Cover Page

Labor in America:
A History

Melvyn Dubofsky

Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History & Sociology, Binghamton University


Joseph A. McCartin

Professor of History, Georgetown University

Ninth Edition

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1.1 Certificate of indenture, 1767
1.2 An African American servant at work tending to a white master
2.1 Notice of a mechanics' meeting, 1774
2.2 Mechanics' Association membership certificate, 1800
3.1 Ship carpenter at work, 1807
3.2 “By Hammer and Hand All Arts Do Stand.”
4.1 Bricklayers' bill of prices, 1814
4.2 Ely Moore, leader of the General Trades' Union and the National Trades' Union
5.1 Women shoe workers from Lynn, Massachusetts, striking for better wages, 1860
5.2 Lowell, Massachusetts, a model mill town
6.1 William Sylvis, president of the National Labor Union
7.1 Labor Day parade, New York City, September 5, 1882
7.2 Men and women harass a “blackleg” strikebreaker during a coal miners' strike in Ohio, 1880s
8.1 Founders of the Knights of Labor depicted holding a portrait of their organization's first leader, Uriah S. Stephens
8.2 Terence V. Powderly, leader of the Knights of Labor
8.3 Terence Powderly and Frank J. Farrell at the tenth annual convention of the Knights of Labor, 1886
9.1 Samuel Gompers, first leader of the American Federation of Labor, 1886
10.1 The Battle of Homestead, 1892
11.1 United Mine Workers membership certificate, 1890s
11.2 President Woodrow Wilson, Samuel Gompers, and William B. Wilson, 1916
12.1 Eugene V. Debs, Socialist Party leader
12.2 Members of the Massachusetts state militia keep strikers away from the mills during the Lawrence textile strike, 1912
12.3 IWW leaders: William D. “Big Bill” Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Carlo Tresca
12.4 A sample of IWW propaganda stickers
13.1 Samuel Gompers in a World War I propaganda picture, circa 1918
13.2 Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, a legendary labor activist, and William Z. Foster, leader of Communist Party
14.1 A 1920s poster from the Goodyear Company
15.1 Robert Fechner, director of the Civil Conservation Corps (CCC), President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Henry Wallace, US secretary of agriculture, with formerly unemployed CCC workers
16.1 CIO founders Sidney Hillman, John L. Lewis, and Philip Murray, 1937
16.2 Sit-down strikers hanging effigies from the windows of Fisher Body Plant No. 2 in Flint, Michigan, January 1937
16.3 Organizers Richard Frankenstein and Walter Reuther after being beaten by Ford servicemen while trying to hand out union circulars at the Dearborn plant, May 26, 1937
17.1 Sidney Hillman, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America
18.1 Women at work on an assembly line, Douglas Aircraft bomber plant, Long Beach, California
18.2 American labor supports the war effort: Philip Murray of the CIO and William Green of the AFL
19.1 John L. Lewis surveys the damage after a mine disaster in West Frankfurt, Illinois
19.2 George Meany and Walter Reuther clasping hands at the merger of the AFL and CIO
20.1 Teamster leaders James R. Hoffa and Frank Fitzsimmons, 1966
20.2 Cesar Chavez, the first successful organizer of farmworkers
20.3 Chavez's union colleague, Dolores Huerta, signaling workers to strike, near Delano, California
21.1 A solidarity rally for PATCO strikers, Houston, Texas, 1981
21.2 Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, at Dartmouth College, 1982
22.1 John Sweeney, of the Service Employees International Union
22.2 Linda Chavez-Thompson, of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees
22.3 Manuel Morales marching in a massive May Day march in downtown Los Angeles, May 1, 2006
22.4 Andy Stern, SEIU president, 2009
23.1 Members of the United Automobile Workers in Canton, Michigan, 2009
23.2 President Barack Obama addresses the AFL-CIO, 2009
23.3 AFL-CIO leaders Richard Trumka, Liz Shuler, and Tefere Gebre
23.4 Mary Kay Henry, Service Employees International Union president, with members of her union, 2015
23.5 A “Fight for 15” demonstration in Kansas City, Missouri, 2015


AA Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers
ACA Affordable Care Act
ACTWU Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union
ACWA Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America
AFL American Federation of Labor
AFSCME American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees
AFT American Federation of Teachers
ALA Alliance for Labor Action
ARU American Railway Union
BCTGM Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union
BSCP Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
CIO Committee for Industrial Organization/Congress of Industrial Organizations
CMIU Cigar Makers' International Union
COPE Committee on Political Education
CPUSA Communist Party of America
CtW Change to Win
DLC Democratic Leadership Council
EFCA Employee Free Choice Act
EITC Earned Income Tax Credit
EMOs education management organizations
FEPC Fair Employment Practices Commission
GATT General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade
GM General Motors
IAM International Association of Machinists
ICFTU International Confederation of Free Trade Unions
ILGWU International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union
ILWU International Longshore and Warehouse Union
IWW Industrial Workers of the World
NAFTA North American Free Trade Agreement
NAM National Association of Manufacturers
NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization
NCF National Civic Federation
NDLON National Day Laborers Organizing Network
NDMB National Defense Mediation Board
NDWA National Domestic Workers Alliance
NLRB National Labor Relations Board
NLU National Labor Union
NRA National Recovery Administration
NTWA National Taxi Workers Alliance
NUHW National Union of Healthcare Workers
NWGA National Guest Workers Alliance
NWLB National War Labor Board
OECD Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development
OPEC Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries
OUR Walmart Organization United for Respect at Walmart
PAC Political Action Committee
PATCO Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization
SEIU Service Employees International Union
SEIU-UHW United Healthcare Workers West
SPA Socialist Party of America
SWOC Steel Workers' Organizing Committee
TDU Teamsters for a Democratic Union
TPP Trans-Pacific Partnership
TSA Transportation Security Administration
TTIP Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership
TUUL Trade Union Unity League
UAW United Automobile Workers
UBC United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners
UFCW United Food and Commercial Workers International Union
UFW United Farm Workers of America
UMW United Mine Workers
UNITE Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees
UPS United Parcel Service
USAS United Students Against Sweatshops
USW United Steelworkers of America
WFM Western Federation of Miners
WTO World Trade Organization


We would like to thank Andrew Davidson and Philip Thomas for their careful editing of the text, our research assistant Alyssa Russell for gathering new photographs and permissions, and Julia Kirk, Allison Kostka, James Schultz, and Fiona Screen of Wiley for their work in bringing the ninth edition to press.


