Economics 206: "History of the American Labor Movement"
Professor Paul Zarembka, Spring 2019

  • Weinberg, Meyer, A Short History of American Capitalism, 2002, free as web linked or $5.75 for shipping -- click on title, then go to "order" at left;
  • Yellen, Samuel, American Labor Struggles, 1877-1934, Pathfinder, 1998 (1936), $24.00; and
  • Smith, Sharon, Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States, Haymarket Books, 2018 updated edition. $12.60 (free shipping if two copies are ordered)

    Office hours: 12:30-2:00 p.m. MWF or via appointment, 443 Fronczak Hall, 645-8686.

    Assignments and other materials as provided

    1. (Jan. 28-30) Preface
      1. "Unions are good for workers. It's that simple." Are they?
      2. Simple description of capitalist-worker relations (video, first 24 minutes)
    2. (Feb. 1-4) Introduction for Understanding Earlier and Later History
      1. (Feb. 1) Assignment #1 (2pts) due in class: Use Handout or UBLearns
      2. Meatpacking industry, 1906: A failure for workers but led to Food and Drug Administraton, stimulated by a famous novel The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
      3. Ludlow, Colorado, Class War, 1913-15: 105-year anniversary of a miners defeat
        Yellen, Chapter VII and Ludlow strike (video, starting at 24th minute)
    3. (Feb. 6-8) Early History of Social Classes in the U.S.
      1. Changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People's Day (Seattle)
      2. Weinberg, Chapters 4-6
      3. Resistance efforts about working conditions in the 1840-50s
      4. (Feb. 8-11) Assignment #2 (2 pts) due by class time: One or two page typed report (1" margins, 11 or 12 point) submitted on UBLearns on one recent strike since 1981 (your choice but proposal made by lecture on Feb. 8, if you wish instructor input). Include the outcome.
    4. (Feb. 11-15) U.S. Civil War
      1. Lectures on background for a very bloody civil war.
        Two contemporary press coverages: "Decision of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott Case", New York Times, Mar. 6, 1857, and "The Inauguration of the President of the Southern Confederacy", New York Times, Feb. 18, 1861.
        Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895: Review of new book
        Karl Marx's writings about U.S. Civil War "The North American Civil War", Oct. 25, 1861 (skipping to paragraph beginning "Armed spreading of slavery abroad ..." -- about 2/3 down -- to end), and then "The Civil War in the United States", Nov. 7, 1861
      2. (Feb. 18) Assignment #3 due by class time, as assigned
      3. (Feb. 18) Post-Civil War Reconstruction. (Noteworthy press item: "First Black U.S. Senator", New York Times, Feb. 26, 1870.)
    5. Capital Dominant
      1. (Feb. 20-22) Background
        Yellen, Introduction, and (continuing up to the midterm) Weinberg, Chapters 7-8
      2. Uprising on the Railroads, 1877
        (Feb. 25) Yellen, Chapter I
      3. (Feb. 25) Assignment #4 due by 6 p.m., as assigned, following upon the video "Slavery and Slave Resistance"
      4. (Feb. 27) Rise and fall of Knights of Labor; also, Haymarket, May 1, 1886 (video, 9 min.)
        Yellen, Chapter II

        May 1 is May Day - celebrating workers' struggles for a better life that originated with the 1886 Haymarket massacre in Chicago in the context for a struggle of an eight-hour workday. Much of the world celebates May Day as a holiday, but not the U.S. or Canada. Our link for May Day provides a (later) I.W.W. perspective.

      5. Homestead, PA, Steel Strike, and New Orleans General Strike, 1892
        Yellen, Chapter III
        (Mar. 1 video) "The River Ran Red: The 1892 Homestead Steel Strike" (58 min.)
      6. The Rise of the Labor Left: Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) and the Socialist Party
        (Mar. 1-4) Smith, Chapter 3, pp. 63-87; also, Yellen, Chapter IV, on the Pullman strike, 1894
        (Mar. 6 video) "Eugene Debs and the American Movement" (1978, 43 min., the Socialist Party leader, Law Library)
        (Mar. 7) Assignment #5 due by 6 p.m., as assigned
        (Mar. 8) International Women's Day and the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, 1911
        (short on-line video) Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire (NYC killing 146 persons, yet a background for industrial safety legislation)

        March 8 is International Women's Day - with origins among U.S. women workers. Some of the world and the U.N. celebrate International Women's Day, but not as a holiday.

