So many of the working conditions Americans take for granted today – the weekend, overtime protection and safe workplaces – were brought to us by the union movement. Here’s our top five reasons we love labor:
1. The Eight Hour Workday
Hard to believe, but 150 years ago, at the height of the industrial revolution, workers routinely were forced to work 12-14 hours or more a day in factories and textile mills. These unconscionably long hours caused a severe disruption to families and society because workers often had little time for anything else but work. And if the workers didn’t like it, they were simply replaced.
The labor movement sought to change that and began calling for an eight-hour day as early as 1836. In 1842, workers got their first victory when Boston ship carpenters were able to achieve an eight-hour day.
The struggle continued for the rest of the 19th century, with unions leading the charge. In 1872, thousands struck in New York City and secured the eight-hour day, mostly for building trades workers. The United Mine Workers won an eight-hour day in 1898.
But it was not until the passage of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act that the eight-hour day became a reality for millions of workers. The law established a maximum workweek of 40 hours a week and mandated overtime pay for any hours worked beyond that.
2. Child Labor Laws
Not too long ago, children were often sent to work into textile mills and coal mines at a very early age. Rather than gain a useful education, children spent their important developmental years doing rote tasks for many hours a day – and earned a poverty wage for doing so.
Unions decided that this had to end and began to advocate for reform in the 19th century. As early as 1832, the New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics and Other Workingmen passed a resolution condemning child labor. Unions continued to fight for child labor reform for over 100 years until Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. This landmark legislation set a minimum age for employment and regulated the number of hours worked by children.
3. Workplace Safety
Most people nowadays take workplace safety regulations for granted. But there was a time when going to work was an incredibly dangerous venture for millions of Americans. And what made it more so was the lack of laws punishing employers for providing an unsafe workplace.
Thanks to unions and progressives, today’s employers must meet minimum requirements for safety in the workplace – and they can face significant liability if they fail to do so. Agencies such as the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) regulate the workplace so that we all can earn a living without facing unreasonably dangerous working conditions. This allows us to increase our productivity as workers without putting ourselves in harm’s way.
4. The Weekend
Most of us take the weekend for granted but there was a time when the weekend was a fantasy for working people. With the rise of the factory system in the 19th century, employers could continue production 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They were not dependent on the sun or the weather for production, as were previous agrarian modes of production. This development gave them a strong incentive to work their employees relentlessly without a weekend break.
Labor unions believed that workers needed a time to rest and they pushed vigorously for the regulation of hours and days worked, leading to strikes throughout the 19th and 20th century. With the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, workers achieved the dream of a 40 hour workweek and turned the notion of a weekend into a reality.
5. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
The labor movement advocated strongly for the passage of the 1993 FMLA, which brought much needed legislation for workers who need to take time off for family or medical reasons. Thanks to the FMLA, employees can now take up to 12 weeks off from work annually to care for a newborn child, an ill family member, or for the worker herself if she is ill.
Can you think of other ways unions have made an impact on the American worker? Please free to tell us in the comments!
By Sahid Fawaz,
Labor 411 Social Media Director