterized by the immature and politically undeveloped handicraft of ordinary people, workers and those who were known to be close to the intellectuals.
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An interesting fact is related to the US National Labor Union in the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. By that time, the United States had been the most industrially developed country (Arestis et al. 2013). In the late 19th century, they came out on top of industrial production and this could not but affect the functioning of the movement. Until the 1880s, the US labor movement was extremely weak (Evans 2014). This was explained by several factors (Arestis et al. 2013). Firstly, there was a lot of free land in the West. Secondly, there were many US immigrants and a large influx of population. There was also no unity among the workers. Thirdly, the highest wages of the workers were only in America. However, after the 1880s the situation changed (Arestis et al. 2013). All the lands in the West had already been occupied, and the exodus to the West stopped, but the influx of immigrants from Europe to the East increased in the major cities even more. Hence, the US National Labor Union began to develop again (Makhlouf 2016). At the same time in the 1880s, there was a slight downturn, increased unemployment, stagnation of wages and even their decline in certain industries (Arestis et al. 2013). American workers continued to live well in comparison with the European countries’ workers, but there was satisfaction in society. All this has led to a fairly strong labor movement.
From the perspective of the US National Labor Union, the main argument of American workers belonging to the labor movement was a 10-hour day, and they wanted to change it to an 8 hour day. For example, on May 1, 1886, being guided by the US National Labor Union’s motives, the workers of Chicago initiated a general strike for the 8-hour workday and higher wages (Arestis et al. 2013). The strike was well organized. On May 3, during the big rally, someone from the crowd had thrown a bomb at police. Several policemen were wounded, the police started to fire, having killed six workers (Arestis et al. 2013). In such a way, a peaceful and well-organized movement led to the bloodshed. American power was advantageous to terminate the labor movement in the United States and, therefore, they ‘seized’ for the ‘thread’ and arrested the strike leaders (Evans 2014). While the court went on strike against leaders of the US National Labor Union, in many cities a wave of protest against the court in support of the workers of Chicago rose (Mosoetsa et al. 2016). The court found the leaders of the US National Labor Union guilty after trial. As a result, four leaders of the US National Labor Union were hanged (Arestis et al. 2013). Since that time, there has been established the feast day of solidarity. In America, this holiday was soon forgotten, and it remained in Europe only (Makhlouf 2016). During the fight, the American working class was able to create quite a powerful union known as the US National Labor Union. This federation included millions of workers (Arestis et al. 2013). It denied the political struggle. They acted only within the framework of the law and put forward only economic goals such as an 8-hour working day, an increase in salaries, introduction of salary minimums, disability, and unemployment benefits, and, finally, improvement of the working conditions.
The origins of the development of the US National Labor Union are associated with the asymmetry of the real rights of individual workers or employers. If the worker refuses the conditions proposed by the entrepreneur, he/she runs the risk of being dismissed and becomes unemployed (Arestis et al. 2013). If the employer refuses the employee of the requirements, he/she can fire the worker and hire a new one, almost without losing anything. To achieve a real alignment of rights, the worker must be able to enlist the support of conflict colleagues (Arestis et al. 2013). In regard to business, there was no need to respond to the individual performances and protests of workers (Evans 2014). However, when the workers are united and threaten by the mass production, then the employer is obliged not only to listen to the workers’ demands but also to react to them (Makhlouf 2016). Thus, the US National Labor Union gave workers the power that they had been deprived of, by acting alone. Therefore one of the main trade union demands was the transition from individual employment agreements to collective agreements with the trade union acting on behalf of all of its members.
In the course of time, the labor movement’s functions somewhat modified. However, the US National Labor Union has always had an impact not only on the employer but also on the financial and legal policy of the government (Evans 2014). The modern scientists, examining the history of the labor movements, have identified two main functions these movements performed (Makhlouf 2016). These include protective (the relationship between the ‘union’ and the ‘employers’) and representational (the relationship between the ‘union’ and the ‘state’) (Arestis et al. 2013). Some economists have added to these two the third function, which is economic. It manifested in the care for the increased production efficiency.
The protective function of the US National Labor Union in the most traditional way was directly linked to the social and labor rights of workers (Arestis et al. 2013). It is related not only to the prevention of violations of workers’ rights by entrepreneurs but also to the actual restoration of violated rights. Equating the position of the workers and the employer, the union protects the employee from the employer’s arbitrariness.
The most powerful tool of the US National Labor Union’s struggle has long been a strike. At first, the presence of the US National Labor Union had hardly been associated with the frequency and organization of strikes, which have remained a spontaneous phenomenon (Evans 2014). However, the situation has radically changed after the First World War, when the strike united workers and had become a major tool for their struggle for their rights. The demonstration of this, for example, led the nation to the general strike in May 1926, covering all major sectors of the economy.
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It should be noted that in the struggle for the interests of its members, the US National Labor Union often showed indifference to the interests of other workers who were not unionized. Thus, US unions were actively fighting for restricting migration, as foreign workers ‘interrupted’ work of the US-born citizens. Another method that had been practiced by the US National Labor Union was the limited labor supply (Evans 2014). It was represented by the strict license requirements of many activities. As a result, the US National Labor Union offered their members higher wages than those of the non-union citizens (in the US, the wages at that time increased by 20-30%), but this has led, as some economists have largely noted, to the deterioration of wages of the non-union members.
In the first decades of the 20th century, understanding of the protective functions of the US National Labor Union has changed (Arestis et al. 2013). If previously the main task of the trade unions was the pay rise and working conditions’ improvement, in later years their main practical goal was to prevent the increase of unemployment. This means a shift of priorities from the defense of already working people to the protection of the interests of all wage earners.
Traditionally working with a number of industries (steel, automotive, and transport industries), the US National Labor Union was forced to agree to a pay cut. Several strikes have suffered a devastating collapse. The result of these developments has been a sharp decrease in the number of workers who wanted to be members of the US National Labor Union, which has been unable to carry out its functions. In addition to these external causes of the crisis and internal factors affecting the US National Labor Union movement, the workers did not aspire to acquire membership in the US National Labor Union due to certain peculiarities of the US National Labor Union itself.