History of the Labor Movement in Oklahoma
The legacy of working Oklahomans is as varied and broad as the people whose skill and energy built our state. Their contributions are something all Oklahomans can take pride in. After more than 100 years of playing an active role in virtually every aspect of our state’s history, Oklahoma’s working men and women can look to the future with a sense of accomplishment and hope.
By the turn of the 20th century, organized workers were playing an increasingly important role in territorial political affairs, electing union men as mayors or city council representatives.
Labor was to play a prominent role in Oklahoma’s drive for statehood, which resulted in the state entering the union with a reputation of having some of the most progressive labor laws in the country. The first session of the state legislature passed a number of far-reaching measures, including laws establishing state mining and factory inspectors, making school attendance compulsory for children, regulating the use of strikebreakers during labor disputes, and outlawing the blacklisting of union sympathizers by employers.
Difficult years lay ahead. Following World War I, unemployment soared in Oklahoma and many workers were forced to accept wage cuts. Ethnic and religious bigotry was fanned by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Throughout the 1920s, advocates of the “open” or nonunion shop slowly gained the upper hand and unionism became a dead letter in many industries.
The Great Depression hit Oklahoma’s workers hard. By 1934, more than 300,000 Oklahomans were unemployed, which was 42 percent of the total workforce. In 1936 a new force appeared on the Oklahoma labor scene – the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). In Oklahoma, the principal CIO unions included the miners, the oil workers, the smelter workers, the glass workers, as well as tenant farmers and farm workers. As a result of the aggressive organizing drives by these and other unions, thousands of Oklahoma workers joined unions for the first time. But the CIO’s tactic of organizing all the workers in an industry regardless of craft eventually led its members to leave the American Federation of Labor and form their own labor confederation.
In the years since World War II, Oklahoma’s economy has been transformed from one based largely on the production of raw materials to one that increasingly emphasized manufacturing. Throughout the 1950's and 1960's,Oklahoma’s urban workforce continued to grow while employment in mining and agriculture underwent relative declines.
The labor movement in Oklahoma has undergone changes as well. In 1957 the state affiliates of the AFL and the CIO were reunited as the Oklahoma State AFL-CIO. New groups of white-collar workers such as government employees, service workers and teachers have begun to play a more active role in the labor movement. Labor organizations have continued their traditional involvement in important social questions such as civil rights and women’s issues.