Today, human resources managers welcome new hires with onboarding packets that outline their many rights and recourses should they find their workplace to be hostile or harmful. A hundred years ago, however, the labor landscape looked much different. While work remains to be done, each and every wage-earning American today owes a debt of gratitude to organized labor for the 40-hour workweek, minimum wage, anti-discrimination laws, and other basic protections they enjoy. Far from basic, those protections were, until fairly recently, pipe dreams to the millions of American men, women, and children who labored endlessly in dreadful conditions for poverty wages.
The debt of gratitude is owed mostly to the unions those nameless and disposable workers organized, which they did under the threat of being fired, harassed, evicted from company homes, beaten, jailed, and, in many cases, killed. In 1886, for example, over 200,000 railroad workers went on strike to protest an unjust firing. In 1894, over 250,000 workers walked out of the Pullman Palace Car Company factories to protest 12-hour workdays and wage cuts.
Union membership is at its lowest point now than at any time since the 1980s, which saw twice as many unionized workers as today. The recent right-to-work decision in the Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME established that public-sector workers who are protected by unions—of which there are five times as many as private workers—but don't wish to join, no longer have to pay fees on behalf of the union's collective bargaining. This dealt a mighty blow to public-sector unions, which are expected to decline following the ruling.
Over the decades, there have been far more losses than victories, but the victories the labor movement did achieve made earning a living in the United States a much more equitable, fair, safe, and profitable proposition. Here are 30 hard-fought victories that America's working class won in our names.
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The rise of so-called journeymen societies in 1794 led to the creation of the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers of Philadelphia, which worked to protect the wages of shoemakers, who toiled in a large and profitable industry. The society was the first true union and can be considered the genesis of the American labor movement. The moment is also significant because it was the first time tradespeople organized for protection against "scabs," workers willing to undermine demands for better pay by agreeing to work for cheaper wages—a dynamic that would remain a central theme throughout the entire history of the labor movement.
In 1806, a court ruled against the shoemakers and declared the act of organizing for higher wages to be a criminal conspiracy. More than three decades later in 1842, a high court in Massachusetts overturned that precedent in Commonwealth v. Hunt, which declared that workers do, in fact, have a right to organize and strike.
[Pictured: 19th chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Lemuel Shaw, who served from Aug. 30, 1830–Aug. 21, 1860.]
The end of slavery emboldened laborers around the country to capitalize on the national sentiment and pursue better conditions for themselves. A year after the Civil War, the formation of the National Labor Union represented the first nationally organized workers' rights group. The organization's efforts went a long way to raising awareness, but the group dissolved in 1873 and soon after, a series of violent strikes and successful corporate anti-labor campaigns compelled much of America to sour on the movement.
On Sept. 5, 1882, New York City hosted the country's first Labor Day Parade; around 10,000 workers marched in what is now an annual event, and the holiday was soon moved to the first Monday in September, just as it is celebrated today. Although a parade, of course, didn't directly improve working conditions, the moment signified a psychological victory for labor and indicated a shift in public opinion that would ultimately lead to the rise of the progressive era in the 20th century.
In the second half of the 19th century, several major labor groups like the American Federation of Labor emerged as major strikers and often-brutal government and corporate reprisals created a nearly constant state of unrest. Much of that unrest was concentrated around railroad work, most notably, the Pullman Strike of 1894.
In an effort to quell tensions, the federal government passed the Erdman Act, which provided workers with arbitration and mediation options, while banning railroad companies from firing or refusing to hire workers for joining a union, a common intimidation tactic known as yellow-dog contracts. It would eventually lead to the more comprehensive Railway Labor Act of 1926, but not before the Supreme Court struck down the Erdman Act's key provisions 10 years later in 1908.
In 1909, the women's rights movement and the labor movement converged with the Uprising of the 20,000, a strike launched by sweatshop laborers known as shirtwaist workers, who were mostly young, immigrant women. The strikers protested low wages, long hours, and appalling conditions, especially the frequent and intentional locking of doors and fire escapes to prevent workers from leaving or even from taking breaks. The uprising secured the support of the powerful and well-heeled Women's Trade Union League, and by 1910, most of the protestor's employers agreed to sign union contracts.
