Labor Union History in California

The various labor movements in California have been among the most important in our nation. As a state with a tremendously diversified economy, California’s workers are employed in every industry imaginable; from our huge agriculture base, to our docks, to aerospace, to construction, to the entertainment industry-the list is endless. And in each industry, workers struggled to organize themselves into collectives to shape the labor landscape of California.

Some of California’s labor movements have represented significant political events on a national if not a global scale-as in the historic struggle of labor activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. The gains made be the United Farm Workers inspired workers every where to fight for living wages and reasonable working conditions, and it proved that poor people can claim their rights when they organize and speak in one voice. In a word, labor unions equal POWER.

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But it didn’t start with Chavez. In 1894, California held its first strike organized by San Francisco and Sacramento Carpenters who pushed for a whole sixteen dollars a day. Well, they settled for fourteen. However, a year later the first official union was organized in California, the San Francisco Typography Society. Formed by printers at the Alta California newspaper, the San Francisco Typography opposed a wage cut and in no time the power of collective bargaining overwhelmed its first obstacle. The first of many.

Unions thrived for several decades after, sending a sonic boom of labor reform across the nation. Working conditions improved and wages increased. Life in America as we knew it over took a change of titanic proportions, for the better, of course. Despite all this success, in October 1929, the New York stock market crashed, and the value of stocks declined. People lost their jobs, their farms and their businesses. By 1932, 13 million men and women were unemployed. In the past, depressions had usually hurt unions. Unemployment meant a sharp drop in workers’ dues, then unions became almost powerless to prevent decreases in wages or long working hours. Nonetheless, the Great Depression of the 1930s actually benefited unions.

In 1932 a man by the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President. Roosevelt, taking the leadership of the all but paralyzed nation on March 4, 1933, (The Presidential Honeymoon), undertook a number of programs designed to recharge the economy, feed the unemployed and restore confidence. At his urging, Congress passed the Wagner Act which guaranteed workers the right to join unions and bargain collectively. As a result, the law created a powerful National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Although it had no real enforcement capabilities, the Wagner Act was seen by millions of workers as a green light-if not a government invitation-to join unions. But the drive was delayed at first by a dispute within the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL was made up mainly of skilled workers organized into craft unions. But millions of unskilled workers were in giant industries like steel, autos, rubber and textiles. As a result, John L. Lewis and other union leaders broke away from the AFL and formed a new labor organization that became know as the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) which soon merged with the AFL making the AFL-CIO.

Consequently, this spawned a drastic increase in membership in unions in the early 1930s and 40s. Of all this, California especially procured the benefits-as the number of farmless farmers living in the “Dust Bowl” moved to California increased, so did the number of union members.

Unfortunately, resent times have seen a powerful backlash against unions. Anti-union sentiment has become prevalent, even among laborers, and union membership has drastically declined. This may be to a general ignorance in the population about the historical importance of unions. So many of organized labor’s gains, such as a minimum wage, health and safety restrictions, maximum working hours, disability and unemployment compensation, health insurance, etc., are simply taken for granted. Workers see no reason to pay union dues, so they do not join. And management has done an excellent job of promoting anti-union propaganda, if not outright union busting.

Nevertheless, unions remain strong in its struggle against injustice. In retrospect, labor movements and unions have greatly contributed to the prosperity in California, the United States and even the world. Labor movements have become the window for achieving reasonable wages and working conditions and even remedies posed by revolutionary changes in the nature of work and the composition of the workforce. As AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka once put it, “While we are always willing to negotiate as equals, the era of union busting, contract trashing, and strike breaking is at an end. Today, we say that when you pick a fight with any of us, you pick a fight with all of us! And that when you push us, we will push back!” All workers benefit tremendously through a stronger labor movement. Whether it be a $3,000 raise, or ten, labor movements play a critical role in prompting a flourished society for all. With a new millennium just around the corner, unions and their objectives can lead society into the right path of progress. Some say, unions equal PROGRESS and POWER for all, no matter what race, religion or creed you are. Well, amen to that.

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Labor Union History in California. (2018, Jun 21). Retrieved from