In a world where the great social issues of our time are often consigned to bumper stickers, the accomplishments of organized labor are no exception: "The Labor Movement, the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend."
This year, bumper stickers extolling the value of unions have been replaced by another modern cultural standby--the top 10 list.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), one of the nation's largest public unions, asked a group of leading academic labor historians to come up with a list of organized labor's top 10 accomplishments in the 20th century.
Armed with a sheet of 25 suggestions and instructions to add anything else they thought important, the seven historians, including former labor secretary John Dunlop of Harvard University, came up with a top 10 list that includes a few surprise entries.
Some of labor's accomplishments, as decided by the historians, seem rather self-evident--the law that created the eight-hour workday and overtime pay, for instance. Also making the top 10 list were the creation of Social Security and the law that permitted workers to form a union and bargain collectively.
But none of these achievements, which still affect the lives of every worker in America, earned the No. 1 ranking.
That honor, on the basis of weighted voting by the seven labor experts, was the founding of the Committee for Industrial Organization by John L. Lewis in 1935. The CIO would serve as the catalyst for boosting millions of semiskilled industrial workers into the economic middle class and providing organized labor with its biggest membership base for nearly half a century. The committee changed its name to the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1938.
It was the CIO that simultaneously gave birth to the United Auto Workers union and the United Steelworkers of America after being booted out of the craft-dominated American Federation of Labor, which wanted no part of the Lewis operation. The AFL opposed any effort to organize workers across trade jurisdictions in a factory.
AFSCME President Gerald McEntee, in announcing the top 10 list, called Lewis, the longtime president of the United Mine Workers of America, a visionary who "opened the union door to what became labor's core constituency--mass production workers." The logic of Lewis's idea eventually became self-evident--leading to the eventual merger of the AFL and CIO.
Labor's help to bring about passage of the Social Security Act in 1935 was second on the top 10 list, with the academics citing critical labor support for one of the cornerstone pieces of New Deal legislation.
For some workers, particularly women and minorities in the work force during the 1960s and '70s, it may come as a surprise that the labor movement, with a long record of discrimination during the first half of the century, is credited by the academics with putting Title VII, the employment discrimination ban, into the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Working with civil rights groups during the Kennedy administration, the AFL-CIO in 1963 made it clear the labor movement was prepared to merely go through the motions in supporting the bill in Congress unless it included the prohibition against employment discrimination.
Other labor landmarks making the top 10 list are more expected.
Passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 gave workers the right to form unions and required employers to bargain collectively with unions on issues of pay, hours of work and other conditions of employment. The law, also known as the Wagner Act in recognition of its sponsor, Sen. Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.), remains the cornerstone of federal labor law.
Another winner in the survey was the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set the first federal minimum wage--25 cents an hour--banned child labor for all businesses involved in interstate commerce and required overtime pay. It was the FLSA that set the eight-hour workday as well. Labor had been lobbying for a limit on the workday since the end of the Civil War.
Perhaps the most ambiguous event to make the list was labor's support for the World War II mobilization effort. Labor unions pledged not to strike during the war, having a dramatic impact on labor's public image, but a more long-lasting impact came from the participation of unions on the War Labor Board.
With wages frozen during the war effort, the board created such staples as paid vacations, cost-of-living allowances, fringe benefits such as employer-paid health plans, grievance arbitration and a long list of other items. Much of the employment benefit structure of the postwar era got its start at the War Labor Board.
This, of course, may have helped contribute to the wave of strikes that hit the nation in 1946 immediately after the war, as 4.6 million union workers struck every major industry in a successful effort to keep employers from rolling back the wartime gains. After the new benefits became part of union contracts, major nonunion employers around the nation were forced to give the new benefits to their own workers.
It was at this point that organized labor began to set the pattern for wages and fringe benefits throughout the economy. That is no longer the case, as union membership continues to shrink as a percentage of the nation's work force and labor has been forced to accept contract concessions that reflect the changes imposed on nonunion workers.
Another of labor's accomplishments to make the top 10 list was the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. And while labor loves the law, it's a bit chagrined that it has to give a lot of credit for the measure to one of its archenemies: Richard M. Nixon. AFSCME's McEntee noted that "it took almost a century--and a conservative Republican president, Richard M. Nixon--to sign the first comprehensive federal workplace safety law."
OSHA has been a Nixon accomplishment the business community would just as soon forget. The safety law was the first regulatory measure to set prescriptive standards for the workplace across industry boundaries, often leaving one business group fighting another over safety standards.
But OSHA wasn't the only Nixon legacy in the workplace. In the same year he signed the OSHA legislation, he also signed the Environmental Protection Act, creating the Environmental Protection Agency, another business favorite. Four years later he signed the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), easing pension eligibility rules and insuring the majority of corporate pensions.
Rounding out the top 10 list are two strikes that were early landmarks for labor--the 1912 "Bread and Roses" strike by 30,000 textile workers in Lawrence, Mass., and the 1936 UAW sit-down strikes against General Motors Corp. in Flint, Mich.--and the spurt in public-sector organizing after President Kennedy signed an executive order recognizing the rights of federal workers to join unions.
Kennedy's action also sparked a major drive to organize state and local public employees. Public employees--often represented by AFSCME--make up the largest single segment of the trade union movement today.
WORKING THEIR WAY TO THE TOP
A panel of seven historians ranked the founding of the Committee for Industrial Organization by John L. Lewis in 1935 as the top accomplishment of organized labor in the 20th century.
1. CIO founded: 1935
2. Social Security Act: 1935
3. National Labor Relations Act: 1935
4. GM Sitdown Strikes: 1936
5. Civil Rights Act/Title VII: 1964
6. Public Sector Organizing: 1962
7. Fair Labor Standards Act: 1938
8. Bread and Roses Strike: 1912
9. World War II Support: 1940s
10. Occupational Health & Safety Act: 1970
SOURCE: American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees
CAPTION: Labor's efforts helped bring about passage of the Social Security Act, which ranked second on the list. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the act in August 1935.
CAPTION: President Kennedy signed an executive order allowing federal workers to form unions.
CAPTION: Nixon signed the acts covering occupational safety and environmental protection.
CAPTION: The United Auto Workers' 1936 sit-down strike against General Motors at a factory in Flint, Mich., was an early landmark for labor.
CAPTION: In 1935, John L. Lewis founded the Committee for Industrial Organization, which led to the expansion of labor's membership base.