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Southern Labor Archives: Work n' Progress - Lessons and Stories: Part VI: Modern Era

Modern Era: Overview

The two largest labor organizations, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), merged in the mid 1950s into the AFL-CIO. With its power combined, the nation's labor movement exercised unprecedented influence on the country's politics. Labor unions, however, like the rest of the country, found themselves caught up in the social movements that swept the country in the 1960s and 1970s. The civil rights and anti-war movements sometimes divided unions internally or pitted them against each other.

In the early 1950s, the AFL and CIO began to take steps toward a merger. The two organizations in 1953 signed a non-raiding pact, which ended decades of acrimony and infighting among them. In Georgia, the AFL and CIO state bodies put aside their differences and entered an unprecedented era of cooperation. In 1953 they issued a joint study calling for the Georgia General Assembly to allow increases in workmen's compensation for employees injured on the job and the families of workers who died on the job.

In 1955, the AFL and CIO officially joined their organizations. George Meany, AFL president, headed the new AFL-CIO. The numbers of union members continued to grow as public sector workers, like school teachers and government clerical employees, continued to vote for union representation. In the new atmosphere of unionism, not even bad publicity seemed to seriously damage unions. For example, after the AFL-CIO expelled the Teamsters Union in 1957 over allegations of rampant corruption, the organization continued to flourish.

Throughout the 1950s, even during the Korean War, workers continued their fight for wage and benefits increases. In 1952 the number of strikes rose above 5,000 for the first time ever. Steelworkers struck United States Steel Company for 116-days in 1959, one of the longest strikes of the era. Though the number of strikes dropped early in the 1960s, it jumped once again to the 5,000-level later that decade.

Meanwhile, rank-and-file unionists began to rebel against older, established union leadership. Many older union leaders found themselves faced with insurgencies that democratized their unions. The rank-and-file militancy manifested itself in other ways, too. The number of strikes decreased in the early 1960s, then increased later in the decade and in the early 1970s.

In Georgia, the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA) made a small gain in the tufted carpet industry in North Georgia. In 1962 workers at Dixie Bell Mills in Calhoun voted two to one in favor of union representation. The win brought more than 600 employees into the union fold and established a toehold in a fiercely non-union industry. But the TWUA lost subsequent elections at carpet makers in the area and never expanded its influence in the industry.

The textile union's attempt to organize industry giant J.P. Stevens also largely failed. The union managed to win scattered elections in North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama in the campaign that began in 1963 and ended in 1980. By the early 1980s, the union effort had stalled. Later in the decade Stevens became caught up in the flurry of mergers and takeovers and the company mostly disappeared.

If changing corporate structures presented new challenges for labor, so did the escalation of the Vietnam War and the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Meany and other AFL-CIO leaders strongly supported the U.S. action in Southeast Asia. Eventually, though, splits began to emerge. The United Auto Workers left the AFL-CIO in 1968 over its conservative views on foreign policy. Critics from the anti-war and student movements argued that labor's leaders had become reactionaries. The war disproportionately claimed the lives of young working class Americans. With his support for the war, Meany betrayed his constituents, they charged.

By the 1980s, with the ascent of conservatism symbolized by President Ronald Reagan, union membership had declined dramatically. Workers' organizations came under assault from many directions. The standard of living for American workers declined and hundreds of thousands of blue collar workers lost their jobs as companies closed plants and moved operations overseas. In the early 1990s, however, a new militancy in the union movement gave workers and unionists new hope.

Modern Era: Labor and Civil Rights

Unions had a mixed record on civil rights as well. Most unions eliminated discriminatory practices by the early 1960s. In 1959 A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, raised the issue of labor's treatment of its black members. The only black person sitting on the AFL-CIO's 27-person executive council, Randolph met with sharp criticism from Meany and other officials. Eventually the executive council censured Randolph for his criticism of certain labor leaders over civil rights issues.

By the early 1960s, black workers made up a quarter of the AFL-CIO membership. The United Auto Workers (UAW) and the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) had hundreds of thousands of black members. Government employee unions also enlisted large numbers of black members. But few blacks held leadership positions. In 1960, many black unionists formed the Negro American Labor Council. Cleveland Robinson took over the organization in 1966 and he became a sharp critic of many white union leaders.

Labor provided much of the base of support for the civil rights legislation of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Leaders of both the AFL and CIO had hailed the Brown decision of 1954 and their union platforms endorsed racial equality. Labor activists helped lay the groundwork for the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

At the rank-and-file level, however, policies by national leaders failed to translate into racial equality on the shop floor. Blacks had less access to higher skilled jobs and they sometimes responded by suing companies and unions when they believed they faced discrimination. The defection of many white rank-and-file unionists to the campaigns of George Wallace for governor of Alabama and for president also caused concern among union leaders.

