It's impossible to cover every win and influence the labor movement has had in the United States in one article. But if you’re reading this on your lunch break, day off, or at the end of an 8-hour shift, it’s thanks to the countless sacrifices of labor organizers of decades past who fought to make such expectations at any given job commonplace.
The steps you are considering, to form a union, are a part of a centuries-spanning, worldwide effort to build solidarity, provide just compensation, and recognize the dignity of workers. In North America, some scholars date the movement back to 1648 when shoemaker and barrel-maker guilds were legally recognized by the City of Boston, then under British rule. The earliest recorded strike took place in 1768 when journeyman tailors in New York took action to fight a wage reduction. Keep in mind that slaves who threw down tools or rebelled, effectively withholding otherwise forced labor on Southern plantations, are just as much a part of the story of U.S. labor struggles as are the iconic sit-in strikers at General Motors plants in the 1930s.
Much like the rest of society, racism, misogyny, and prejudice have greatly limited which kinds of workers benefited from labor campaigns and laws passed. However, unions have grown more inclusive, fighting for gender equality, immigrant rights, and a broad array of workplace protections.
"The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute, and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life,"
- Martin Luther King Jr.
The early days and the wins we take for granted
Before the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 was signed into law or the enactment of any subsequent federal safeguards (see below), unionization regulations and workers’ legal rights were a patchwork of protections or completely nonexistent across states. The Knights of Labor (1869) and American Federation of Labor (1886) were some of the most significant early labor organizations at the national stage calling for dignified wages and 8-hour workdays. Without legal protections like we have today, their efforts were often met with state-sanctioned violence.
At the turn of the 19th century, as these groups and others began to secure wins in states across the U.S., broader struggles for human rights began to take shape among women, children, minorities, and immigrant workers, which continue to today.
Laws on the books
A lot of the legislation enshrining and expanding workers' rights would not have been possible without the actions and coordinated campaigns of working-class activists and minority-led advocacy organizations. Here are a few bills you should know, much of which came about during the 1930s New Deal Era under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt:
National Labor Relations Act of 1935: The NLRA (also referred to as the Wagner Act or organized labor’s “Magna Carta”) formalized the process through which private-sector unions can be recognized under U.S. law. It also guaranteed workers the right to organize.
Social Security Act of 1935: The SSA created retirement benefits for 96 percent of U.S. workers; a survivor’s fund for the family of a deceased worker; and disability benefits for people who can no longer work.
Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938: The FLSA banned child labor; mandated a 40-hour workweek; and formalized a federal minimum wage.
Equal Pay Act of 1963: The EPA banned wage discrimination based on gender.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964: The CRA ended legal segregation in public places and prohibited employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
The U.S. Department of Labor has a longer list of major labor legislation, which can be viewed by clicking here.
Where things stand
Following the rise of federal union legislation came a backlash. Anti-labor politicians gained power and enacted policies, like the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, which made it harder to organize and weakened the movement.
In 1983, unions represented about 1 out of 5 Americans. Now, that number has dwindled to 1 out of 10. Years of austerity and cuts to the safety net coupled with a massive growth in the U.S.’s productivity have been met with stagnant wages for the very people who create these profits.
Study after study shows that we can reverse this trend, and it starts with you.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, a worker covered by a union contract earns 13.2 percent more than a non-union worker with similar education, occupation, and experience. The goals of a capitalist society like the one we live in have long hinged on the process of getting the most productivity out of workers for the most profit at whatever cost. Well, unions stand at the frontlines on behalf of everyday people, fighting to make sure that we have a voice when management makes decisions about our livelihoods.
The current reach of labor organizing ranges from a broad set of industries and sectors, from the public to the private, from the post office to legislative staff, from janitors to tech workers. The labor movement needs people like you, willing to step up and join the fight for dignity and a voice on the job. Come and be a part of it.