- Fair Pay
- Safe Working Conditions
- Sick Leave
- Workers’ Compensation
- Protection for Children
- Eight-hour Work Days
- Health Benefits
- Wrongful Termination Protection
- Protection against Discrimination
- Privacy in the Workplace
Labor unions are the protectors and advocates of the American workforce. They grew out of a necessity to protect the rights and well-being of all kinds of workers during our nation’s formative years. In the 1760s, a group of tailors went on the first recorded labor strike to protest a wage reduction. Employees in various sectors followed suit, frustrated not only with unfair wages, but also unsafe working conditions and unreasonable working hours.
These unfair conditions set the foundation for labor unions across the U.S. The first labor union in history was the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers (shoemakers), which was founded in Philadelphia in 1794. Currently, approximately 14.6 million workers (just over 11 percent of the total workers in the U.S.) are part of a labor union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Since the 1980s, labor unions began losing some of their steam and getting negative press, but there is still so much that can be done in regards to current workplace practices and ethics. There are still huge issues such as diminishing benefits, workplace hazards, unequal pay for women, privacy concerns, and discrimination. Labor unions are still valid and still very much necessary.
As President John F. Kennedy noted in a speech in 1960, “Our labor unions are not narrow, self-seeking groups. They have raised wages, shortened hours, and provided supplemental benefits. Through collective bargaining and grievance procedures, they have brought justice and democracy to the shop floor.”
Below are just a few of the reasons to give pause and be thankful.
In 1912, a group of Massachusetts textile mills decided – without warning – to cut their workers’ pay by $0.32, which was a large chunk of their already meager $8.76 average weekly pay. The workers had enough. Over 30,000 of them walked off the job and many continued to protest for nine long weeks. It worked. The mill owners and the union made a deal, settling on a 15-percent wage increase, increased overtime compensation, and a promise to not retaliate against strikers.
Before the formation of labor unions, an employer could pay his employees any wage he wanted. They knew their workers were desperate and without labor protection laws, employers had no fear of reprisal.
This is not the case anymore.
- We now have the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which among other things, provides the standards for wages and overtime pay.
- The Act mandates that workers be entitled to one and a half times their regular pay for any overtime hours (over 40 hours in one week).
- There are both federal and state minimum wage laws; if there is a discrepancy, employees are entitled to the higher of the two rates.
- Additionally, some labor union-protected workers have guaranteed pay scales and guaranteed pay increases at various intervals.
In pre-labor union days, workplace safety simply was not topic of concern for employers. There were no government agencies or laws that set standards for or regulated workplace health and safety practices. Workers developed occupational diseases and were often wounded or killed on the job due to preventable hazards such as chemical exposure, dangerous equipment, poor practices, lack of safety training, and pollution.
In 1911, for example, 146 textile workers – mostly women and children – were killed when equipment ignited in a New York City factory. The employers had locked them in a room with no fire escape.
Because of the efforts of labor unions, massive progress has been made in workplace safety. We now have the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which regulate safety and health conditions in most private sectors and industries.
- Employers must provide their employees with a relatively safe workplace free from serious hazards.
- Employers who do not comply are subject to penalties and sanctions.
- Employees have access to help and a means to file complaints about unsafe conditions with OSHA.
In other words, because of the labor movement, employees now have a right to safety in the workplace. Had the factory fire catastrophe of 1911 happened today, the media would crucify the company, the public would boycott, shareholders would jump ship, and victims’ families would have means of reprisal. Times have definitely changed.
Before labor unions had any stake, very few employees could take time off work. If you got sick or delivered a child and could not come to work, there was a high chance that your employer would fire you.
Of course, employees are not dispensable machines; they are human beings with real-life needs. Labor unions recognized the need to protect and help employees and began pushing for sick leave and other paid leave.
Many organized unions provide their members with excellent paid sick leave benefits that periodically increase with tenure. In addition, larger companies are now subject to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which guarantees certain employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave each year. The leave is designated for a major illness, the birth of a child, to go through the adoption process, or to care for an immediate family member who is ill.
In February 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division issued a Final Rule that guaranteed sick leave rights to same-sex couples. Now, both same- and opposite-sex couples can now take time off to care for their families and not fear reprisal.
