Outline of US Labor History with a Focus on the Role of the Left

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UPDATED and EXPANDED May 6, 2009. Below is a rough outline of the US labor movement that I created as part of a presentation. I’m attempting to periodize by decade, important organizations and broad trends. A particular focus I attempt to also give is looking at the changing relationship of the left within the labor movement. This article is now mirrored on the Black Rose Anarchist Federation site.  -AW

Outline of US Labor History with a Focus on the Role of the Left

· Colonial through Pre-Civil War Period– indentured servants, sailors and slaves organize minor labor protests and rebellions, and local level proto-union organizations. Some of these efforts included both white indentured servants and slaves cooperating together. Fearful elites grant privileges to whites servants and enshrined a harsh system of chattel slavery for Africans such as through the Naturalization Act of 1790 which granted citizenship only to “free white persons.” Also during this period sexual division of labor would produce laws, culture and practices of unpaid work for girls and women that would last for centuries.

· Race and Labor- Race plays a key role in US labor history whereas early white servants and later workers were granted privileges, access to land, and the right to vote (far before male suffrage was granted in most western countries). Leading into the Civil War period, many white workers cling to the ideology of “free labor,” seeing themselves as free whites and wanting to return to an imagined golden era of artisans, small farmers and shop keepers which they hold in contrast to unfree, slavish and permanently proletarianized workers of color. Because of this, much of the history of unionism has been of white, skilled male workers (though the definition of who was considered white changed over time to incorporate various European immigrants such as Germans, Irish, Eastern Europeans, etc) protecting their privileges against the unskilled, women and non-white workers. Also a much smaller current of homespun labor radicalism emerges, which is sometimes called a “proto-marxism” by historians.

Civil War is a defining conflict in US history over what type of labor system the country will have with Northern elites eventually imposing free labor in contrast to Southern plantation owners who wished to maintain race-based chattel slavery. Following the collapse of Reconstruction after Civil War, white elites impose the laws and customs associated with Jim Crow that creates an apartheid system that lastes into the 1960’s and making blacks the most exploited segment of workers. Laws created across the country during the Jim Crow era, such as for vagrancy, apply for all poor and non-white.      Continue reading

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