The US Labor Movement
It’s that time again, another Holiday and therefore another look at something cool and interesting outside our usual cooling comfort zone. We previously covered the origins of labor day, rather than repeat that, we’re going to explore the labor movement in the century since then!
From some of the earliest days of the United States, there has been some form or other of labor movement to improve the conditions of workers. This covers everything from the push to a 40 hour work week to unions negotiating for benefits. Groups of workers, lobbyists, and whole organizations have pushed for better working conditions, laws, and benefits to the working person.
During the 1800s, the labor movement was massive. At the time, there were few protections for workers of any kind. A person could be expected to work six days a week for however long the employer wanted in whatever conditions they created. It was common and expected to work for pennies a day, doing back-breaking work, in suffocating heat, while potentially being exposed to toxic substances like asbestos or being around machines that could rip your leg off. There was no workman’s compensation either, on the job injuries were only the worker’s fault for messing up.
This movement was big enough that by the 1880s, there were ideas being discussed about a Labor Day. It would be a day to celebrate the workers of the country and the work towards better working conditions.
The Last 100 Years of Movement
The Labor Movement has a long history full of conflict between workers and employers. That central conflict is a key part of why the movement came to exist in the first place. Employees want better pay, shorter hours, benefits and safety equipment, employers want none of that expense. It was often cheaper to fight unions with lawyers and lobby for anti-union laws than to make the workers happy.
For the first few years into 1900, the existing Unions were pretty successful. There was a successful strike on Coal Production. Despite the first world war, unions were even able to make significant gains for their workers. Most unions were even highly supportive of the war and encouraged their members to enlist for their country. In 1919 there was even a brief strike of Women Telephone Operators, within days they secured better wages.
The 1920s brought a weak period for Unions. There was great prosperity in the US. People were doing well, living well, and there was little motivation to organize and fight for anything. If you’re happy at work, why put in all the effort to fight with your employer? Why upset the good times? While the stock market boomed, people weren’t interested in unions.
For a time, the Great Depression would further weaken unions. With the economy in shambles, workers couldn’t pay union dues and employment was just too hard to find. With a quarter of the country out of work, people would take any work they could find.
The government stepped in to support Unions where the workers couldn’t: with better laws, at long last. There first came the Norris-La Guardia Act which would prevent courts from overly punishing unions with injunctions. This would later be bolstered by the Wagner Act, essentially created a legal framework for unions and prevented employers from fighting them with dirty tactics like firing union members and refusing to negotiate with unions. Ford would run afoul of the Wagner Act and ultimately be forced to pay the price for it.
World War II brought with it a massive increase in Union size. 36% of the US work force was unionized. It was a massive peak that wouldn’t last. The Red Scare and compares of collective bargaining to communism made it easy to weaken the unions. There would be decades of decline up to our current point, with unions having a mere 12% of the overall workforce.
Unions are at a low point today, as are workers’ power in the bargaining and political process. More companies are forcing employees into worse conditions by calling them contractors and therefore not eligible for employee protections and benefits.
There is however, a bit of a silver-lining: to prevent unionization, large employers are having to give tremendously better pay and benefits. If workers are happy, they won’t have a reason to unionize. This sentiment is common at numerous large companies like Google and Apple, where worker happiness is key to their productivity and the company’s bottom line.