Despite years of lawsuits, agitation, and some improvements in apprenticeship programs, African Americans made up tiny minorities in many of the major construction unions at the end of the 1960s. In 1969, the Nixon Administration unveiled its "Philadelphia Plan," designed to remedy the situation. The program required contractors bidding on federal projects to make good faith attempts to meet goals of black employment based on the racial makeup of the surrounding city.

Still, unions and civil rights activists often found common ground. Garbage workers' strikes throughout the South in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in cities like Memphis and Atlanta, turned into civil rights struggles. In Atlanta, more than 2,000 garbage workers held out for more than a month in March and April of 1970. They wanted a wage increase and a change in work rules that would allow them to pick up garbage at the curb, rather than having to carry it to the street from residents' backyards. The workers, represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), received support from civil rights groups like the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Early in the strike, Mayor Sam Massell attempted to fire union members who defied his orders to return to work. On the picket line, many strikers claimed they endured verbal abuse and physical attacks from police. The workers and the city eventually settled. The garbage men earned a pay raise, the change in work rules they wanted and the reinstatement of fired strikers.

Likewise, the activities of Dorothy Bolden and the National Domestic Workers Union (NDWU) in Atlanta during the late 1960s and 1970s bridged the gap between civil rights and labor. Bolden brought strong and innovative ideas about community activism with her when she began to organize. The NDWU also combined black working class consciousness with the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. "My primary struggle is for women," NDWU president Bolden said. "Until professional women unite with low-income women, we won't be as powerful as we should be."

Bolden started the "maids" union in Atlanta in 1968. At the time, female domestic workers in the city made between $3 and $10 a day. They received no protection under minimum wage law. The union grew quickly. In six months it had a few hundred members, and throughout the 1970s the organization maintained about 2,000 core members. Bolden and her union produced concrete results. By 1976, Atlanta maids earned a daily wage of $14. Seven years later, their wages rose to $40 a day and the maids were covered under federal minimum wage standards.

Over the next two decades, however, workers and unions generally suffered. Wages declined, family income stagnated, work hours increased and the access to affordable housing and medical insurance that workers had enjoyed since World War II dried up. By 1989, factory workers earned $20 less a week in real wages than they had in 1977. The median income in terms of real wages declined after the mid-1970s. Americans found themselves spending 160 more hours a year at work for less pay than they had two decades before.

Deregulation allowed companies to close older plants and move jobs overseas in the rush to increase profits. Companies also merged, and workers suffered layoffs in the process. These changes took a dramatic toll on organized labor. The USWA, for example, lost 827,000 members, the UAW lost 659,000 members, and the Teamsters membership dropped by about half a million during this time. Only public sector union movement grew. By the 1980s, only 11 percent private sector workers could call themselves union members.

The loss in numbers mirrored a loss in political clout. Many conservative politicians heralded a new era, where working class voters bolted the Democrats= New Deal coalition in favor of Republican candidates. But more than anything, working class voters simply stayed away from the polls. Only 19 percent of blue collar employees cast ballots in the presidential election of 1988. By contrast, throughout the 1980s, 70 percent of white collar workers went to the polls. Conservatives and Republicans benefited tremendously from this trend.

Modern Era: PATCO

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 symbolized a new era for the nation. The Republican tide that elected Reagan had been growing since the early 1960s. His ascent to the presidency ushered in an almost unprecedented time of anti-union activity. Though Reagan remains the only former union member ever elected to the nation's highest office (he had been a member and officer in the Screen Actors Guild), the president and the GOP set about dismantling the remaining legal protections labor unions enjoyed. Reagan's first showdown with labor, ironically, came with a union that had supported him in 1980 over incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter.

The president fired 13,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in the summer of 1981, when they defied federal regulations and went on strike. Reagan went further, however, than merely terminating their employment. In an ominous action that would have long-lasting ramifications, the president banned the striking PATCO members from ever working for the federal government again.

The 350 air traffic controllers who walked out in Atlanta symbolized the challenges that PATCO members faced with their open defiance of the federal government. A federal grand jury indicted several of them for illegally striking against the government. Thirty-five Atlanta-area PATCO members, one of them a regional vice president of the union, found themselves facing criminal contempt citations. Though the strike had a profound effect on the lives of these workers, the results of the PATCO strike reverberated throughout the American labor movement. Reagan and the federal government sent a clear message to workers and companies involved in labor disputes. Increasingly in the 1980s, union members who went on strike faced companies willing to hire scabs to permanently replace them.

Like the PATCO strikers, other unions faced a hostile federal government in the hands of conservative Republicans. The NDWU, for example, endured a grand jury investigation of its finances. The union and Bolden were cleared of any wrongdoing, but membership in the NDWU dropped.

