Labor Movement

Have you ever held a job where the physical working conditions were terrible? Terrible as in, you were working 18-hour days for a company with no breaks, no safety precautions, no insurance or injury compensation, and no overtime at a compensation rate severely below a living wage? Hopefully not, because these are the working conditions that sparked the labor movement in the United States. To learn about the labor movement and how it changed what it is like working in the United States, you have come to the right place!

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Table of contents

    Labor Movement Definition

    What is the definition of the labor movement? A labor movement is an initiative where workers or laborers organize to demand better working conditions, wages, and working hours from an entire company or industry. Before the labor movement, there was limited regulation on how long employees could work without a break, minimum wages, and safety standards. The labor movement provided workers with backing when they made demands to their employers.

    The labor movement is the organization of workers to collectively take action to improve working conditions and wages, establish safety regulations and worker benefits, and give workers a voice in a company or industry.

    Labor unions arose out of the labor movement. A labor union is an organization made up of workers in a company or in an industry that advocates on the behalf of workers for better working conditions, better wages, and benefits. Unions hold power because they can organize strikes, picketing protests, and boycotts that can hurt a company's ability to produce and make money.

    A labor union is an organization made up of workers in a company or in an industry that advocates on the behalf of workers for better working conditions, better wages, and benefits.

    Labor unions are very interesting! To learn more about them, check out our explanation - Labor Unions in the US

    Benefits of labor unionsDrawbacks of labor unions
    • Protect workers from harsh working conditions
    • Higher wages
    • Better benefits like pensions and injury compensation
    • A representative to advocate for workers
    • Regulations on hours and overtime
    • Membership is required by some unions as a condition of employment at a company
    • Union members must participate in strikes, protests, and boycotts organized by the union
    • You cannot negotiate for yourself, you must rely on the union to negotiate on your behalf

    Table 1. Pros and cons of labor unions, StudySmarter Originals

    A large movement like the labor movement does not happen overnight. It can take decades for workers to organize themselves, come up with agreements amongst each other, negotiate with companies, and come to an understanding that both sides can agree to. These demands are also ever-evolving to keep up with modernization and technological advances.

    Labor movements can be broken into trade union movements and political labor movements. Trade union movements are made up of workers who want improved working conditions, higher wages, and better benefits. Political labor movements are political parties that represent workers' interests through political activism.

    Labor Reform Movement

    The goal of a labor reform movement is to give workers better working conditions, increase their pay, and provide better working hours, but why were these things necessary?

    Poor working conditions were mainly caused by poor or nonexistent safety regulations. Lack of regulation meant that workers were often subjected to dangerous working environments where they risked injury and even death. In cases where workers were seriously injured or killed, there was no responsibility taken by the employer for the damage suffered by the victim or their families.

    When a worker was injured on the job and could no longer work, there were no other options for them to earn an income, which meant they had to rely on other family members, like their children, to earn money. A solution to this issue was worker pensions and survivor benefits paid out to widows in case of their husband's death.

    Workers were also at the mercy of their employers and had to accept the wage rate offered. If a worker wanted a higher wage, the firm could simply replace them with someone willing to accept the lower wage. This kept wages depressed and workers often had to work many extra hours to make enough money to feed their families. During the Great Depression between 1929 and 1933, the average hourly wage in the manufacturing industry dropped by nearly 58%.1 The labor reform movement also set out to limit the amount hours laborers could work. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 set the 40-hour work week and classifies anything over that as overtime.2

    It also set the first minimum wage and established the benchmark of time-and-a-half pay for any overtime. Be this, especially during the Great Depression, it was not unusual for manual laborers to work upwards of 12 hours straight for 6 days per week without any regulatory protection to limit how much employers could work them.

    American Labor Movement

    The American labor movement refers to the time in United States history when workers first began working together to improve their working conditions and wages. It began during a time when the United States had a free wage-labor market and trade workers were experiencing pay cuts. There are no exact start and end dates of the labor movement but we do know when workers first started organizing themselves to demand higher pay.

    Free wage-labor market

    A free wage-labor market is a market that has no minimum wage set for labor. This means that there is nothing preventing wages from falling to very low rates if that is where the market equilibrium sits. A minimum wage prevents wages from falling below a certain value and provides a stable minimum income.

    Check out The Minimum Wage and Wage Discrimination articles to learn more!

