During the Roaring Twenties, the U.S. enjoyed a rare time of “full employment.” Union membership increased to 5 million people. By 1933, the upward trend for organized labor reversed. And, union membership fell to 3 million. Further, one out of three people were unemployed.
The downward trend ended by 1940. When union membership would roughly triple from 3 million to nearly 9 million members. This was game changing for American workers and businesses.
One factor in surge of union membership was the kind of employee unions sought to organize. In 1933, most union members were skilled workers, belonging to craft unions. They were typically affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). This was about to change.
The CIO (Committee for Industrial Organization) was created by eight unions within the AFL, and began to organize all workers — including skilled, semiskilled and unskilled — in mass production industries, such as the steel industry and the auto industry. In 1938, the AFL, with its focus on skilled workers only, expelled the unions participating in this effort. At that time, the CIO renamed itself to the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Another important factor for union growth was New Deal legislation. The Roosevelt administration passed many pro-worker laws and regulations. This included The National Industrial Recovery Act (1933), which provided for collective bargaining, and The National Labor Relations Act (1935), which was also known as the Wagner Act. These laws compelled employers to bargain in good faith with unions that represented a majority of their employees, which were mostly determined by secret ballot votes.
All of these changes occurred during the depths of the Great Depression. At this time, there were many strikes, some of which were violent and massive. In many cases, people were injured or killed.
Unions increasingly were seen as a source of job security for hard working employees. By the time World War 2 began, unions were a powerful and respected force in the nation. They gave workers not only a voice, but real power in the workplace. During the war years, with an ever increasing concern for production and supplies of both and war materials and everyday life materials, the unions agreed not to strike. This was applauded by both government and the citizens of the United States.