Labor Unions in the 60's


In the 1960s, the percentage of workers who were members of unions was falling from the peak achieved in the 1940s and 1950s. While 31.5% of workers were union members in 1950 and 33.2% were in unions in 1955, that percentage fell to 31.4% in 1960, 28.4% in 1965 and 27.3% in 1970. Union participation has continued to fall since then. Thus, although unions have had an important impact on the American economy, an increasingly smaller percentage of American workers have been part of this impact since the late 1950s.
When the 1960s began, the world of American labor was still adjusting to the 1955 merger of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In 1968, the United Automobile Workers (UAW) withdrew from the AFL-CIO and, in 1969, merged with Jimmy Hoffa's International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The newly formed organization was named the Alliance for Labor Action. Only two unions were formed in the 1960s: the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) in 1962 and the United Transportation Union (UTU) in 1969. Compared to previous decades, there was relatively little union activity in the 1960s. Nevertheless, two major union-related events which brought labor into the national spotlight: the Steel Industry Price Increase and United Farm Worker's Strike.

During the 1962 wage negotiations between the Steelworkers Union and the Steel Industry, the Kennedy administration urged the Steelworker's Union to accept non-inflationary wages, while putting pressure on the Steel Industry to maintain non-inflationary prices. As a result, the Steelworker's Union agreed to accept no general wage increase in 1962 and to eliminate the cost-of-living wage escalator, benefiting only from a 2.5 % increase in fringe benefits. After the Steelworker's Union agreed to accept this "non-inflationary" wage settlement, United States Steel, the country's largest steel producer, announced that it would increase the price of steel by $6 a ton. Within three days, Bethlehem Steel followed suit, as did five other major firms. This caused a serious clash with President Kennedy, as the price hike could have seriously damaged the economy by causing inflation. Kennedy forced the industry to push prices back down by verbally attacking their actions, beginning anti-trust legal proceedings, and ordering the Department of Defense to grant contracts only to the firms which didn't raise their prices. On April 26, Bethlehem, U.S. Steel, and two other companies were indicted on charges of price-fixing, in violation of anti-trust laws. The price increase was eventually rescinded.

In the late 1960s, the difficult life of migrant farm workers became increasingly unsustainable. Approximately a quarter of a million migrant laborers worked in the United States in the 1960s, often able to work only about 140 days a year and earn around $1000 a year. Until the 1960s, the poverty of migrant workers was not addressed by the government, and attempts to form a union were thwarted by commercial farmers. In 1964, Congress prohibited farmers from importing temporary Mexican farm laborers, legislation which benefited migrant workers.

United Farm Workers Strike (1965-1970)
In 1965, César Chávez and Dolores Huerta led the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee strike against California table-grape growers. The migrant workers in California wanted the AFL-CIO-affiliated union to be recognized by employers as a collective bargaining representative. By the end of the 1960s, the union was finally able to win contracts from the major grape and lettuce growers. Nevertheless, the victory of Chávez and the UFW was followed by conflicts with the Teamsters Union in the 1970s.