What It Means
As workers and wage earners, people in most countries are supported by a diverse body of labor laws. These laws vary from country to country (and in the United States there are variations from state to state), but they generally cover such areas as the obligations a worker and employer have to one another, the safety of the work environment, unfair discrimination in hiring and on the job, and the ability of workers to organize with one another into unions that can represent their interests more forcefully than would be possible if they had to make strictly individual appeals to their employers.
This was not always the case. When the first large factories came into being in Europe and the United States as a result of the Industrial Revolution (the dramatic social, cultural, and economic change that began in the early 1800s, chiefly as a result of the introduction of new technologies such as the steam engine), most governments took a hands-off approach to their economies. The mechanization of many industries, such as mining and the manufacturing of textiles and iron, gave business owners the opportunity to produce goods and, accordingly, profit at a much greater rate than their counterparts in prior ages, and they naturally pursued this wealth by whatever means necessary. Without any government oversight, factories and mining companies compelled men, women, and children to work unlimited hours (sometimes as many as 16 hours a day) at dangerous jobs for as little pay as possible. Meanwhile, the size of the working class grew tremendously because of the growth of industry, so more and more people were affected by employer-employee issues.
Labor laws grew out of public concerns for workers’ health and welfare. One of the basic principles justifying the need for labor laws is that the worker is by definition the weaker party in the employment relationship. Governments have typically tried to level the playing field between employers and laborers and to allow workers to do so themselves through the creation of unions. The progress of such laws has been fitful, however, as public views about the roles of employers and labor tends to shift according to political trends. The United States was slower than European countries to introduce labor laws, and it has traditionally been less active in promoting the interests of workers than other modernized countries.
When Did It Begin
The labor laws of today are an outgrowth of the Industrial Revolution. Though many factors contributed to the Industrial Revolution, some of the most important were the introduction of new technologies concerning textile manufacturing, advances in manufacturing iron, and the invention of the steam engine, which allowed for the mechanization of many industries and great advances in transportation.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, it was common for manual laborers and their employers to have strong personal obligations to one another and to the communities in which they lived. But the rise of factories in which goods were manufactured on a large scale resulted in huge increases in the number of people who worked for wages. The increased size of the working class and the impersonality of factory employment changed the nature of the relationship between employers and workers. Laws became necessary to protect workers from the abuses of employers interested in the enormous profits to be had thanks to mass production.
The first significant labor law to emerge from these societal changes, dealing with the treatment of child laborers in textile mills, was passed in England in 1802. The first half of the nineteenth century saw England expand on the legal protections of workers, while similar measures were taken by other European countries. Though England had made labor unions legal in 1825, unions were not allowed to press their employers for better wages and working hours.
In the American colonies of the late eighteenth century, laws had been passed that limited a worker’s rights and that legalized slavery and other forms of forced labor. The nineteenth century brought slaves and servants some protections from the cruelty of masters and employers, but slavery persisted until the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, during the Civil War. Legislation had been passed in 1840 limiting the length of the workday to ten hours for employees of the federal government, but further reduction of the legal workday was suppressed. Unions were typically considered a conspiracy against the public well-being, and U.S. and state courts often allowed the prosecution of union leaders and members if they went on strike to demand better pay or treatment.
It was not until the Great Depression, the severe economic crisis in the 1930s, that the U.S. government began to pass comprehensive legislation protecting workers’ rights. At this time, millions of Americans lost their jobs and fell into poverty, and popular sentiment against big business was pronounced.
More Detailed Information
In the United States as elsewhere, the competing interests of employers (who want to minimize labor costs and ensure that they make profits) and workers (who want to maximize their own well-being) are always subject to politics. Generally speaking, conservatives in the United States tend to favor a hands-off approach to the economy in the belief that market forces such as supply, demand, and prices will provide all the necessary regulation, including regulation of employer and labor relations. At the same time liberals tend to be skeptical about the wisdom of relying solely on market forces to determine economic outcomes, believing that a lack of government regulation favors the rich and powerful at the expense of the ordinary worker. Labor laws were first broadly adopted during the Great Depression amid widespread disenchantment with a hands-off approach to the economy. But as the state of the economy and popular attitudes about the government’s role in these matters has fluctuated over time, so has the approach to enacting and enforcing labor laws.
Several pieces of legislation passed under President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Depression provided the foundation for the labor laws of today. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act, gave workers the right to organize in unions so that they might more effectively request improvements in working conditions, pay, and other matters. The Social Security Act, passed that same year and known primarily for its creation of benefits for the elderly, also established benefits for the unemployed, easing the dangers posed by job loss. Workers’ right to a minimum wage and to extra pay for overtime hours was first established by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (though the provisions of this law applied only to workers involved in interstate commerce, or business ventures that required the crossing of state lines).
After World War II there was a spirit of reaction against the prewar gains made by workers and labor unions, partly because of the perceived involvement of communists (those supporting the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a government controlled by workers) in the labor movement. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 restricted the rights of unions and gave the U.S. President the power to temporarily call off strikes if they affected national security. Under Taft-Hartley union leaders were required to sign legal documents verifying that they did not belong to the Communist party.
The political climate of the United States was more progressive in the 1960s, and workers benefited from this along with members of minority groups, women, and other historically oppressed groups. In 1962 the Work Hours Act made the eight-hour workday and the 40-hour workweek standard. Workers required to work more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week became entitled to time-and-a-half pay (150 percent of the normal hourly wage they were paid) during those extra hours. The Civil Rights Movement’s goals of creating equality among people of different races also applied to labor law. As part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination against prospective or current employees because of race, sex, national origin, color, or religion was made illegal. Finally, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 regulated safety in the workplace, establishing a government agency (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA) to conduct inspections and take action against employers who violated national laws.
These laws today serve as the framework for regulating the interests of employers and workers across the United States, but there is also an abundance of state labor laws that pick up where these basic principles leave off. Some states provide greater protection to workers than that which is embodied in federal laws, while some states do little beyond what the federal government requires. Likewise, courts at the state and federal levels constantly expand, trim, and refine the labor laws that are in effect at any given time.
Antiunion sentiment became pronounced in the United States in the 1980s and early 1990s under the politically conservative presidencies of Ronald Reagan and his successor, George H. W. Bush. Reagan in particular sought to reduce the role of government in the economy. This meant not only cutting taxes but also minimizing the budgets of many federal agencies, including those charged with investigating workplace safety and fairness issues. At the same time, the Reagan and Bush administrations sought to get rid of some restrictions on employers, using the rationale that such government intervention needlessly interfered with industry and gave businesses in less-regulated parts of the world a competitive advantage over U.S. companies.
The 1990s did bring some legal victories for labor and unions. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1990 made it more difficult for employers to hire nonunion workers and to file bankruptcy in order to dodge the obligation to pay pensions they had promised to older workers. Likewise, 1990 saw the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, part of which was devoted to preventing discrimination against the disabled in the workplace, and in 1993 Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act, which entitled workers to 12 weeks off from work per year to take care of their own or their family member’s medical concerns.
The size and influence of unions in the United States diminished greatly between the 1980s and the beginning of the twenty-first century. In 1983 more than 20 percent of U.S. workers belonged to unions. By 2006 only 12 percent of workers did. The bulk of unionized workers were, at this time, those who worked in the public sector for various government branches and agencies. More than 36 percent of government workers belonged to unions, whereas only around 7 percent of people employed in the private sector were union members. Public-school teachers, police officers, and firefighters had some of the highest rates of union membership in the United States.