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Labor and Labor Practices


The story of organized labor in America is one of struggle. Labor unions were viewed by many, especially employers and capitalists, as unlawful organizations. The law was almost always favorable to employers over employees: even the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which was passed in order to curb corporate concentration, was used as a weapon--it furnished the rationale for injunctions against many types of union activity, from organizing to picketing to striking, as illegal restraints of trade. Federal troops were called in to stop strikes at times, and illegal and violent behavior by unions was punished while authorities looked the other way when employers engaged in similar behavior. Only the First Amendment guarantee of free association prevented the outlawing of unions altogether.

Not only law but social theory held that unions were socialistic, un-American organizations. In the latter part of the nineteenth century the theory of Social Darwinism--the survival of the fittest--was popular: those who did not prosper were morally deficient, and aiding them only weakened the human race. Economic outcomes were best left to nature and a laissez-faire economic system.

Workers were supposed to take what the market offered, and it usually was not much. Twelve-hour workdays and six-day workweeks for wages barely at the subsistence level were common. Working conditions were often extremely dangerous, and many workers were killed or maimed in industrial accidents. As immigration and urbanization increased, large populations of unskilled laborers lived in slums in appalling conditions of poverty. Many were casual workers, day laborers with no permanent employment.

The success of workers, attempts to organize largely depended on the level of skill needed to perform their jobs. It was harder to replace skilled labor than unskilled labor, and such workers often possessed knowledge of manufacturing or other procedures that their employers did not. Thus tradesmen such as typesetters unionized earlier than other less skilled workers. Railroads became unionized in the mid-nineteenth century due to their skilled workers and also because of their capacity to disrupt the economy on a large scale.

As the American economy became more and more industrialized, labor unrest grew. Numerous large, violent strikes occurred, and literal battles were fought between workers and agents of the employers. Unions were still hampered by a hostile legal climate and by internal differences over methods, as well as by their own hostility toward immigrants and African Americans, who during strikes had little compunction about replacing those who excluded them.

By the late nineteenth century, labor unrest seemed nearly constant, but it was not until the 1900s that the tide began to turn for labor. Bit by bit, legislation was passed that slowly began to construct a set of rights and procedures by which workers could organize and bargain collectively with government sanction.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, labor conditions worsened for many as employers tried to take advantage of high unemployment (as high as 25 percent of the labor force) to force down their costs. Public opinion began to turn in favor of organized labor, and for workers seeking to organize, the high point of legislative action came with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935.

After passage of the NLRA, union membership grew rapidly, and by the late 1940s about one in three workers was a union member. By the late 1950s, however, union membership began to decrease, and today only about 16 percent of the workforce is unionized.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesLabor and Labor Practices - Introduction, The Wagner Act, The Taft-hartley Act, An Overview Of Labor Law