This week the U. S. observes the Labor Day holiday. The holiday recognizes labor’s achievements. According to Wikipedia, Labor Day, “…honors the American labor movement and the contributions that workers have made to the strength, prosperity, laws and well-being of the country…” Most people consider it an extra day off and the last big holiday of the summer season.
Many people take labor’s accomplishments for granted and don’t think about the struggles to get child labor laws, the eight-hour day, overtime pay, safer workplaces or many other work benefits that impact all of us whether we’re a member of a union or not. As Wikipedia’s definition says, the American labor movement is more than just wages and work benefits. Workers have been making this country great for quite some time. Let’s walk through some history and find out how we’ve done it.
During colonial days, work was imperative. Those that were considered free laborers were expected to work. In some cases, if they did not work, there were harsh penalties that included working for free or prison. Labor also included those sold into slavery. It was an extremely divisive issue and the social justice issue of the time with no resolution. Because of a shortage of labor and high wages, some employers saw slavery as a way to keep costs down. Slaves received no wage for the hard work that was imposed upon them.
By the 1800s, America was moving forward. Agriculture was still an important industry but manufacturing was starting to take hold. In larger communities, the labor movement was beginning to establish its roots as people wanted to maintain a standard of living that had become the norm from colonial days. Costs were going up. There was more social unrest as more people continued to enter America. Some of those coming to America for the first time also joined these early unions. As the country advanced geographically, competition increased causing problems for both workers and employers. Employers wanted more out of workers. Some workers from the trade unions, not necessarily identical to what we consider trade unions, wanted only workers within their group employed in their shop. They asked for overtime pay or reduced work hours from the grueling 12 hour days. In mill towns, owners of mills decided to employ children so they could reduce their labor costs which reduced all wages.
By the time of the Civil War, unions had increased in numbers and at the end of the Civil War, the hard work Americans had accomplished pushed the country as being one of the leading industrial nations in the world. The United States was getting ready to enter the Industrial era. By 1885, women were now part of the workforce and that brought a social challenge. Many of them worked in industrial jobs. Those who had families not only worked as a means of support but they also had to take care of homes. Their workday just at the workplace was sunrise to sunset and then there was more to do at home. Some women worked in telegraph offices and were members of the International Typographical Union. It was also a time when workers formed associations around politics. The major issues for workers continued to be reduced hours and wage increases. By 1900, unions were very common and so were strikes.
The early 1900s brought stagnation to unions. Employers became very aggressive against unions and not only were there more strikes but violence became more common. Again, the big issues were reduced hours, overtime wages and straight wage increases. Fear of non-union workers infiltrating unionized shops was also a big issue for many unions. Employers hired security guards to keep unions out or to keep union members in line. This too was not without violence. In one instance, children and wives of union members were killed in clashes. Union officials, too, were killed when security guards were sent in during a strike situation. There were other issues that impacted social justice. Issues regarding safety and unsanitary working conditions were prevalent. In one workplace, The International Ladies Garment Workers tried to organize because of a safety concern. Shop doors at a factory were bolted to keep the workers, mostly women, in the shop and, according to the shop owners, keep product from going out the door. Unfortunately, the workplace became symbolic for workplace safety. In March of 1911, the worst workplace disaster that had ever occurred happened at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. More than 148 women were killed when a fire broke out and they were unable to escape because of the bolted doors. This was the beginning of more safety regulations at workplaces. Because of the horrible violence that was erupting between employers and unions, President Wilson decided to take action but was unable to get them to agree. Finally, Congress stepped in to help unions under the Railway Labor Act in 1926. While it was primarily for the railroad, it set a precedence for other unions. It said unions had a right to organize and each side could chose their own representatives during bargaining sessions and there would be no obstruction from either side. The act also provided mediation and a remedy for strike situations. The aggressive action by employers to curtail union growth had succeeded. Union membership had regressed. The Great Depression occurring in 1929 did nothing to improve the situation.
The Great Depression ushered in devastation to all Americans. Initially, President Hoover asked unions to work with employers on work-share opportunities. The unions, very willing to help keep as many people working as they could, complied. When President Roosevelt was elected, he enacted many forms of legislation to create jobs and provide assistance to American families. Social programs were created to help Americans with everyday living. Public work projects were created for jobs. It was during this era, too, many of the labor laws we enforce today were legislated. Legislation passed helped unions and all workers. The Wagner Act, named for Senator Robert Wagner from New York, was the momentum for the labor movement. It was enacted as Hitler was beginning to take hold in Europe. Senator Wagner was concerned about the political climate that was developing throughout the world. He believed that if the labor movement was encouraged to grow it would bring a democratic process directly to the people so they could have a better understanding of it by actually participating and experiencing it. Senator Wagner was worried the country’s democratic process was sometimes too cumbersome for ordinary citizens to be involved. Unions could help teach Americans how a democracy works. As many of us know, the problems between union and management continued throughout the 1930-40s but the gains made by unions to help all workers during this time frame are what we realize today. Paid vacations and holidays, shift differentials, overtime pay, and inequality issues were some of the gains that we now take for granted.
Shortly after the Wagner Act, legislation was done to amend some of the provisions in the Wagner Act. The Taft-Hartley Act was done to curtail some of the union actions the Wagner Act allowed. This piece of legislation, like the Wagner Act, is current labor law.
In years later when the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merged, George Meany became the first president. Meany wanted unions to focus on broader social issues. For example, Meany focused on civil rights. He also pushed tax-cut legislation. Today, under Meany’s legacy, unions honor him by recognizing members and citizens who have gone out of their way to provide volunteer service to the local community.
Throughout the history of this country, as reported above, workers have made important contributions to this country. Workers have helped shape this country physically, morally and economically. Unions have been a conduit so workers could accomplish all that. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unions represent a wide range of people in various occupations including management positions. More than 13% of union workers are management personnel. Over 18% are considered to be professional workers. These include those with computer jobs, architecture jobs, legal jobs, community service jobs and healthcare jobs. In other words, unions jobs just aren’t the stereotypical manufacturing job.
Since the 1970s, unions have been on a decline in membership. There are several reasons as to why that has occurred. One being automation which has decreased the number of workers needed in many factories. The number of factories may have declined as some have pointed out. But the need for unions has not gone out of style. The same things unions fought for in the past are just as relevant today. As we have stated many times, if unions don’t lobby for the American worker, who will? When union wages go up, so do wages for everyone. When a union negotiates with a workplace for a particular benefit, more than likely another workplace will get it whether it’s union or non-union.
The great news for unions to celebrate on Labor Day is more than 60% of people agree unions are necessary compared to 25% who see them negatively. It’s also important to know, too, 75% of those under 30 have a favorable opinion of unions.
Some of the things we can thank a union for are a lot of the things they’ve helped to get us over the years. Those things include increased wages and benefits, paid holidays and vacation, overtime pay, and workplace safety just to mention a few. In addition, unions speak out on our behalf. They meet with legislators to encourage legislation that will help working families with healthcare, unemployment, scheduling problems and many more. Unions volunteer hours to help young people, homeless people, disabled people and anybody who is less fortunate or needs help. Union people make sure our lights turn on at night. They teach our kids and they keep us ALL safe.
In the coming weeks we’ll be reporting more on some of these issues. Stay tuned! In the mean time, HAPPY LABOR DAY!! Worker, it’s your day. You deserve it!