The Great Depression and Labor

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The Great Depression of the 1930s changed Americans' view of unions. Although AFL membership fell to fewer than 3 million amidst large-scale unemployment, widespread economic hardship created sympathy for working people. At the depths of the Depression, about one-third of the American workforce was unemployed, a staggering figure for a country that, in the decade before, had enjoyed full employment.

Roosevelt and the Labor Unions

With the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, government — and eventually the courts — began to look more favorably on the pleas of labor. In 1932, Congress passed one of the first pro-labor laws, the Norris-La Guardia Act, which made yellow-dog contracts unenforceable. The law also limited the power of federal courts to stop strikes and other job actions.

When Roosevelt took office, he sought a number of important laws that advanced labor's cause. One of these, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (also known as the Wagner Act) gave workers the right to join unions and to bargain collectively through union representatives. The act established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to punish unfair labor practices and to organize elections when employees wanted to form unions. The NLRB could force employers to provide back pay if they unjustly discharged employees for engaging in union activities.

Growth in Union Membership

With such support, trade union membership jumped to almost 9 million by 1940. Larger membership rolls did not come without growing pains, however. In 1935, eight unions within the AFL created the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) to organize workers in such mass-production industries as automobiles and steel. Its supporters wanted to organize all workers at a company — skilled and unskilled alike — at the same time.

The craft unions that controlled the AFL opposed efforts to unionize unskilled and semiskilled workers, preferring that workers remain organized by craft across industries. The CIO's aggressive drives succeeded in unionizing many plants, however. In 1938, the AFL expelled the unions that had formed the CIO. The CIO quickly established its own federation using a new name, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which became a full competitor with the AFL.

After the United States entered World War II, key labor leaders promised not to interrupt the nation's defense production with strikes. The government also put controls on wages, stalling wage gains. But workers won significant improvements in fringe benefits — notably in the area of health insurance and union membership soared.

This article is adapted from the book "Outline of the U.S. Economy" by Conte and Karr and has been adapted with permission from the U.S. Department of State.

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Moffatt, Mike. "The Great Depression and Labor." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Moffatt, Mike. (2023, April 5). The Great Depression and Labor. Retrieved from Moffatt, Mike. "The Great Depression and Labor." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).