In the 1920s critics of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) “pointed repeatedly to the same weaknesses: the emphasis on a craft structure, the ignoring of industrial unionism, jurisdictional disputes, inertia in organizing the unorganized, weak or tyrannical or corrupt leadership, philosophic individualism, fraternization with businessmen, and political impotence,” observed the historian Irving Bernstein in The Lean Years.
Union membership declined sharply during that decade. Unions were unable, often unwilling, to organize the growing new industries and were losing in their old strongholds. There was a succession of hostile, anti-union Republican presidents, including one who had made his fame breaking a public-employee strike. It was a time of rampant individualistic materialism and wild financial speculation. The economic boom was uneven, with agriculture and many industries, like coal and textiles, “sick” from overproduction and low prices long before the Crash....
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