In 1919, the ‘20s had yet to roar, the Depression had yet to cripple the global economy, and most of the American workforce toiled in poor conditions for low pay. In railroads, mines, farms, mills, lumber yards, sweatshops, and construction sites, the common worker performed demanding and difficult labor in conditions that were often dangerous, unsanitary, unhealthy, exploitative, or otherwise harmful.
Unions enjoyed no real legal protection and workers organized for better pay and conditions largely at their own risk. Virtually all of the legal and political structure was organized for the benefit of the corporations that controlled the lives of the workers they employed. When soldiers or police officers used violence to break up strikes, the violence was almost always perpetrated against striking laborers at the direction of company bosses. Those bosses often enjoyed cozy relationships with politicians who steered policies and crafted legislation to maintain the status quo.
All that, however, was about to change. The last century has witnessed an unprecedented change in the American workplace. Starting in the 1920s, major laws were passed that guaranteed protections, redistributed power, and regulated everything from wages to hours to union management to hiring practices. Racial minorities saw new laws reverse decades of discriminatory hiring practices, as did women, immigrants, older Americans, and other vulnerable groups. Laws were enacted to improve workplace safety, to prevent child labor, and to bolster unions while preventing union bosses from exploiting their own members.
Modern workers owe their comparatively cushy conditions to the efforts of the activists and organizers who appealed for fair pay and reasonable protections at the risk of being fired, jailed, beaten, or killed. Here's a look at a century of labor laws that lifted the average American worker out of a condition of poverty and subjugation and into one that offered a much greater degree of self-determination and profit sharing.
You may also like: How your state gets to work
In 1926, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Railway Labor Act after decades of high-profile labor strikes, many of which were violent and even deadly. The act compelled union workers and companies in the railroad industry—which witnessed some of the most significant labor unrest—to negotiate through arbitration, bargaining, and mediation before resorting to strikes. As the first federal law that guaranteed workers the right to organize and choose their own union leaders without company interference, the act was one of the most significant reforms in history up to that point.
The 1931 Davis-Bacon Act required all private companies that won contracts on any significant public-works construction projects to pay workers the so-called "prevailing wage," which generally corresponded with union wages. The law was necessary because the country was in the throes of the Great Depression, millions were out of work, and labor bosses frequently exploited the desperation of the unemployed by offering take-it-or-leave-it wage ultimatums. The standard remains in place today and still covers roughly 25% of construction workers at any given time.
The Norris-LaGuardia Act, enacted in 1932, was a major victory for workers seeking to organize for better pay and conditions. The law protected peaceful union strikes and protests from federal court injunctions, which had long hindered union organization efforts. It also prevented companies from firing workers for joining a union and outlawed so-called yellow-dog contracts, which required prospective employees to sign a promise not to join a union.
The 1935 National Labor Relations Act is among the most important legislation in labor history and remains the foundation of modern labor law in the United States. The act was the crowning achievement of the workers' rights movement, which had struggled for legitimacy and federal validation since the mid-1800s. The act guaranteed that private-sector workers have the right to unionize, to engage in collective bargaining and, if all else fails, to strike.
Also called the Fitzgerald Act, the National Apprenticeship Act of 1937 regulated and created minimum standards for tradesman/apprentice relationships and on-the-job training programs. Apprenticeships—a student employee learning a craft or trade from an experienced tradesperson—are as old as America itself, but the system was often exploitative or abusive.
In 1938, the American labor movement scored its biggest victory to date with the signing of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which guaranteed an eight-hour workday, a minimum wage, a 40-hour work week, and time-and-a-half overtime. It also protected minors from certain hazardous work or any work during school hours. The act, which remains the foundation of workers' rights protections in the United States, gave 700,000 Americans an immediate raise.
In 1941, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which outlawed employment discrimination based on race, color, creed, or national origin in any defense or government industries that received federal funding. It also created the Fair Employment Practice Commission (FEPC), a commission authorized to investigate and act on complaints of discrimination.
By the end of the 1950s, unions were secure in their legal status and also commanded significant clout as a force for electioneering—but some of the biggest unions were also under intense scrutiny for widespread corruption and even racketeering. The Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act enacted standards meant to protect union workers from abuses by union bosses by requiring greater financial and administrative transparency.
President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988 on Jan. 17, 1962, which for the first time in history gave federal employees the right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining. These basic rights had protected private-sector employees for decades, but federal workers had until that point been vulnerable.
In 1963, the women's rights and labor rights movements—long working toward similar goals—won a mutual victory when JFK signed the Equal Pay Act. It was an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act and served as a ban on pay disparity for equal work based on gender.
The sweeping and far-reaching social reforms mandated by the 1964 Civil Rights Act were not limited to labor. Workers' rights and civil rights had been inseparable since the end of slavery. The landmark legislation banned discrimination in the workplace based on color, race, gender, national origin, or religion.
The year 1967 gave another victory to labor with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which outlawed hiring discrimination based on age. It also protected workers over the age of 40 from termination or forced retirement, as well as those collecting age-related federal benefits. The rights associated with the 1964 Civil Rights Act now applied to older workers.
The 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act required employers to protect their workers from the factory fires, farming accidents, mine collapses, and black lung disease that compelled the earliest labor activists to organize in the first place. The legislation forced employers to safeguard their workers from things like excessive heat and cold, mechanical dangers, unsanitary conditions, toxic substances, and other known physical hazards. It also created and empowered OSHA to enforce the legislation.
The 1974 Employee Retirement and Security Income Act protected workers not from on-the-job hazards, but from shady players who frequently plundered or misspent their retirement savings. The legislation set minimum standards for private-industry pension plans and required companies to disclose information about the plans and how they were managed while also putting fiduciary responsibility on whoever is in charge of their assets.
In 1978, Title VII of the Civil Service Reform Act extended to most civilian federal employees the right to unionize, organize, and bargain collectively. It did not protect postal employees, who are covered by legislation specifically written for their industry.
Prior to 1978, courts held that although discrimination based on pregnancy affects only women, it still wasn't considered sex-based discrimination. In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act amended Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to prohibit sex discrimination based on pregnancy.
Before the 1988 Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, which was enacted by Congress without President Ronald Reagan's signature, companies, plants, mines, and other places of business could close without warning, leaving their employees one paycheck away from financial calamity. The new legislation, however, forced most companies with more than 100 employees to give 60 days' written notice in the case of imminent mass layoffs or closings.
In 1990, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was amended yet again when the Americans With Disabilities Act expanded the legislation to include workers with disabilities. Aside from preventing discrimination, the act also required employers to make reasonable accommodations for special needs regarding accessibility.
Virtually all wealthy Western countries require employers to provide paid maternity or paternity leave—all except the United States. That remains the case today, but in 1993, new moms and dads got some reprieve with the Family and Medical Leave Act, which mandated 12 job-protected work weeks a year for things like the birth, adoption, and some other circumstances. Ever since, time off has been guaranteed, but not compensated.
In 2009, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was amended again when President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which was named for the Supreme Court plaintiff whose case led to the legislation. The act gave employees more time to file equal-pay lawsuits after learning they were being paid less than someone of the opposite gender for equal work.