Still, unions continued to fight back in the 1980s and early 1990s. A strike by thousands of International Association of Machinists (IAM) members against Eastern Airlines that began in 1989 and ended almost two years later illustrated the determination of unionists to hold out against overwhelming odds. The Machinists brought clear demands to the bargaining table with Eastern management. They wanted a pay raise, strict limits on the use of part-time workers and a decrease in the use of contractors.

Eastern management, led by corporate raider Frank Lorenzo, also had a clear agenda. The company wanted the IAM to take pay cuts and allow a freer use of part-timers and sub-contractors. Other management goals were not as up front. Lorenzo had squared off against the Machinists union in the early 1980s at Continental Air Lines. When the Machinists and other unions went on strike, he took the company into bankruptcy. When Continental reemerged, Lorenzo refused to honor the company's labor contracts and thus broke the unions. IAM members feared Lorenzo would try to do the same thing at Eastern and they prepared for a long battle in the years leading up to the 1989 negotiations.

Pilots and flight attendants joined the Machinists in their walkout against Eastern, which began on March 4, 1989. As union members had feared, Lorenzo took Eastern into bankruptcy five days later. He began selling some of the company's assets and attempting to operate with strikebreakers. By the fall of 1989, Eastern claimed service had returned to 80 percent of its flight schedules. The pilots and attendants, fearing the worst, ended their walkouts. The Machinists continued on.

Things did not go as planned for Lorenzo either. In mid-April of 1990, the Texas-based businessman faced a revolt among the company's unsecured creditors. They demanded that he be replaced after the airline suffered $1.2 billion in losses and failed to make its repayments. The court replaced Lorenzo with a bankruptcy trustee.

The Machinists strike continued on, ending only when Eastern essentially went out of business almost a year later. Thousands of workers lost their jobs in the fight. "A lot of people's lives were shattered," said Bob Fuhrman, a former Eastern pilot from Fayetteville who found another job. "What happened to this company just wasn't right. We need a forum, on the record, where our grievances can be heard."

The Machinists were not alone. Many major strikes of the late 1980s and early 1990s played out the same way. A strike at Greyhound bus lines ended in bankruptcy, while unionists locked out at Ravenswood Aluminum Company in West Virginia faced armed guards, replacement workers and barbed wire before prevailing after a two year dispute. Workers at Caterpillar and Bridgestone/Firestone also endured protracted labor disputes. The United Mine Workers faced millions of dollars in fines resulting from its strike against Pittston Coal Company in 1989 and 1990. By 1992, the number of strikes involving more than 1,000 workers dropped from 235 in 1978 to thirty-five in 1992.

Modern Era: Changes

The losses at the political level continued. Though the AFL-CIO strongly backed Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign, he joined with conservative Democrats and Republicans to push through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The fight seemed to energize unions, despite the loss. Aggressive union heads urged AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland to step down, and in 1995 a new group of leaders ascended to head the body. Under the leadership of new president John Sweeney, the AFL-CIO pledged to re-emphasize organizing non-union workers. Labor began to rebuild its traditional bonds with civil rights and community activists.

In 1991, Ron Carey won the presidency of the Teamsters Union, in the first election by the union's rank-and-file in its history. Carey moved to rid the union of corruption and led the Teamsters through a series of national strikes, most importantly a walkout at United Parcel Service (UPS) in August of 1997. The walkout lasted just over two weeks, but the Teamsters worked to convince the general public that their issues -- part-time workers and pensions -- were important to all workers. The workers forced UPS to compromise on these issues, and seemingly won the strike.

The 1996 Atlanta Olympics also provided the backdrop for a new struggle between organized labor and business leaders. Stewart Acuff, president of the Atlanta Labor Council, began to campaign early to force the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) to make commitments to hire workers at fair wages. "If workers and students and neighborhood people are in the streets because the Olympics have been used to once again exploit people, it's not going to create the desired effect in the city of Atlanta," Acuff said in 1992. "If the construction work is done union, we can recruit residents out of the Olympic neighborhoods and put them to work and put them into our apprenticeship programs."

Their demands fell on deaf ears, so union members did indeed take to the streets. When the Olympic flag arrived from Spain in September of 1992, thousands of Atlanta unionists held a spirited march through town. With the Rev. Jesse Jackson leading them, the workers denounced Olympics organizers for failing to require union workers on Games projects. This march represented a revival of the labor-civil rights coalition of past decades. The marchers carried signs bearing slogans and shouted and cheered as they marched. "First-class athletes. First-class facilities. First-class images. There must be first class wages and benefits," Jackson told the workers. "It's not merely an economic struggle, it's a moral struggle. If we can bail out Europe and bail out Japan and Hungary and Poland and savings and loan thieves, we can bail out America and pay the American workers. Let that process begin right here in Atlanta." In the months following the 1996 Olympics, it became apparent that the efforts of Acuff and the Atlanta activists had worked. National magazines and other publications proclaimed the Atlanta Olympics "the most widely union-organized Games ever."

