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Presentation U.S. History Primary Source Timeline

Labor Unions During the Great Depression and New Deal

CIO pickets, Georgia, 1941.
Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives

In the early 1930s, as the nation slid toward the depths of depression, the future of organized labor seemed bleak. In 1933, the number of labor union members was around 3 million, compared to 5 million a decade before. Most union members in 1933 belonged to skilled craft unions, most of which were affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

The union movement had failed in the previous 50 years to organize the much larger number of laborers in such mass production industries as steel, textiles, mining, and automobiles. These, rather than the skilled crafts, were to be the major growth industries of the first half of the 20th century.

Although the future of labor unions looked grim in 1933, their fortunes would soon change. The tremendous gains labor unions experienced in the 1930s resulted, in part, from the pro-union stance of the Roosevelt administration and from legislation enacted by Congress during the early New Deal. The National Industrial Recovery Act (1933) provided for collective bargaining. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act) required businesses to bargain in good faith with any union supported by the majority of their employees. Meanwhile, the Congress of Industrial Organizations split from the AFL and became much more aggressive in organizing unskilled workers who had not been represented before. Strikes of various kinds became important organizing tools of the CIO.

To find additional documents on this topic from, use such search terms as labor, worker, labor union, factory, Congress of Industrial Organizations, and American Federation of Labor.