Welcome to People in America in VOA Special
English. At the beginning of the twentieth century, American laborers often
worked long hours for little pay. Many
worked under extremely dangerous conditions.
About five hundred thousand workers, however, had joined groups called
labor unions, hoping to improve their situation.
Today, Rich Kleinfeldt and Sarah Long tell
about five labor leaders who worked to improve conditions for American workers.
In nineteen hundred, the
largest national organization of labor unions was the American Federation of
Labor. Its head was Samuel
Gompers. Gompers had moved to New York
with his parents when he was thirteen years old. He was twenty-four when he
began working for the local union of cigar makers. He worked for the labor movement for sixty years.
Samuel Gompers had helped
create the A.F.L. in the late eighteen eighties. He led the organization for all but one year until his death in
nineteen twenty-four. Gompers defined
the purpose of the labor movement in America.
He also established the method used to solve labor disputes.
Gompers thought unions
should work only to increase wages, improve work conditions and stop unfair
treatment of workers. He called his
method pure and simple unionism.
Samuel Gompers sought
immediate change for workers. He used
group actions such as strikes as a way to try to force company owners to
Gompers was criticized for
going to social events with industry leaders, and for compromising too easily
with employers. But Gompers believed
such actions helped his main goal. He
believed if workers were respected, their employers would want to make working
Under the leadership of
Samuel Gompers, the labor movement won its first small gains. For example, the federal government
recognized the right of workers to organize.
That happened when union representatives were part of the National War
Labor Board during World War One.
John L. Lewis expanded the
American labor movement with a campaign he called organizing the
unorganized. Lewis was the head of the United Mine Workers of America. He also was the vice-president of the A.F.L.
In nineteen thirty-five,
Lewis formed the Committee for Industrial Organization within the A.F.L. He wanted the C.I.O. to organize workers in
mass production industries, such as automobile industry. The A.F.L. mainly
organized unions of workers who had the same skills. But Lewis believed skilled and unskilled workers in the same
industry should be organized into the same union.
Congress passed the National
Labor Relations Act in nineteen thirty-five.
It gave workers the legal right to join unions and to negotiate with
employers. John L. Lewis thought it was
the right time to press the large industries to recognize workers' rights.
The A.F.L., however, decided
not to support such action and expelled the unions that belonged to the
C.I.O. In nineteen thirty-six, the
C.I.O. began operating as another national labor organization. Lewis was its
John L. Lewis was an
extremely colorful and effective speaker.
He had worked as a coal miner and could relate to the most terrible
conditions workers faced. More than
three million workers joined the C.I.O. in its first year as a separate
organization. For the first time, labor
won many strikes and permanent improvements in workers conditions.
For many years, presidents,
members of Congress, and business leaders considered John L. Lewis the voice of
labor. And, American workers saw Lewis
as their hero. By the nineteen fifties,
the labor movement an established part of American life.
Walter Reuther was the vice
president of the C.I.O. under Lewis, and became its president in nineteen
fifty-two. Reuther believed unions had
a social responsibility. His ideas were partly influenced by his German father
who was a socialist.
Walter Reuther was trained
to make tools to cut metal. He joined
the United Automobile Workers union when it first formed in nineteen
Walter Reuther was president
of the United Auto Workers for twenty-three years beginning in nineteen forty-six. He shaped the U.A.W. into one of the most
militant and forward-looking unions. He
held strikes to gain increased wages for workers, but, at the same time, he
expected workers to increase their rate of production. He was the first to link pay raises to
productivity increases. Reuther also
was greatly concerned about civil rights and the environment.
In nineteen fifty-five,
Reuther helped the A.F.L. and C.I.O. re-join as one organization.
Reuther's ideas were
recognized worldwide. But they also brought
him enemies. He survived three murder
attempts. He said: "You have to make up
your mind whether you are willing to accept things as they are or whether you
are willing to try to change them."
A. Philip Randolph is known
for combining the labor and civil rights movements. Randolph became involved with unions in nineteen-twenty-five. A
group of black workers on passenger trains asked him to organize a union, the
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
Randolph was not a laborer. He was the college educated son of a
minister. He published a socialist
magazine in New York City. He was known
as a fighter for black rights. Randolph
strongly believed that economic conditions affected rights and power for
For twelve years, Randolph
fought the Pullman Company that employed the passenger train workers. In nineteen thirty-five, Pullman finally
agreed to negotiate with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Two years later, the porters' union signed
the first labor agreement between a company and a black union.
A. Philip Randolph led the
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters for forty-three years. In nineteen fifty-seven he became vice
president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
Randolph used large group
protests to change work conditions. He
planned marches on the capital in Washington to protest the unequal treatment
of black workers by the government.
In nineteen sixty-three,
Randolph planned the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. At this huge peaceful gathering, civil
rights leader Martin Luther King, Junior made his famous "I have a dream"
speech. Within a year the civil rights
amendment passed guaranteeing equal rights for blacks and other minorities.
Cesar Chavez created the first
farmers union in nineteen sixty-two.
That union later became the United Farm Workers of America.
Farm workers had been
considered too difficult to organize.
They worked during growing seasons.
Many farm workers did not speak English or were in the country
illegally. Farm workers earned only a few dollars each hour. They often lived in mud shelters and had no
waste removal systems. Many farm
workers were children.
Cesar Chavez went to school
for only eight years. But he read a
lot. He was greatly influenced by the
ideas of famous supporters of non-violence such as Indian leader Mahatma
Gandhi. Chavez led his workers on marches for better pay and conditions. Workers walked hundreds of miles carrying
cloth banners with the Spanish words "Viva la Causa" -- long live our
Cesar Chavez created a new
strike method called a boycott. People
refused to buy products of a company accused of treating farm workers
badly. Chavez also publicized the dangers
of some farm chemicals. Cesar Chavez improved the conditions of farm workers by
making their mistreatment a national issue.
Union membership has dropped
sharply since its highpoint in the nineteen forties. Yet conditions for American workers continue to improve as employers
realize that treating their workers well is good for business. The efforts of leaders of the American labor
movement during the past one hundred years continue to improve the lives of
millions of workers.
This Special English program
was written by Linda Burchill and produced by Paul Thompson. The announcers
were Rich Kleinfeldt and Sarah Long.
I'm Faith Lapidus. Join us again
next week for another People In America program in VOA Special English.