Prior to the 1900s, there was no organized workers’ compensation system in the United States. Germany, Prussia, and England each had its own workers’ compensation system, but the U.S. lagged behind. With all the dangerous workplace conditions, injuries were exceedingly commonplace. And with no workers’ compensation insurance, if you were hurt on the job and could not return to work, you were on your own. If you died on the job, your family would be on its own.
With labor unions’ and supporters’ efforts, a couple of states tried to follow Europe’s lead and built some worker protections for workers into their state laws. But it was not until 1908 that the federal government adopted the first actual workers’ compensation law in America under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act. The law mandates:
- Employers must show financial responsibility and keep workers’ compensation insurance for employees.
- If you are hurt on the job or develop a work-related illness, you have access to free medical care and wage replacement until you can return to work.
These are things that are easy to take for granted because they have been in place for over 100 years, but the protection that workers’ compensation laws provide employees with is still just as valuable as ever.
Prior to labor unions and child labor laws, children worked as laborers in factories, mines, and fields. Employers welcomed kids as workers for two primary reasons: there were no laws in place protecting the children, and they could pay the children even less than adults. If you lived prior to 1900, your children would be expected to work in horrible conditions for sickeningly unfair pair.
Many employers did not care about children’s health, well-being, education, or future; they reaped financial benefits from child exploitation. Individual workers and social reformers fought hard to end child labor, but they had little power until labor unions formed. Labor unions worked very hard to get legislation passed that protected children and put an end child labor.
In today’s America, we have solid child labor laws in place that protect our kids and give them an opportunity to live normal childhoods, free from unfair treatment. Current laws limit:
- The age a child can begin working (usually 14 or 15, depending on the state).
- The number of hours per day a teenager can work while attending school.
Labor unions helped change America’s view of children; they propagated the philosophy that youth’s education and well-being is far more important than corporate gain.
Before labor unions had any say, a 12-, 14-, or even 18-hour day was the norm. Workers did not get weekends off, either. Many worked seven days a week, every week. According to Discovery News, in 1890, manufacturing employees worked an average of 100 hours per week. Not only did they have no time off, they also were not afforded rest breaks or lunch breaks while at work.
Excessive work hours can lead to disease; injuries; physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion; and reduced quality of life.
In the 1800s and 1900s, labor unions organized strikes and pushed for legislation to make eight-hour workdays the standard. They had varying degrees of success throughout the years, but it was not until the 1950s that most Americans began enjoying what we now consider normal eight-hour workdays.
Because of labor unions’ efforts, many employees have:
- Eight-hour workdays
- 40-hour work weeks
- Vacation time
- Regular breaks on the job
- Overtime pay
The health insurance benefit system in America has a long and odd history. Prior to WWII, everyone either paid for insurance out-of-pocket or went without. During that era, labor groups threatened to go on strike because of the war-induced wage and price controls. In an attempt to preempt disaster, the government’s War Labor Board offered tax breaks for employer health plans. The offer exempted employer-paid health benefits from wage controls and income tax.
The government meant the tax breaks as only a temporary solution, but everybody loved them. Employers received 100 percent tax deductions, and employees received better and cheaper benefits than they could afford on their own. When the Board tried to end the tax break and reform the healthcare after the war, labor unions and supporters dug in their heels and pushed to make employer-provided health insurance universal.
It stuck. Now, many employers offer health insurance (and dental, life, and vision insurance) to full-time employees, which works very well to cut costs across the board. Workers who are part of certain labor unions are afforded good, affordable health insurance benefits with their employer, which subsequently encourages employee retention. It is a win-win.
Before labor unions helped push for pension plans and before Social Security, American workers potentially had to work until the day they died. Prior to the 1870s, there were no company pension plans because most businesses were relatively small and new, and the larger businesses did not have employees’ futures in mind.
Then, in 1875, the American Express Company introduced the first private pension plan in the U.S. Since that time, many new standards, rules, and legislation regulated pension plans and provide a safety net for workers. By 1929, there were nearly 400 private pension plans and by 1940, over 4 million workers (15 percent of the workforce) were covered by pension plans.
