The American Labor Movement: Past, Present and Wal-Mart

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.  I'm Steve Ember.

And I'm Faith Lapidus. Most of the world observes Labor Day on May first.  In the United States, the holiday to honor workers is on the first Monday in September.  For this Labor Day, our subject is the past, present and future of the American labor movement.


The main labor coalition in the United States is the A.F.L.-C.I.O.  The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations is fifty years old.  Its president, John Sweeney, won a fourth term at its convention in July in Chicago.

That same week, however, the Teamsters union announced that it would leave the A.F.L.-C.I.O.  So did the Service Employees International and the United Food and Commercial Workers.  The announcements meant the loss of more than four million of the thirteen million members of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.

Andrew Stern is president of the Service Employees International Union.  He  says change was necessary.  Mr. Stern says the A.F.L.-C.I.O. cannot appeal to workers today the way another coalition can.  His union is one of seven members of the Change to Win Coalition.

Mr. Stern says the labor movement needs bigger unions to deal with huge international companies.  And he says unions have to try harder to organize workers in service jobs.

These include low-wage jobs in areas like health care, food service, cleaning, child care and private security.  Such jobs often are held by recent immigrants.

Unions were strongest when jobs in manufacturing drove the American economy.  Fifty years ago, about one out of three privately employed workers was in a union.  Today, it is about one out of ten.

Dissidents in the A.F.L.-C.I.O. say it has not done enough to stop the losses.  They say the federation spends too much to try to influence political campaigns.  Unions have traditionally supported Democrats, but now Republicans control Congress and the White House.

In nineteen sixty-two, President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, agreed to let federal employees organize.  He said they could negotiate collectively, but not go on strike.

State governments followed.  A few even gave public employees the right to strike.  During the nineteen seventies, there were strikes by police, teachers and others.

These days, not many workers in the United States go on strike.  A strike can be very costly for all sides involved.  There is not even a guarantee that if one union strikes, others will show support.

On August twentieth, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association went on strike against Northwest Airlines.  The financially troubled airline wants to cut pay and two thousand jobs.

The mechanics found little sympathy from other unions.  And Northwest was able to limit flight delays.  The company quickly replaced many of the strikers with other mechanics.


Andrew Stern at the service employees union says he still sees a bright future for the American labor movement.  He says most workers who are not supervisors would join a union if they could.

Yet some workers say they fear that if they did, their jobs might be outsourced to countries with lower wages.  Unions failed to stop the North American Free Trade Agreement, or the new Central American Free Trade Agreement.

Other workers say they do not need a union because their employers treat them well.  In cases like that, unions might be considered victims of their own success.

Then there is the issue of Wal-Mart.  Wal-Mart Stores sell thousands of things at low prices.  Wal-Mart is the largest seller of general goods in the world.  It is also the largest private employer, with more than one and one-half million workers.

There are no unions at Wal-Mart Stores in the United States.  The company notes that workers have rejected chances to join.  A spokesman says Wal-Mart tries to have "as direct a relationship as possible" with its employees.  The spokesman told The Associated Press, "we try to run our business in a way that causes no real desire to have a union."

An international alliance of about nine hundred unions discussed Wal-Mart at a meeting in late August.  Union Network International held its Second World Congress in Chicago; the group is based in Switzerland.  It says it will intensify its campaign to change what it calls Wal-Mart's low-wage and anti-union policies in North America.

Another target is Wal-Mart's growing international operations.  The first stop is South Korea.  The group announced plans to send a delegation there this month.  The goal is to help launch an organizing campaign among about three-thousand Wal-Mart employees.


The labor union movement in the United States began about two hundred years ago.  Skilled workers organized into local groups.  Some of these groups developed into national organizations.  But most did not last.

In eighteen sixty-nine, the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor was established.  The Knights tried to end child labor and the ten-hour workday.  Membership grew to seven hundred thousand in the eighteen eighties.  But then the Knights lost a strike against a railroad company.  By nineteen hundred the union had almost disappeared.

In eighteen eighty-one, a group that later became the American Federation of Labor began in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Samuel Gompers was the first president.  Gompers believed that labor should negotiate with employers.  He campaigned for better working conditions for women and children.

Another important union grew in the early nineteen hundreds.  The Industrial Workers of the World became known as the Wobblies.  They held many demonstrations and violent strikes.  By the late nineteen twenties, however, the Wobblies were no longer important.

African-American activist Philip Randolph believed that unions provided the best chance for black people to earn money.  In nineteen twenty-five, Randolph formed a union for workers in railroad sleeping cars.  They became the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.


In nineteen thirty-five, several unions in the American Federation of Labor created the Committee for Industrial Organization.  The purpose was to organize skilled factory workers.  But committee leaders also wanted to include unskilled workers.

The federation suspended unions that took part in this kind of organizing.  Then, in nineteen thirty-eight, the A.F.L. expelled the unions that formed the Committee for Industrial Organization.

Those unions formed another group.  This time they called it the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

A number of unions went on strike after World War Two ended in nineteen forty-five.  The strikes led to the Taft-Hartley Act.  This law placed strong new controls on unions.  Labor leaders compared it to slavery.

The Taft-Hartley Act led the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations to come together.  The A.F.L.-C.I.O was born in nineteen fifty-five.  George Meany became its president.

Two years later, the Senate investigated unions for links to organized crime and other wrongdoing.  The A.F.L.-C.I.O  expelled three unions.

One of the heroes of organized labor in the nineteen sixties and seventies was Cesar Chavez.  His family came from Mexico.  Through nonviolent protests, he campaigned for a better life for farm workers in the United States.  He had been one himself.

Cesar Chavez helped establish the United Farm Workers of America.  And, on September seventeenth, the union will mark the fortieth anniversary of the event that led to its creation.

The Delano grape strike and boycott involved Mexican-American and Filipino farm workers in California.  In nineteen sixty-five, they went on strike against grape growers to protest low pay.

Cesar Chavez urged people not to buy grapes.  The boycott lasted five years.  It produced historic labor agreements between growers and the people employed in their fields.


Our Labor Day program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Jill Moss.  And it can be found online at  I'm Steve Ember.

And I'm Faith Lapidus.  Please join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.