The history of the labor movement is wrought with the corpses of failed organizations.
We can trace our roots back to colonial guilds and lodges, and our nation’s first strike may well have been a Maine fisherman strike in 1636. But the groups were uncoordinated and lacked power.
A coordinated workers’ movement began with the formation of the National Labor Union in 1866. It was disbanded in 1873.
About that time, the Knights of Labor formed. The Knights of Labor allowed anyone to join, reaching its peak membership of 750,000 — including over 60,000 Black Americans — before it disbanded in the late-1880s. The Knights were a community- based organization that flourished for almost two decades, but they failed to adapt to the economic changes of the industrial age.
At the time the Knights of Labor was in decline, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was founded, focusing on organizing workers according to craft or trade by class or skill level, instead of relying on community support and haphazard power.
By 1920, the AFL reached a membership of 4 million workers. But its inability to adapt to the Great Depression drove membership down to almost 3 million.
The success of a workers’ movement historically has hinged on its ability to adapt to changing social, political, and economic factors.
With a drop of 25 percent of its membership in the 1930s, most economists predicted the demise of the AFL. In-fighting of top leadership could have proven them right. But, instead, one group’s insistence on change saved the movement.
That change wasn’t easy.
There were those within the AFL who believed it should continue to limit itself to representing workers by craft. Others favored implementing strategies to organize by industry, opening up new ways to represent workers in the steel and auto industries. This philosophical difference resulted in 10 unions forming the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1935.
To compete with the CIO, the AFL was forced to engage in industrial organizing. By 1955, with three out of 10 American workers represented by a union, the AFL and CIO merged.
Survival requires the union movement to continue to represent the best interests of workers — and as those interests change it requires us to change.
In 1980, two out of 10 workers belonged to a union. Today, one in 10 workers belong to a union.
As we approach a national AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles the first week of September, the American union movement is poised to make significant changes. We are challenged to transform from a union movement that is perceived as only speaking for union workers, to a workers’ movement that engages and speaks for all workers.
Such a transformation will not be painless. It will require union leaders to get out of their comfort zones and examine structures established in the 1950s to determine what it will take to meet the challenges of the 21st century. It will require that we are open to all workers and their issues. Our aggressive support of marriage equality and comprehensive immigration reform are steps in the right direction.
Today’s efforts must be the beginning of a new movement — growing coalition partners and working to advance a workers’ agenda. Just as the CIO changed the face of our workers movement in the 1930s, we need to develop new types of membership for sectors of our economy where it is almost impossible to organize by traditional means.
Our leaders need to be bold, fearless and unselfish if we are to succeed. Those who are willing to take that step are on our side. They recognize that the very future of the American worker is at stake.