Labor unions do not just care about employees’ current conditions; they also care for their futures. Employers that offer pensions are held to fiduciary, disclosure, and reporting standards and requirements. They cannot cease benefits or renegotiate without following procedure, so employees are never left in the dark. Thanks to unions and labor advocates, multiple pieces of legislation are now securely in place and afford employees with benefits they need at retirement.
- Revenue Act
- Labor-Management Relations Act
- Investment Advisors Act
- Self-Employed Individual Retirement Act
- Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA)
The reason some employers got away with so much in the past is because there were no laws, compliance practices, or protections for employees. Employees were afraid to complain or demand better treatment for fear of retaliation. If your employer was harassing you, for example, and you complained to the employer or an authority, he might fire you. The same applies to complaining about major safety hazards at work, or about being threatened with termination if you refuse to work overtime.
Labor unions have stood adamantly against wrongful, unethical termination. Because of their efforts, there are now numerous labor and public safety laws that provide whistleblower protections for employees who complain about their employers’ violations of the law. If you file a complaint with OHSA, for example, and your employer retaliates, you can take legal action and seek recovery for damages such as wage losses.
Our firm has helped numerous employees file and win wrongful discharge suits. Thanks to the progress of the labor movement, you are afforded protection against wrongful termination. An employer simply cannot fire you (or try to make your job so unbearable that you quit) if:
- Your discharge goes against public policy
- You were guaranteed rights in a company manual, policy, or contract
- Your employer is acting in poor faith.
Before we had all the current anti-discrimination laws in place, an employer could terminate you or refuse to hire you simply because you were a woman, over 40, an amputee, a Baptist, or any other reason. The labor and civil rights movement worked (and continues to work) to put a stop to discrimination in the workplace in America.
Today, your employer cannot terminate you for filing complaints, and labor unions have succeeded in helping push for legislation that protects you from certain types of discrimination at work. If you are part of a protected population, you cannot be denied employment, treated differently, harassed, or retaliated against.
Labor unions have paved the way for legislation such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, which makes it illegal to discriminate against individuals on the basis of their race, color, religion, gender, or ethnicity. You also have protections under discrimination laws if you are a veteran, pregnant, have filed for bankruptcy, or are subject to wage garnishments. Since the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, more legislation has been introduced to protect workers’ rights.
- The Age Discrimination in Employment Act provides that employers cannot discriminate based on age
- The Americans with Disabilities Act provides protections for disabled persons.
These types of momentous protections have done a world of good in keeping employers in check and preventing workplace racism, bigotry, sexism, and other types of hurtful and wrongful discrimination.
A relatively new concern and hot topic for unions and labor reformers is employees’ right to privacy in the workplace. Labor unions and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are fighting hard against employers who continually strip employees of their right to privacy in the public sector.
Labor reformers hold that employees’ privacy should be respected at work. Employers may violate these rights, though, through hidden surveillance, unwarranted drug testing, and “lifestyle discrimination.” There is still a lot of work left to be done in this area. As it stands, employers may still be able to:
- Record everything you do and say at work (even confidential statements to fellow coworkers or to yourself).
- Record your phone calls.
- Force you to take psychological and lifestyle questionnaires
- Subject you to intrusive physical searches.
- They can even put hidden surveillance cameras in locker rooms and other places you would think you would have privacy.
Labor unions are taking major efforts to protect their members’ rights to privacy. Unfortunately, only 11 percent of the workforce is unionized, so most employees do not enjoy these protections. With the lack of employee privacy protection policies and the horde of new concerns emerging such as employers reading workers’ emails and monitoring their social media activities, privacy protection is the next frontier for unions.
When Your Rights Have Been Violated
In his speech at a state convention in 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. summarized the profound effect of labor unions on our country: “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.”
When your workplace violates your rights or you have suffered injury or harm on the job, speak to an experienced and compassionate attorney about your legal options. The lawyers at Hiden Rott & Oertle, LLP, help individual employees, groups of employees, and even provide legal representation and assistance to labor unions. For legal counsel, contact Hiden Rott & Oertle, LLP at 619-568-5733.