The contours and content of this book have evolved in response to the experiences of American workers and their organizations as they have played out over the course of the last 70 years. When Foster Rhea Dulles began drafting the first edition of this textbook after World War II, the American labor movement was ascendant, benefiting from a surge of organizing which had unionized mass production industries. With nearly one-third of the nation's workers in unions, workers experiencing unprecedented improvements in their living standards, and organized labor emerging as a powerful political influence, many believed that the country was entering what the leading labor economist of the time, Sumner H. Slichter, called a “laboristic age.” By the time the first edition of Dulles's book was published in 1949, such boundless optimism was already tempered by the onset of the Cold War and an equally hardnosed war of position between employers and unions in the postwar era. Yet the fact that labor drew the interest of Dulles, whose first books dealt with the history of the US in the Pacific, indicated an important shift in scholarly attention to the history of workers and their movement. Up to that point, labor history was still largely the province of labor economists who had followed in the footsteps of John R. Commons. Few trained historians had embraced the subject before Dulles began this textbook, which he revised twice before his death in 1970.

By the time Melvyn Dubofsky began his first revision of the text for the fourth edition in 1980, both the nature of labor history scholarship and the condition of labor in America had changed markedly. Scholarship was blossoming as the “New Labor History” attracted a generation of historians who sought to break from the institutional focus on trade unionism and collective bargaining characteristic of the Commons school. Influenced by the intellectual and political currents of the 1960s, this generation set out to discover the history of the American working class in all of its diversity. These scholars did their job so well that it became difficult to craft a unitary synthesis of US labor history that took account of all of their findings.

But even as this new scholarship poured forth, the union movement was entering a period of crisis from which it has yet to emerge. Union membership and the practice of collective bargaining had been temporarily buoyed by the organization of public sector workers in the 1960 and 1970s. However, during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, the expansion of public sector organization halted and the nation first encountered a series of economic, social, and political developments that were to undermine union strength in the years to come. Dubofsky's first edition of this text appeared in 1984, and coincided with President Ronald Reagan's landslide reelection. The only former union president to win the nation's highest office, Reagan's administration and the antilabor policies it promoted ironically came to symbolize the breakdown of a once broad and bipartisan support for collective bargaining that had held sway in the years since World War II. As Dubofsky continued to revise this text over the last thirty years, globalization, financialization, increased antiunionism, and the rise of neoliberal economic policy accelerated the breakdown of the labor relations model that was just taking shape when Dulles began his work.

As Joseph McCartin joins this enterprise, it seems clear that American labor history is entering a new and as yet uncharted era. Over the past forty years, world capitalism has undergone an enormous transformation with huge implications for American workers. Globalization has tied the fates of workers around the world to each other as never before. New models of corporate structure and employment, driven by technological innovations and the power of financial markets, are remaking the nature of the firm and of workers' relationships to their work and their employer. Workers and labor movements everywhere have struggled to find their footing in this new world, and arguably none have struggled more than the American labor movement, whose story is chronicled in these pages.

The arrival of the Great Recession in 2008 punctuated the turn into this new epoch. The last edition of this text came out in the midst of that recession. Although the Great Recession has now passed, it has left social upheaval and an increased sense of economic and political insecurity in its wake, developments that have led to the surprising election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency. It seems clear that a new era is dawning, one that resembles that of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in its implications for workers. As in that earlier time, work is being reorganized in ways that undermine solidarity, unions are in retreat, inequality is surging, and there seems to be little hope in the near term for the enactment of national policies that would bring more stability and justice to the lives of workers, let alone empower them to have more say over their working lives and the direction of the economy. Yet, as in that earlier time, public unease with the concentration of power and wealth is growing and creative ideas are percolating through the ranks of workers and worker organizations. As the twentieth-century model of union organization, government regulation, and welfare state support breaks down, unions have begun developing unprecedented forms of international cooperation, and new kinds of worker organization that some have taken to calling “alt-labor” have begun to emerge. Whether this creativity foretells a twenty-first-century revival of worker organization is as yet unclear. In this volume we seek to put these new developments in historical perspective.

This text focuses, as previous editions have, on the history of workers' collective responses to the conditions of working life that they have faced over more than two centuries. It does not aspire to be a history of the American working-class experience as such. In one volume we cannot evoke the full variety of that experience, or fully limn the polyglot complexities of working-class culture and consciousness. Nor is this volume written in the framework of the “history of capitalism” that has become a recent focus of scholars – although, to be sure, it draws insights from that scholarship. While the history of capitalism provides a necessary context for understanding American workers and US labor history, the story of workers' responses to capitalism's development constitutes its own tale and requires its own stage, for it is a long, rich, and complex story. As a world takes shape around us in which workers' ability to act collectively to influence their futures seems more enfeebled than it has been in a century, it is also a history that demands deepened understanding and refreshed remembrance – now more than ever. In that spirit we commend this work to you.

November 15, 2016

Melvyn Dubofsky
Joseph A. McCartin