On March 25, 1911, the deadliest industrial disaster in New York City history changed the course of the labor movement when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 sweatshop workers, mostly women. Although the owners and management staff escaped unharmed, the workers found themselves in a death trap of locked doors, blocked fire escapes, and highly flammable material, like the kind the 1909 protestors had warned about. Although the fire itself, of course, was hardly a victory for labor, the death of the workers was not in vain—it galvanized the previously scattered and frequently infighting labor movement to unify, and stoked public outrage and demand for change.
On March 4, 1913, the efforts of generations of labor activists were realized, at least in part, when President William Howard Taft signed a law creating the U.S. Department of Labor. The labor movement now had representation in a Cabinet-level agency.
By the turn of the 20th century, 2 million children were laboring on farms, on city streets, and in mills, mines, factories, and stores. The work of social reformers and a nationwide campaign by National Child Labor Committee photographer Lewis W. Hine to chronicle and publicize the abuses led to calls for reform. In 1916, the Keating-Owen Act limited the number of hours children could work and prohibited interstate sale of merchandise produced by child labor, but the Supreme Court ruled the act unconstitutional just nine months later.
The disparaging term "redneck" can be traced to 1921 when 10,000 West Virginia coal miners rose up against mining companies, managers, and their allies in government after decades of abuses in what was the largest uprising in labor history and the most significant armed insurrection since the Civil War. Tying red bandanas around their necks in a show of unity, the miners faced off against thousands of heavily armed company agents, scab workers, law enforcement officers, and military personnel who confronted the workers with heavy machine guns and, eventually, the only aerial bombardment of American civilians in U.S. history.
At least 100 people died and 1 million rounds of ammunition were fired before the rebellion was put down, but the efforts of the miners would lead to some immediate improvement in conditions and, more importantly, a larger voice during FDR's future New Deal negotiations.
Shortly after the Civil War, George Pullman revolutionized travel with luxurious railroad sleeping cars, each of which came with a personal attendant called a Pullman Car porter. Consisting entirely of black men—originally recently freed slaves—the position was considered prestigious in the African American community, but the reality was grueling work, long hours, low pay, and daily indignities and mistreatment. In 1925, after 12 years of struggle, the Pullman Porters formed their own union, becoming the first black labor union in history to force a powerful corporation to the negotiating table, marking a triumph of both labor rights and civil rights.
After decades of widespread, public, and often violent labor strikes—which were commonly put down by force with the aid of government troops—President Calvin Coolidge compelled unions and railroad bosses to agree on a different means of conflict resolution. In 1926, the Railway Labor Act substituted strikes for bargaining, mediation, and arbitration, and gave both unions and railroad companies the opportunity and responsibility to negotiate before resorting to strikes. It was the first federal law that guaranteed workers the right to organize, unionize, and choose their own leaders without company interference.
By 1931, the Great Depression was raging; the masses were desperate for work and employers found it easy to offer take-it-or-leave-it wage ultimatums. The Davis-Bacon Act required private contractors on all significant public-works construction projects to pay workers the "prevailing wage." Those wages generally corresponded with union wages, and the standard now covers 1 in 5 construction projects and 1 in 4 construction workers at any given time.
In 1932, labor made major gains when the Norris-LaGuardia Act prevented federal courts from issuing injunctions to stop peaceful union strikes and protests, which had long crippled their ability to organize. It also protected workers from being fired for joining a union or from being forced to sign yellow-dog contracts, which demanded a vow not to join a union.
History was made in 1933 when Frances Perkins became the first woman ever to serve in a presidential Cabinet position—but the milestone was literally forged in fire. Twenty-two years earlier, Perkins was in New York City, having tea in Washington Square, when sirens and growing commotion compelled her to join a gathering crowd outside the towering inferno of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where she watched helplessly as 47 workers, mostly young women, made the agonizing choice to jump to their deaths instead of burning alive. She would later call the catastrophe "the day the New Deal was born."
Frances Perkins is a towering figure in American labor, having dedicated her life and career to the common worker and the downtrodden in general. When FDR asked Perkins to join his Cabinet, the woman who would become the principal architect of the New Deal made it clear that she would only agree if Roosevelt backed her priorities, which the president promised he would. Those priorities, according to the Frances Perkins Center, were an amalgamation of the ideals the labor movement had pursued for generations: "a 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, unemployment compensation, worker's compensation, abolition of child labor, direct federal aid to the states for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized federal employment service, and universal health insurance."
The National Labor Relations Act legitimized, enfranchised, and vindicated the workers' rights movement more than any provision that had come before. The culmination of decades of union struggle, the act guaranteed the rights of private-sector workers to unionize, engage in collective bargaining for higher wages and better conditions, and, if necessary, to strike. It remains the foundation of modern American labor law.
