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Legal Status of Unions

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Legal Status of Unions

Legal Status of Unions
The history of the American labor movement coincides with the development of labor unions in the United States, from the initial local craft unions like the Federal Society of Journeyman Cordwainers (shoemakers), to the formation of national unions such as the National Labor Union (NLU) and the Knights of Labor, creation of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and the Congress of International Organizations (CIO), the merger of the AFL-CIO, and its breakup through the defection of the national unions that formed the Change to Win (CTW) coalition (Fossum, 2012, pp. 27-34, 53-54). Paralleling the union development was a series of national labor legislation: Railway Labor Act (1926), Norris-LaGuardia Act (1932) legitimizing collective bargaining, National Industrial Recovery Act (1933), ruled unconstitutional in 1935, National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act, 1935) establishing the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Taft-Hartley Act (1947), and Landrum-Griffin Act (1959) (Fossum, 2012, pp. 63-75). This paper will examine this evolution of the legal status of American unions and what union activities were restricted by laws and courts; the major contributing causes to the failure of uplift unionism; advantages and disadvantages of a business union vs. labor political party approach; leading personalities contributing to the definition of labor relations in the United States; and the most effective union leaders during the 1930s and 1940s and would they be effective now.
Legal Status of American Unions: Activities Restricted by Laws and Courts
Initially American courts dealt with union organizing and collective bargaining efforts as a conspiracy, in the late 18th century applying this conspiracy doctrine in the Philadelphia cordwainers case (Fossum, 2012, p. 30, citing 3 Commons & Gilmore 228-233). This conspiracy doctrine was substantially overturned in Commonwealth v. Hunt, with the Massachusetts Supreme Court holding that “we cannot perceive that it is criminal for men to agree to exercise their acknowledged rights in such a manner as best to subserve their own interests” (p. 30, citing 4 Metcalf 129). Early on federal courts also applied the Sherman Antitrust Act to enjoin union boycotts as antitrust violations (p. 39). Starting with the National Railway Labor Act in 1926, the national attitude toward union organizing shifted, followed quickly by the Norris-LaGuardia Act in 1932 legitimizing collective bargaining and the Wagner Act in 1935 which specified employers’ unfair labor practices to be illegal and established the NLRB to hear complaints (p. 45).
Major Contributing Causes to the Failure of Uplift Unionism
Uplift unionism was targeted at social issues, seeking the “general betterment of educational outcomes and labor-management systems for workers” (Fossum, 2012, p. 28), but did not address the specific concerns of workers and most union members: wages, medical benefits, and improved working conditions. This failure was the ultimate downfall of uplift unionism. Most unions take a business unionism approach, representing employees’ immediate interests, “primarily the regulation of wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment …accepting the system as it is, and working for union goals within that system (p. 28).
Advantages and Disadvantages of Taking a "Business Union" Approach vs. a Labor Political Party
Business unions focus on the short-term needs of their members, rather than the longer-term and broader perspectives of a labor political party (Colorado State University-Global Campus, 2014). While a labor political party could provide broader support for union members, it would not focus on the primary concerns of labor members: wages, benefits, and working conditions (Fossum, 2012, p. 28). While some believe establishment of a labor political party would benefit the labor movement more than either the Republican or Democratic parties, the reality has never resulted in an effective national labor political movement (Levitt, 1955). Even national union efforts have not been entirely effective over time: the American Federation of Labor, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the merged AFL-CIO, and now the Change to Win coalition (Colorado State University-Global Campus, 2014).
Leading Personalities in Labor Relations Contributing to the Definition of Labor Relations in the United States
Leading personalities in the U.S. labor relations movement included Samuel Gompers (1850-1924), who helped found and led the AFL for much of the period from 1886 until his death in 1924 (Online Highways LLC, 2014), Eugene Debs (1855-1926), who led the American Railway Union through many strikes and helped found the Industrial Workers of the World (Constantine, 1990), Walter Reuther (1907-1970), who led the United Auto Workers starting in 1946 and was head of the CIO and negotiated its merger with the AFL-CIO in 1955 (Featherstone, 2014), George Meany (1894-1980), led the AFL from 1952 until he negotiated the AFL-CIO merger with Reuther, which he then headed 1955-1979 (The Federal Labor College, 2012), and Jimmy Hoffa (1913-disappeared 1975), who headed the International Brotherhood of Teamsters 1958-1971 and was instrumental in the union’s growth and success, but he was also involved with organized crime which was believed to be responsible for his disappearance and likely murder in 1975 (A&E Television Networks, LLC, 2014).
Most Effective Union Leaders During the 1930s and 1940s: Would They Be Effective Now?
The most effective union leaders in the 1930s and 1940s were Walter Reuther (1907-1970) of the United Auto Workers (1946-1952), head of the CIO (1952-1955), and brought about its merger with the AFL-CIO (Featherstone, 2014); George Meany (1894-1980), who led the AFL (1952-1955), and the AFL-CIO (1955-1979) after he negotiated its merger with Reuther (The Federal Labor College, 2012); and James (“Jimmy”) Hoffa (1913-1975) of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters which he led 1958-1971 (A&E Television Networks, LLC, 2014). Reuther (CIO) and Meany (AFL) would be equally effective today, as they took a political approach to unification of the labor movement, bringing about the merger of the AFL-CIO, but Hoffa likely would not be, because his Teamsters’ aggressive unionizing approach would likely not be accepted in today’s labor and political environment, much as it was not accepted toward the end of his career before his disappearance and likely murder in 1975. As well, Hoffa’s involvement with organized crime likely would not be tolerated for a major union head today.
This paper has examined the evolution of the legal status of American unions and what union activities were restricted by laws and courts; the major contributing causes to the failure of uplift unionism; advantages and disadvantages of a business union vs. labor political party approach; leading personalities contributing to the definition of labor relations in the United States; and the most effective union leaders during the 1930s and 1940s and would they be effective now. At unions’ inception in the 18th century, their organizing activities were treated as conspiracies by the courts, until labor laws were enacted beginning with the Railway Labor Act (1926), and Norris-LaGuardia Act (1932) legitimizing collective bargaining. During this time, uplift unionism and labor political parties were not successful because they did not focus on the immediate needs of employees like labor unions did, focusing on wages, hours, and working conditions. Key labor leaders of these early union efforts were Gompers of the AFL, and Debs of the American Railway Union, and later, in the 1930s and 1940s, Reuther of the CIO, and Meany of the AFL, who together brought about the AFL-CIO merger, and the more controversial Hoffa of the Teamsters.

A&E Television Networks, LLC. (2014). Jimmy Hoffa: Activist (1913-c. 1975). Retrieved from
Colorado State University-Global Campus. (2014). MGT 516-1 Module 1.
Constantine, R. J. (Ed.). (1990). Eugene Victor Debs. Retrieved from
Featherstone, T. (2014). Walter P. Reuther: "No greater calling". Retrieved from
Fossum, J. A. (2012). Labor relations: Development, structure, process (11th ed.). New York,, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Levitt, T. (1955). Dilemmas and dangers in an American labor party. Labor Law Journal,, 6(9), 613-672.
Online Highways LLC. (2014). Samuel Gompers. Retrieved from
The Federal Labor College. (2012). The George Meany Legacy Website. Retrieved from

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