Organized labor collapsed in the 1920s. Woodrow Wilson’s progressive overreach, a Red Scare, leftist terror attacks, and a booming economy doomed labor to irrelevancy. Boom times gave way to the Great Depression further crippling the labor movement. Unions struggled without workers. The New Deal and desperation changed labor’s fortunes. Beginning in 1932, labor began making a comeback. Government support and successful actions brought unionism back from the brink. By World War II, labor had recovered after nearly two decades in the wilderness to become a major force.
By 1932, unemployment stood near 25%. Potential workers stood in bread lines and preached radical politics. The politicians noticed the radicalization and moved to blunt it. President Herbert Hoover signed the Norris-La Guardia Act into law easing restrictions on union actions. Several states passed similar acts. The act marked a change in government policy that Franklin Roosevelt would take to the next level.
Roosevelt defeated Hoover for the presidency in 1932. His first hundred days in office brought a flurry of initiatives designed to bring the nation out of the economic malaise. The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) legalized labor organization. Workers had the right to “organize and bargain collectively through representative of their own choosing, and shall be free from the interference, restraint, or coercion of employers." The act spawned many to unionize. However, the Supreme Court invalidated the NIRA in 1935.
The New Dealers passed the Wagner Act in response to the Supreme Court’s invalidation of NIRA. The act freed unions from constraints imposed by government and business. It protected workers’ rights, the right to strike, collective bargain, and created the National Labor Relations Board. Unionism now had legal backing and government support. However, unions still faced hostility from employers and some in the public.
On May 26, 1937, the United Auto Workers (UAW) targeted Ford Motor Company. They demanded 6-hour days and $8 a day. This would have raised wages $2 and reduced the workday by two hours. Organizers handed out leaflets to workers at the River Rouge plant. Ford sent security to break heads. Many workers were beaten. Some claim the organizers attempted to goad security into violence for public relations. Whatever happened, the UAW scored a major coup and public support.
A few months earlier, the UAW scored a major victory against General Motors in Flint, Michigan. The union formed in 1935 and decided to tangle with G.M. the following year. At the time, G.M. owned Flint making the task significantly harder. On December 30, 1936, workers went on strike at the Fisher plant. The UAW promised not to settle unless they gained a broad agreement covering all plants. General Motors decided to move operations and bust the union. In response, the UAW occupied the plant. The strikers captured the plant and refused to allow anyone to enter. When the police attempted to move in, the strikers turned fire houses on them. G.M. won court injunctions, but the UAW ignored them. Eventually, the auto maker backed down handing the union a major victory. UAW membership ballooned from 30,000 to 500,000.
Government support and union actions brought legitimacy to the labor movement. By 1940, union membership reached 8.7 million. World War II expanded that number to over 14 million people. By 1945, over 1/3 of the country belonged to unions. The movement had essentially returned from the dead.