The late 1700's through the early 1800's was the age of Cottage Industry. People farmed and made every attempt at self-sufficiency. If they needed to earn extra money they sold produce, eggs, milk and butter. Some sewed for others or built wagons. But a massive upheaval in the American economic system was brewing. The Industrial Revolution, which began very slowly in the late 18th century and reached its pinnacle by 1914, ushered in a strange new world, pulling men, women and children from the farm fields to the factory floor.
The Rise of the Labor Union
Labor Unions began as skilled trade union organizations in the UK and began forming in small groups in the US, one such being the Knights of Labor. The Knights became the largest and most powerful labor union in the States in the 1880's. Founded by Uriah Smith Stephens and James L. Wright as a tailors' union, the Knights enjoyed exponential growth throughout the 1880's and '90's. The collapse of the National Labor Union in 1873 had left a vacuüm the Knights were eager to fill. Their agenda was no child or convict labor, eight-hour workdays and safer working environments. Embraced by the coal miners and steelworkers in Pennsylvania, the Knights membership exploded until mismanagement shut them down in 1949.
The Age of the Wobblies
In 1905, a group of thirty union organizers, led by William "Big Bill" Haywood, formed the Industrial Workers of the World, aka the Wobblies. Most of the early members were miners and lumbermen in the West. The Wobblies were very liberal for their day, excluding no one from their ranks, including women and people of other races. The glory days of the IWW were very important for labor unions, as they gave unskilled laborers a voice in the workplace. Still in existence today, at its pinnacle it had 200,000 members. Today, the group has membership of 2,000.
Between 1912 and 1918 the US government began to react to the demands of labor unions. 36 states adopted the Workers Compensation Act, and one rest day out of seven, maximum daily hours of work and minimum wage requirements for women were all implemented as policy. While the government had always tried to intervene in labor practices, actual policy change in favor of labor demands was an animal of the early 20th century.
During the Great Depression, Congress delivered six important pieces of labor legislation favored by unionists, virtually revolutionizing labor markets: Davis-Bacon (1931, requiring fair, locally competitive wages in the construction field), Norris-LaGuardia (1932, granting labor unions immunity from wrongful acts in anti-trust cases), National Industrial Recovery Act (1933, approval of collective bargaining practices), Wagner National Labor Relations Act (1935, created the National Labor Relations Board), Walsh-Healey (1936, allowed fixed minimum wages for government contract workers), and the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938, popularly known as the minimum wage law). The root of this legislation is the belief that higher wages mean better product. This actually reverses the cause and effect proving high wages are an effect of high productivity and thus wages, not a cause of them. It also gave labor unions far more leeway in their negotiating practices.
The Rise of the UAW & the Teamsters
The United Auto Workers (UAW), is a labor union which represents workers in the United States and Puerto Rico, and formerly in Canada. Founded as part of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s, the UAW grew rapidly from 1936 to the 1950s. Under the leadership of Walter Reuther it played a major role in the liberal wing of the Democratic party, including the civil rights and anti-Communist movements. The UAW was especially known for gaining high wages and pensions for the auto workers, but it was unable to unionize auto plants built by foreign-based car-makers in the South after 1970s, and went into a steady decline in membership.
The labor body that would become the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Union formed in 1887. Beginning that year, the American Federation of Labor, or AFL, assisted in establishing local unions of teamsters in the United States. During this time, teamsters drove teams of horses and wagons for commercial purposes. 12 years later the Team Drivers' International Union formed. A few years after that a group of local unions broke with the AFL's organization and started the Teamsters National Union. Two years later, these two organizations merged, under the umbrella of the AFL. That incarnation was the first to bear the name International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
The Teamsters history is fraught with corruption, graft and greed. Organized crime figures were major players in the Teamsters organization. Jimmy Hoffa, a Teamsters organizer from 1932 to 1975, played a major role in the growth and development of the union, though not always in an above-board way.
Hoffa, convicted of jury tampering, attempted bribery, and fraud in 1964, went to prison to serve a 13 year sentence in 1967. In mid-1971 he officially resigned the Teamsters' presidency, as part of a pardon agreement with president Nixon, to ensure his release from prison in late 1971. Another part of the plea agreement, Nixon blocked Hoffa from union activities until 1980. Hoffa tried unsuccessfully to overturn this part of the plea-bargain.
Hoffa's disappearance on July 30, 1975, after an alleged meet with two top mafiosi, did not slow down the growth and development of the Teamsters. He was declared legally dead in 1982.
The Effects of OSHA on Labor Unions
Signed into law on December 29, 1970 by president Richard Nixon, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Act nullified a large part of labor unions' raison d'être. In pre-OSHA years, labor unions were the watchdogs of workplace conditions. OSHA's mission is to assure safe and healthful workplace conditions for all workers.
OSHA is responsible for enforcing its standards. The agency routinely sends Compliance Safety and Health Officers to work sites, where they carry out inspections and assess fines for regulatory violations. Planned inspections for work sites in particularly hazardous industries are the norm . Inspections can also result in response to workplace incidents, worker complaints or referrals by others. Properly applied OSHA safety standards in the modern workplace have effectively rendered this arm of labor unions obsolete, as OSHA covers over 7,000,000 industries in the US alone.
The Effects of the Fair Labor Standards Act
The Fair Labor Standards Act, or FSLA, enacted by the government to regulate a national minimum wage. It also deals with fair overtime pay practices, protection of workers under the age of 16, and oversees the Immigration and Nationality Act, which sets standards for immigrant workers, who make up a large percentage of the US workforce. The FLSA also made the hiring of children illegal, thus completely preventing child-labor in the US.
Enacted in June of 1938 by Senator Hugo Black, the FLSA was a direct result of violence between employers and striking union workers. The government opinion is, with these types of standards in place, there will be less reason for unions to organize strikes. Surprisingly, the US Supreme Court was very much opposed to the FLSA; the court had repeatedly voted against excluding children in the workforce, and felt the FLSA stance on the topic was too severe and restrictive.
The Pros and Cons of Labor Unions
The most important duty of a labor union is representing the "collective voice" of the workers to management. Labor unions are very good at negotiating pay raises and better benefits for their members. The threat of a walkout is often a very good motivator for employers and tends to speed up negotiations exponentially. Labor unions also are used to represent individual workers who feel they are being discriminated against in some way. Union representatives can provide guidance and assistance in effectively filing complaints against management without fear of the loss of employment. However, it is this fearlessness of workers protected by the union shield that contributes greatly to the dark side of labor unions. Many employers are unable to dismiss union workers who are incompetent, dishonest or ineffectual for fear of a backlash from the union.
Also, the often unrealistic expectations of wages and benefits by union workers force the employer to send work overseas, where non-unionized workers will do the same job for lower pay and few (if any) benefits. This "cheapening" of the US labor force has been a direct result of unions being allowed to run roughshod over employers. Many union shops will hire employees through temporary employment agencies as a long-term hire, to avoid offering union demanded higher salaries and benefits packages. Lastly, discrimination against women and minorities, while still an issue in some industries, is not the hot button issue it was even twenty years ago. There is little that a union does for it's members, other than charge them often exorbitant union dues for "protection".
Although an important part of the history of industry in this country, the day of the labor union is slowly drawing to a close. Government protection of employees and the quality of their workplaces has superceded the union as the watchdog of the workplace. It won't be long before labor unions, like Jimmy Hoffa, are declared legally dead.