At 8 p.m. on the night before Christmas Eve in 1936, autoworkers in Flint, Mich., took over one—and later, several—major GM factories, locking themselves in, refusing to work, and bringing production to a standstill. The company tried to freeze and starve them out, and the courts deemed the strike illegal, but the workers refused to budge. The governor also refused to send in the National Guard. In February 1937, after 44 days of dramatic stalemate, GM—arguably the most powerful and politically influential company in the world—capitulated to most of the workers' demands, which included a fair minimum wage scale, protections against injury for assembly line workers, a grievance system, and the recognition of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union.
The crowning achievement of the American union movement came in 1938 with the signing of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which guaranteed a minimum wage, an eight-hour workday, a 40-hour workweek, and time-and-a-half overtime. It also mandated that minors under 18 be barred from certain hazardous work and prevented children under 16 from working in mines or manufacturing, or in any job during school hours. The act ushered American labor into the modern era, gave 700,000 Americans an immediate raise, and continues to serve as the basic foundation of workers' rights and protections in the United States.
In 1941, the Fair Employment Practice Commission (FEPC) was assembled to enforce an executive order from President Roosevelt that barred employment discrimination based on race, national origin, color, or creed in defense or government industries that received federal funding. FEPC served as the teeth of the executive order, as the commission was authorized to investigate complaints of discrimination and take action against offending companies or organizations.
On Jan. 17, 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order that for the first time gave federal employees the right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining. Although private-sector employees had enjoyed these basic rights for decades, the moment was a milestone for federal workers.
The women's rights movement and the labor movement ran parallel to each other and often intertwined from the very beginning. In 1963, the two movements achieved a mutual milestone when JFK signed the Equal Pay Act. An amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Equal Pay Act banned pay disparity for equal work based on gender.
Although the 1964 Civil Rights Act mandated sweeping social reforms that were by no means limited to labor, union-backed workers' rights campaigns were central to the civil rights movement—Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis while supporting a strike by sanitation workers. The landmark civil rights legislation, in part, banned workplace discrimination based on race, gender, religion, color, or national origin.
Organized labor continued its run of success in 1967 with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. It prevented hiring discrimination based on age and protected workers over 40 or those collecting age-related federal benefits from termination or forced retirement. The act basically extended to older workers the rights associated with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
From black lung and mine collapses to farming accidents and factory fires, American workers were driven to unionize first and foremost for their own safety, health, and wellbeing, which were often afterthoughts for the companies that purchased their labor. The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) required employers to protect their workers from toxic substances, mechanical dangers, unsanitary conditions, excessive heat and cold, and other known physical hazards. The legislation created OSHA to inspect, investigate, and enforce the measure.
A central thesis of the workers' rights movement is that a lifetime of labor should guarantee a stable retirement. In 1974, the Employee Retirement and Security Income Act protected workers enrolled in private-industry pension plans by setting minimum standards for how those plans are managed. The legislation required companies to disclose information about the plans to their employees and also put fiduciary responsibility on the people or organizations in charge of their assets.
Union workers long lived with the knowledge that a decision could be made to close their auto plant or coal mine without them knowing that their next paycheck would be their last. In 1988, however, Congress signed the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act without President Ronald Reagan's signature. The act required most companies with more than 100 workers to give 60-days advance written notice if mass layoffs or plant closings were imminent.
The Americans With Disabilities Act amended the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include workers with disabilities. It also required employers to make reasonable accommodations in terms of accessibility and other special needs.
The Family and Medical Leave Act required employers to allow their workers to take off 12 job-protected workweeks in a year for things like the birth or adoption of a child, a serious illness, or to care for a seriously ill child or spouse. There are also extended considerations involving military families. Unlike in most wealthy Western countries, however, the act does not mandate paid maternity or paternity leave, which means the time off is guaranteed, but uncompensated.
The most recent amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act came in 2009 with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, named for the plaintiff in a Supreme Court case that spurred the legislation. Prior to 2009, the mandated 180-day statute of limitations for a worker to file an equal-pay lawsuit began when the employer made the initial discriminatory pay decision, meaning that if a woman found out she was being paid less than a man for equal work six months after she agreed to her salary, it was too late for her to file suit. The 2009 legislation resets the statute of limitations with every discriminatory paycheck received.