        (Mar. 11) Yellen, Chapter VI on the successful Lawrence, MA, textile strike, with I.W.W. participation, 1912

      Midterm exam: Wednesday, March 13

    6. Post-World War I and Depression
      Weinberg, Chapter 9
      1. (Mar. 15) Seattle General Strike and Steel Strikes, 1919
        Smith, Chapter 3, pp. 87-91
        (on-line video) Russian October Revolution, 1917
        Yellen, Chapter VIII on the strikes in steel
      2. (Mar. 25-27; Midterm discussed) Understanding the 1930s Great Depression, incl. "A Case of Unemployment"
      3. (Mar. 29-Apr. 1)Smith, Chapter 3, pp. 91-101
        (on-line video) Communist Party U.S.A.
        Southern textiles, 1929: Yellen, Chapter IX
        Hormel meatpackers sit-down strike, November, 1933
        (video) Background for "The Uprising of '34" (1995, first 37 min.)
      4. (Apr. 3) Southern Textiles General Strike, September, 1934
        (video) "The Uprising of '34" (1995, last 50 min., oral history of textile worker strikes)
        Smith, Chapter 4, pp. 102-106
        (Apr. 11) Assignment #6 due by 1 a.m., as assigned
    7. The Tide Turns with 1934 Strikes; Rise of the Welfare State
      1. (Apr. 8) Smith, Chapter 4, pp. 107-114, including Minneapolis Teamsters Strike, May-August, 1934
        San Francisco general strike, May-July, 1934: Yellen, Chapter X
        Smith, Chapter 4, pp. 114-152
      2. (Apr. 10-12) A Defining Strike: Flint, MI, Auto Workers Sit-down Strike, early 1937
        (video) Women Brigades at Flint: "With Babies and Banners" (1978, 45 min.)
        (optional) Elaboration of the history in the Smith textbook: 1937, the Year of the Sitdown
        (Apr. 15) Aftermath of Flint strike up to 1941, including labor legislation and "welfare state"
    8. World War II and Post-World War II, including McCarthyism
      1. (Apr. 15-17) Smith, Chapter 5 (before p. 174 read with usual care, for pp. 174-196 read more lightly to get the feel of the times rather than details), with example of Electrical Workers fighting McCarthyism, Erie, PA, 1950.
        A direction connection from McCarthy to Donald Trump via Roy Cohn was shown in lecture with the video starting at the 3 min. 55 sec. point and going to the end.
        (Apr. 18) Assignment #7 due by Thursday, 11 a.m., as assigned
      2. Zinc Miners Strike, 1953
        (Apr. 19, video and finish at home) "Salt of the Earth" (94 min., Arizona miners strike against the mine owners, while also including how workers overcame racism and sexism; we will start with 47 minutes in class, then you finish on your own at here)
      3. (Apr. 22) Smith, Chapter 6, pp. 197-204, Labor in the 1950s, including Merger of AFL with CIO
        (Apr. 23) Assignment #8 due by Tuesday, 11 a.m., as assigned
        (Apr. 24-26 video) Migrant Agricultural Labor "Harvest of Shame" (1960, 52 min., CBS News on migrant farm workers)
    9. Civil Rights Era
      (Apr. 29) "The Great Society" and its Limits: Smith, Chapter 6, pp. 219-223.
    10. Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, 1968, and the 1999 Trial of MLK, Jr. assassination
      (Apr. 29 and May 1) "At the River I Stand" (56 min., Memphis sanitation workers strike, with M.L. King, Jr.'s participation
      (Apr. 30) Assignment #9 due by Tuesday, 11 a.m., as assigned
      Exactly one year before his assassination King stated his opposition to Vietnam War. 1999 Trial Verdict: Conspiracy to kill King
    11. Recent Important Events in Labor History
      1. (May 3) Three strikes: 1) Bank for equal pay and opportunity for promotion, The Wilmar 8, 1977; 2) PATCO defeat, 1981; 3) UPS victory, 1997
        (May 5) Assignment #10 due by Sunday, 11 a.m., as assigned
      2. (May 6) Epilogue to "Harvest of Shame": (video) "Watsonville on Strike" (1989, 65 min., California canning-worker struggles)
      3. (May 8) Resistance and setback, Wisconsin, 2011: In 1959, Wisconsin was the first state to allow collective bargaining rights to public employees in 1959, but Governor Walker successfully curtailed very many of those rights in spite of large protests. Walker was re-elected once, but in November 2018 he was defeated.