    Labor movement until the 1930s

    The first union appeared in the United States in 1866 and it was called The National Labor Union. They were the first to introduce the idea of an 8-hour work day to congress and even though it did not pass at the time, it was the beginning of the campaign for a limit on how many hours laborers could work.3 The earliest strike, however, took place in 1768 when tailors banded together to protest decreasing wages.4 Other industries followed suit soon after, creating unions for shoemakers, tailors, carpenters, and the like.

    They all had similar goals of negotiating higher standards of wages, better working hours, and improved working conditions. Labor unions were often frowned upon and especially those who organized them because they were seen as disruptive and causing trouble for businesses. Some cities went so far as to ban labor unions and some firms would not hire a worker if they were part of a union.

    Labor movement after the 1930s

    In 1929, the stock market crashed causing people and businesses to lose billions of dollars in a matter of days. Production came to a near standstill, at times 1 in 4 workers were unemployed, wages plummeted, and many businesses went under.5 The opposition from workers toward unions declined after the Civil War when there were fewer farm workers and more industrial laborers, and they gained more popularity during the Great Depression. Industrial manufacturing often saw difficult working conditions so there were more people to benefit from what unions had to offer.

    Legislation that benefited unions was passed in 1932 in the form of the Norris-LaGuardia Act. This act protected peaceful strikes, picketing, and boycotts from being prosecuted by federal courts. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 gave unions the right to collective bargaining and created a board to police unfair labor practices.

    Types of labor unions

    In the United States, there are two prominent types of labor unions. There are trade unions, also referred to as craft unions, and industrial unions. Trade unions are made up of members who all occupy the same profession. Industrial unions are made up of workers who are in the same industry but have different jobs.

    The Labor Movement trade union versus industrial union StudySmarterFigure 1. Trade unions versus industrial unions, StudySmarter Originals

    Figure 1 shows a visual representation of trade unions compared to industrial unions. Some examples of trade unions are electricians' unions, carpenters' unions, and plumbers' unions. An example of an industrial union is a car industry union where the union represents the mechanics, the painters, the developers, etc. in the car industry.

    Labor Movement Examples

    What are some of the labor movement examples? Throughout the labor movement, especially in the United States, there have been many landmark rulings and historic events that have marked huge changes and turning points for workers, unions, and companies. Let's take a look at a few of those events.

    The Ludlow Massacre

    The Ludlow Massacre occurred on April 20th in 1914 and was the final result of a 14-month standoff between a Colorado mining company owned by John D Rockefeller and The United Mine Workers of America who went on strike to demand higher wages and improved working conditions.6

    When the company forced the miners out of company-owned housing, the miners and their families set up tents instead. Arguments and fighting between miners and company guards got out of hand one day, causing bloodshed. In the end, 25 people lost their lives, including 11 children. Other mining communities responded to the Ludlow massacre with rioting, raising the death toll to nearly 50 lives.7

    The Danbury Hatters case

    The Danbury Hatters case took place in 1902 when the United Hatters Union went on strike against a hat manufacturer in Connecticut when they would not agree to some of the union's demands.8 The union took to boycotting the manufacturer who responded by filing a lawsuit citing damages to business under The Sherman Act, which outlaws any form of restraining trade. The hat manufacturer won the case at the Supreme Court level. This was a hard blow to organized labor and caused them to push for protection under a new act - The Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914, which prevents unions from being prosecuted under The Sherman Act.

    Right-to-work laws

    At the moment, 27 states in the United States have right-to-work laws.9 These are laws that protect a citizen's right to work by prohibiting companies from requiring workers to join or not join a union as a condition of employment. Right-to-work laws appeared in The Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947 as a result of public opinion of unions taking a turn for the worse after World War II. People worried about possible communist infiltration of unions and endangering capitalism. Right-to-work laws protect an employee's choice when working for a company to join a union or not.

    Modern Mabor Movement

    Is there a modern day labor movement? Nowadays, the opinion on unions is mixed. Most people agree that they are important for protecting employees and advocating with their best interests in mind. They are not as villainized as they were in the past and are more accepted as part of the employer-employee relationship, for better or for worse.

