Most of us are familiar with the popular bumper sticker, “Labor Unions – The folks who brought you the weekend.” And yes, unions did play a pivotal role in the creation of the five-day work week. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Over the last 170 years, labor unions have done a whole lot more than just establishing the weekend. We’ve effectively served as the first line of defense against the corporations and politicians that seek to exploit working class families. We’ve fought tirelessly for better treatment for workers from all walks of life. And we’ve won some major victories along the way on issues that affect working families every day.
From improved wages to safer working conditions to fairness and equality in the workplace, the policies championed by labor unions benefit all working families, regardless as to whether they themselves belong to a union.
Most of Labor’s major accomplishments have become so engrained in our daily lives that it’s hard to imagine a time without them. In honor of May Day, which is celebrated around the world as International Workers’ Day, here are just a few of the hard-fought victories of the labor movement that we often take for granted:
Child labor laws. Nowadays, the idea of young children working in dangerous and hazardous conditions is uniformly appalling, but as recently as the early 20th century, child labor was all too commonplace. In 1881, the very first American Federation of Labor (AFL) national convention passed a resolution calling on states to ban children under 14 from all gainful employment, which motivated states to take action and pass child labor policies, and that led up to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act – the first federal law in the nation to prohibit child labor.
Occupational health and safety. Prior to 1970, firefighters, mineworkers, those who work around dangerous chemicals and just about everyone else had absolutely no health and safety protections at work. But all that changed when labor unions successfully urged President Nixon — a conservative Republican — to sign the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the first comprehensive federal legislation that regulates safety in the workplace. OSHA has provided the basis for more reforms in occupational health, including mine safety laws and standards for workers who are exposed to toxic chemicals. Unions continue to work daily to enforce OSHA’s regulations, and also to expand and refine safe protections for all workers.
The eight-hour day. During the industrial revolution of the late 1800’s, workers often toiled for 14 or 16 hours at a stretch with no overtime pay. In May of 1886, a labor strike for the eight-hour day led to the now infamous Haymarket Square riot, where striking workers lost their lives standing up for the core labor ideal of “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what we will.” Workers and unions fought for decades for this basic right, and the eight-hour day finally became reality for all workers in 1938 with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Here in California, we succeeded in securing a strong daily overtime law, and we continue every day to fight to protect this basic right.
Health care. Up until the mid-2oth century, employer-provided health care was incredibly rare, but all that changed thanks to the labor movement. In 1943, the National War Labor Board (a coalition of unions) declared employer contributions for health insurance to be tax free, which encourages companies to offer health-insurance packages to attract workers. By 1950, “half of all companies with fewer than 250 workers and two-thirds of all companies with more than 250 workers offered health insurance of one kind or another.” Today, most workers are covered under employer-provided health care, and we’re a healthier nation because of it. But the fight against greedy insurance companies is far from over. Unions are constantly advocating for more affordable and accessible health care for all, and were instrumental in the passage of the Affordable Care Act of 2009.
Minimum wage. Gone are the days of working for nothing.The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established a minimum wage (back then it was 25 cents an hour), and unions have fought year after year to raise that minimum wage to a living wage that keeps workers out of poverty. Labor is still fighting to reform the minimum wage so that it increases at the rate of inflation. In California, labor lobbied for and succeeded in passing a two-step minimum wage increase, which bumped California’s minimum wage up to $8/hour — $1.50 higher than the federal minimum wage.
Workplace equality. Unions played a major role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Title VII, which prohibits discrimination by employers or unions on the basis of race, national origin, color, religion or gender. Fairness and equality in the workplace continues to be a focal issue for unions in California and around the country, who continually fight for workplace fairness and equal opportunities for minorities, immigrants, the disabled, members of the LGBT community and others who are disenfranchised and discriminated against in the workplace.
Unemployment Insurance. Social Security and the Safety Net. As early as the 1830’s, unions – not the government — first began the practice of providing unemployment assistance to jobless workers. In the early 20th century, UI legislation started cropping up in dozens of states, and served as the impetus for the Social Security Act of 1935, which established a uniform system of unemployment insurance, and also provides aid to dependent children and rehabilitation for the physically disabled. Labor is still on the front lines every day, defending Social Security and the safety net from right-wing attacks.
Family and Medical Leave. Balancing work and family has never been easy, and as more women enter the workforce, that balancing act becomes even tougher – which is why labor staunchly advocates for new family-friendly workplace policies. In 1993, we passed the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, allowing parents to take time off to care for a new baby without risking losing their jobs. Here in California, we took the notion one step further and in 2005, we became the first state in the nation to pass a Paid Family Leave law, which allows workers to take that time off without losing all of their income. Never ones to rest on our laurels, we continue to fight to pass Paid Sick Days legislation, which would allow all Californians to accrue guaranteed sick leave.
Higher wages. Unions raise the minimum wage standard for all workers, and non-union employers are compelled to offer comparable wages and benefits in order to attract the best and brightest. In fact, at the time when most Americans belonged to a union — a period of time between the 1940′s and 1950′s — income inequality in the U.S. was at its lowest point in the history of the country. To this day, the labor movement continues to fight to raise the minimum wage so it keeps up with the rate of inflation, which helps union and non-union workers alike. when unions are strong, it forces other employers to match wages. So, they actually increase the pay and improve benefits for non-union workers too. In that way, unions help everyone…..blue collar, white collar, union and non-union.
Rebecca Greenberg works for the California Labor Federation, representing 2.1 million union members in manufacturing, retail, construction, hospitality, public sector, health care, entertainment and other industries.