Unions had scored major victories with the Atlanta Olympics and the UPS strike. But the challenges continue. Federal mediators refused to certify Ron Carey as president of the Teamsters in 1997, after allegations of financial misdeeds during his 1996 reelection campaign surfaced. While Carey vowed to clear his name, unions continued to march toward the second millennium. They had restored important links to civil rights and community groups that had helped them make crucial gains in the mid 1990s. They began to reach out to students and non-traditional workers as both supporters and activists. Several unions, most prominent among them the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, started a Labor Party in the hope of moving workers' concerns to the center of the American political debate. After almost two decades of continuous setbacks, unions again took the offensive.

Modern Era: An Economic and Moral Struggle: Gains and Losses in the Modern Era

The AFL and CIO merged in 1955, ending decades of infighting. The labor movement exercised unprecedented influence on the country=s politics with the combined strength of the two federations.

Unions, despite high levels of black membership, had a mixed record on civil rights. Many blacks continued to face informal segregation that kept them from skilled jobs, and few African-Americans held leadership positions. Anti-war activists also criticized labor=s support for the Vietnam war.

Labor and civil rights activists often found common ground, however. Garbage strikes in the Southeast in the late 1960s and 1970s often turned into civil rights struggles. The National Domestic Workers Union (NDWU) won gains for black domestic workers in Atlanta during this time. 

President Reagan's decision fire thousands of air traffic controllers and ban them from federal employment for life for going on strike in 1981 ushered in an anti-labor era. Bitter and long strikes characterized the 1980s and early 1990s, as labor suffered major setbacks. 

Labor began to rebound in the early 1990s, with the election of reformers to the heads of various unions and at the top of the AFL-CIO. Unions won major gains at the Atlanta Olympics after they took to the streets in protest. 

Modern Era: Fighting for Workers and the Poor: James Orange, Civil Rights and Labor

When asked about James Orange's career as a civil rights and labor organizer, Coretta Scott King remembered that the Atlanta activist had helped to continue the fight for the rights of the poor and oppressed after her husband's murder in 1968.

"James' whole life has been committed to the struggle to liberate," she told a newspaper reporter.

Orange's career as an activist bridges the gap between labor and civil rights. As the coordinator of special projects for the AFL-CIO he has participated in more than 300 organizing campaigns across the Southeast.

In the early 1990s, Orange led a delegation to South Africa to help define that country's needs in areas like law enforcement, medicine, transportation and computer technology. He helped to organize the annual march to celebrate the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King in Atlanta.

An ordained Baptist minister, Orange also was an associate minister at St. Peter Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1942, Orange cut his organizing teeth during the civil rights struggles of the late 1950s. He helped protest requirements that made blacks sit in the back of buses in that city in 1957.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference hired him as a field staffer in 1965 after he turned out a huge crowd for a rally featuring Dr. King in Selma, Ala.

Orange served as part of the "ground crew" that traveled through the Southeast motivating people to take action against the system that oppressed them. He sometimes found himself a target at rallies where whites attacked demonstrators.

"I'd take a hit,"he remembered. "I'd take a lick, a whupping -- without retaliating. But I never, not once, went limp in a demonstration."

Orange began to work for the AFL-CIO in February of 1977, after participating in several union drives and strikes. He helped with the effort to make sure that union members had opportunities during the Atlanta Olympics, and has continued to fight for workers and poor people in his new capacity.

The Atlanta Journal and Constitution

Modern Era: Sources

AFL-CIO, "A Short History of American Labor," AFL-CIO American Federationist, March 1981.

Mercer Griffin Evans, The History of the Organized Labor Movement in Georgia, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Chicago, 1929.

Gary M. Fink, "'We Are City Builders, Too': Atlanta Typographers and New South Boosterism, Atlanta Style," Atlanta History, Winter 1993.

Doug Flamming, Creating the Modern South: Millhands and Managers in Dalton, Georgia, 1894-1984.

Matthew Hild, "Organizing Across the Color Line: The Knights of Labor and Black Recruitment Efforts in Small-Town Georgia," The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Summer 1997.

Alex Lichtenstein, Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South, and "Twice the Work of Free Labor? Labor, Punishment and the Task System in Georgia's Convict Mines," in Race, Class and Community in Southern Labor History.

Gretchen E. Maclachlan, "Atlanta's Industrial Women, 1879-1920," Atlanta History, Winter 1993.

Julia Walsh, "'Horny-Handed Sons of Toil': Millworkers, Populists, and the Press in Augusta, 1886-1893," The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Summer 1997

Mark V. Wetherington, "The Savannah Negro Laborers' Strike of 1891," in Southern Workers and Their Unions, 1880-1975.

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