    Today, there are 4 main types of union arrangements:

    Type of union arrangementDefinition and properties
    Closed shopIn a closed shop union, employers agree to only hire union members which means that the union can influence who is hired by controlling who is granted union membership. This is the most restrictive type of union and is illegal for companies partaking in interstate trade.
    Union shopIn a union shop, new hires are not required to be members of the union, but they must join the union within a given amount of time after being hired. They must remain members throughout their employment.
    Modified union shopIn a modified union shop, new hires are not required to join a union as a condition of their employment, but if they do join, they must remain a member for the entire time they are employed.
    Agency shopIn an agency shop, new hires are not required to join a union as a condition of their employment, however, all workers at a company are required to pay union dues, regardless of membership status. This is because nonunion workers benefit from any contract negotiations unions make. It is also known as a "fair-share" union.

    Table 2. Types of union arrangements and definitions, StudySmarter Originals

    Today, around 62% of the population in the United States is part of the civilian labor force, meaning they are 16 years or older, actively employed, or seeking employment.10 In 2021, only 11.1% of full-time workers were part of a union.11 Older people and men are also more likely to be a part of a union. Different industries are also more or less likely to be unionized. Local, state, and federal government workers are the most likely to join unions. Food service workers and agricultural workers are the least unionized industries while transportation, construction, and teaching jobs are in between.

    The Labor Movement - Key takeaways

    • The labor movement is the organization of workers to collectively take action to improve working conditions and wages, establish safety regulations and worker benefits, and give workers a voice in a company or industry.
    • A labor union is an organization made up of workers in a company or in an industry that advocates on the behalf of workers for better working conditions, better wages, and benefits.
    • The goal of a labor reform movement is to give workers better working conditions, increase their pay, and provide better working hours.
    • The American labor movement refers to the time in the United States history when workers first began working together to improve their working conditions and wages.
    • Throughout the labor movement, especially in the United States, there have been many landmark rulings and historic events such as The Ludlow Massacre, The Danbury Hatters case, and right-to-work laws.

    References

    1. Curtis J. Simon, Supply Price of Labor During the Great Depression, Journal of Economic History, 2001, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2697910#:~:text=As%20can%20be%20seen%2C%20annual,decline%20of%20only%2011.1%20percent.
    2. U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division, The Fair Labor Standards Act Of 1938, As Amended, 2011, https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/WHD/legacy/files/FairLaborStandAct.pdf
    3. Library of Congress, Founding of the National Labor Union and the 1st National Call for a 8-Hour Work Day, https://guides.loc.gov/this-month-in-business-history/august/national-labor-union-8-hour-work-day#:~:text=The%20National%20Labor%20Union%20was%20the%20first%20attempt%20in%20the,beginning%20on%20August%2020%2C%201866.
    4. History.com Editors, Labor Movement, 2020, https://www.history.com/topics/19th-century/labor
    5. FDR Presidential Library and Museum, Great Depression Facts, https://www.fdrlibrary.org/great-depression-facts
    6. American Experience, The Ludlow Massacre, PBS, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/rockefellers-ludlow/
    7. Gregory Dehler, Ludlow Massacre, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/event/Ludlow-Massacre
    8. State of Connecticut Judicial Branch, The Danbury Hatters Case, 2021, https://jud.ct.gov/lawlib/history/Hatters.htm
    9. National Conference of State Legislatures, Right-to-Work Resources, 2017, https://www.ncsl.org/research/labor-and-employment/right-to-work-laws-and-bills.aspx
    10. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Table A-1. Employment status of the civilian population by sex and age, 2022, https://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t01.htm
    11. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Union Members - 2021, 2022, https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/union2.pdf
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Labor Movement

    What is the labor movement?

    The labor movement is the organization of workers to collectively take action to improve working conditions and wages, establish safety regulations and worker benefits, and give workers a voice in a company or industry.

    When did the U.S. labor movement begin?

    The first union appeared in the United States in 1866 and it was called The National Labor Union. They were the first to introduce the idea of an 8-hour work day to congress.

    What caused the labor movement?

    Poor working conditions and low wages pushed workers to form unions to negotiate for better working conditions, higher pay, and better hours.

    What are the different types of union arrangements? 

    The different types of union arrangements are a closed shop, union shop, modified union shop, and agency shop.

    What are the pros and cons of a labor union?

    Pros are that they protect workers from harsh working conditions, negotiate higher wages, and they offer better benefits like pensions and injury compensation.

    Cons are that membership is required by some unions as a condition of employment at a company and union members must participate in strikes, protests, and boycotts organized by the union.

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