          Why is Wisconsin important in U.S. labor history? The "New Deal" legislation occurred, as we have studied, responding to the mass working-class organizing during the 1930s Depression. Much New Deal legislation, however, was preceded by Wisconsin legislation or developed by economists from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

          Professor John R. Commons joined the University of Wisconsin at Madison economics department in 1904, and worked with Governor Robert LaFollette, Sr., on civil service and public utility laws. Considered the founder of Institutional Economics, he was also an advocate of collective bargaining. "Commons drafted innovative social welfare, labor and economic legislation that made Wisconsin a national model for reform. Known as the 'spiritual father' of Social Security, most progressive social and labor legislation enacted in the 20th century can be attributed to him or his students and colleagues" (citing

          One of his students was Edwin Witte, who joined the Madison faculty after working in various positions aiding workers and advising the same progressive Governor, then Senator, and later Presidential candidate, Robert LaFollette. Under Franklin D. Roosevelt, Witte developed the legislation that became the Social Security Act of 1935, and is considered to be "the father of social security".

          The constellation of university research and progressive government became known as the "Wisconsin idea".

        Smith, Chapter 8, pp. 260-282 and pp. 335-344.
        (May 10) Assignment #11 due by Friday, 11 a.m., as assigned

    (May 10) No lecture on Friday (due to Professor's union meeting in Albany)

    Federal Legislation: Historical survey below

    Final exam: Wednesday, May 15, 2019, 9:00-11 a.m. in Knox 04 (start at 9 a.m. not 8 a.m. as on UB schedule)


    Federal Legislation on Labor from the 1930s. Toward the end of the course we will focus on major federal legislation on labor since the Great Depression of the 1930s:

    1. The Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932 made unions much less subject to federal injunctions. Before the act, federal injunctions were of virtual unlimited use by companies. The act put a 5-day limitation on federal injunctions, companies must attempt to bargain with unions, police must state they cannot maintain order, and companies would have to pay damages if unions wrongfully harmed. The implication was to move most injunctions to the States. The act also outlawed 'yellow-dog' contracts.
    2. Section 7a of the National Industrial Recovery Act of June 16, 1933, permitted workers to unionize under their choice. The act outlawed child labor and established the 40-hour workweek and minimum wage codes ($12-15 a week). It was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935. On July 5, 1935, it was replaced by the National Labor Relations Act -- the "Wagner" Act (which the Court did not block). This Act established the National Labor Relations Board and prohibited employers from engaging in 'unfair' labor practices and discriminating against workers who belonged to unions. The Board had powers to decide issues of labor representation. Senator Wagner hoped the act would help stabilize labor relations.
    3. Unemployment insurance as a federal/state program included with the Social Security Act of August 24, 1935; details here
    4. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established minimum wages (initially 25 cents per hour, raised in 1940, and rather often thereafter through the 1970s) and established time and a half for overtime beyond a 40 hour workweek. It was 'attached' to the NLRA in 1966, as was the latter Taft-Hartley Act.
    5. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, passed over President Truman's veto, amended the NLRA and can be argued to have resulted from opposition to the post-war wave of strikes. States could establish 'open shop' laws, rights of employees as individuals are reinforced, and procedures are introduced allowing the President to declare a strike a national emergency and thus require a 60-day 'cooling off' period and further powers. 'Secondary boycotts' were restricted and employers were given greater freedom to say anything they wanted about a union and many other anti-union provisions were added (e.g. injunctions were again made easier, as were fining of unions, and even emprisoning of leaders).
    6. Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959 represented a further restriction on unions. It established a lot of reporting requirements by unions to the government (supposedly to undercut corruption), as well as election procedures and prohibiting Communists from holding office. It moved from restricting to prohibiting 'secondary boycotts' and also placed some restrictions on picketing.
    7. Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.
    8. Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.
    9. Recent Surpreme Court rulings

    Many labor history leads are available from Labor History Links