Trade union activity in America had been associated with the early settlements of America. Guilds or associations of carpenters, cobblers and other tradesmen temporarily appeared along colonial American cities, who also played a considerable role in the independence struggle. Disguised carpenters actively participated and played a crucial role in the Boston Tea Party of 1773. In 1794, the printers became the first to go on strike in New York, demanding shorter working hours and better pay.
The cabinet makers followed in 1796, the carpenters in Philadelphia followed them a year later in 1797 and the cordwainers took to striking in 1799 (SSHC,1996). Most of these unions couldn’t sustain for long, as employers claimed these union to be illegal and planed conspiracies attempting to raise wages beyond those agreed by other workers. Taking to negotiation or strikes became more common in the early 19th century, to improve workers conditions.
By the mid 19th century, a Massachusetts court ruled that the attempts of unions cannot be illegal as long as their objectives were lawful, which was a landmark case for the efforts of the union, as it set the ground for similar hearings for other courts and facilitated growth and development of unions (Chaison, 2006). Several unions were attempting to reduce work hours from 12 to 10 in the 1920s. There was also a strong desire among people to form a federation which would facilitate achieving the aspirations of the working people.
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Several local unions developed with increasing perception of the power of employers, by the mid 19th century. In several cities, unions in various trades joined to form city level federations. In 1866, The National Labor Union (NLU) was formed which was a consortium of local unions. The NLU forced the Congress and ultimately succeeded in bringing the eight hour work time for Federal workers. The eight hour work day was achieved after several violent and bloody clashes associated with lengthy strikes.
It became the foundation for the 40 hour-5 day week in the US, although it was not extended to all workers across all industries. It was also not legally mandated though the ‘Fair Labor Standards Act’ (FLSA) of 1938 required a half pay for certain groups of workers who exceed eight hours on a particular day or exceed 40 hours on a given week. This facilitated bringing in laws by certain states which required overtime payments to workers and professions that are not covered by the federal act. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was passed by the Congress in July 1935 to provide employees their right to self organization.
Backed by government support under President Roosevelt, making a significant departure from earlier policies, labor organizations like the American federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations undertook massive country wide campaigning. The wages and Hours Act of 1938, sought to implement a minimum wages of 25 cents a hour for industrial workers corresponding to a 40 hour week and child labor was restricted. The Social Security Act of 1935 ensured worker benefits covering old age, death and disabilities.
Unemployment benefits and medical care for the older people were later included. As industrialization caused movement of workers from homes and agriculture to urban places and factories, factory owners increasingly preferred children as they were manageable, less demanding and could be hired for lesser wages. However during the end of the 19th century, there were growing demands to stop child labor (ULIC). By 1900, most states had in place certain stipulations governing child employment. Child labor began declining with increasing labor movements.
The National Child Labor Committee formed in 1904 put up campaigns against child labor and the FLSA finally set federal standards to govern child labor. Before the 19th century, increasing use of technology in every aspect of life, improved productivity and offered benefits. Unfortunately, these developments came at a price; increasing workplace dangers. The methods and machines used were very often dangerous. Suing employers for damages or deaths were difficult. A survey of 1900 showed that only a half of all fatally injured people received any compensation and even those who received it got only a maximum of six months pay.
Mining and railroads were particularly dangerous in terms of work environment (Aldrich, 2001). One of the most earliest successful attempts to improve work safety was when in 1880, rail road workers sought better couplers and brakes for freight cars. In recent times work safety aspects have increased considerably since world war II, led by powerful labor unions. However the higher injury rates of the 1960s had put pressure on the Congress to set the Occupational safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Before the formation of OSHA in 1970, the corporations and companies themselves decided on the medical and work safety requirements of their workers. Under such circumstances, the use of asbestos, vinyl chloride and other hazardous materials went unchecked leading to a spread of work related diseases and illness (Benjamin, 1995). The unions have also played a considerable role in addressing the effects caused by immigration. Immigration of adult workers immensely affects the geographical distribution, skills and employment opportunities available.
The labor unions have not ignored the effects caused by immigrant labor and have always responded tremendously such that it has affected the formation of public policies. Since the 1980s, the union has made the Congress enact policies or supported its policies to restrict immigration. It is to be noted here that union membership increased when immigration declined. In 2000, the executive council of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) announced a change in its stand with regard to immigration.
The council declared that it intended to support immigration and lenient enforcement of immigration laws. The AFL-CIO emphasized that it was promoting the rights of the immigrants to encourage them to join the unions. The number of immigrants as union members rose 24% from 1. 4 million in 1996 to 1. 8 million in 2003. The levels of native union members fell by 6% during this period from 14. 8 million to 14. 0 million. Correspondingly, the levels of immigrant representation in the unions increased while that of natives fell (Grieco, 2004).
It should also be noted here that unions in the US are considerably behind those in the UK, when it comes to training and development strategies of employees. The unions in the UK have been more concerned on the advancement of career of employees through training and learning. The achievements of British trade unions is a standing example of what it can achieve for its members when it’s focused on training and learning. During the last few years, the British trade unions have adopted training and learning as an important element of their agenda.
The role of unions in establishing ‘learning agreements’ with employers, creating union learning representative (ULR) and several union learning programs are seen as success stories associated with unions. The success of trade union backed workplace learning in the UK is evident from the associated facts and figures. As of December 2006, the unions have trained over 13,000 ULRs. More than 3000 workplaces have been covered with over 450 union learning projects, while over 67,000 learners benefit from these courses each year.
There have also been many cases where unions have been in partnership with employers to develop learning and skills acquirement Such programs are very valuable to the employees and sometimes be a life changing experience for many. It helps them to advance their career, while also encouraging them to become more active in the union. Despite this, the unions in the US have come a long way and have catered to the growing needs of the workforce in every aspect of life. Be it social security, health, risks, old age or their dependents; the unions have ensured that fair and appropriate deals reach its members.
At this time, when unions have considerable influence in the establishment of government policies and acts, both at the state and federal levels, one should not forget its humble beginnings and the people who had made this possible today. The workers who had been sacked, thrown out and even imprisoned for raising questions on the common welfare of the workers and those workers who decided to stand up against the might of their owners who had enormous political and money power, should not be forgotten.
The unions of today and the all-round support they receive today is in stark contrast to the concerns and condemnation, it had raised earlier.
Social Studies Help Center (1996). The labor union movement in America [Electronic Version]. Downloaded Electronically on June 4th from http://www. socialstudieshelp. com/Eco_Unionization. htm Chaison G. N. , (2006) Unions in America. Sage Publishers. U. S Benjamin P. E. , (1996) Lives in the balance-Corporate vs. Pubic research, People’s World Weekly, 16 Sept.
University of Iowa Labor Center. Child Labor in US History. [Electronic Version]. Downloaded Electronically on June 4th from http://www. continuetolearn. uiowa. edu/laborctr/child_labor/about/us_history. html Aldrich M. , (2001) History of Workplace Safety in the United States, 1880-1970. EH. Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. http://eh. net/encyclopedia/article/aldrich. safety. workplace. us Grieco E (2004) Immigrant Union Members- Numbers and Trends http://www. migrationpolicy. org/pubs/7_Immigrant_Union_Membership. pdf
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