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The Legal History of Labor Unions

The history of unions in America is as old as the country itself. The legal field of labor law has developed in response to the creation of unions.

This article will discuss the legal history of unions.

Labor Unions in Early American History

This history of labor unions in the United States has roots as far back as the European Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. Unions in the U.S. have origins in the original colonies. The first recorded American strike happened in 1768 when the New York journeymen tailors protested a wage reduction.

The first union in the colonies, a shoemaker union called the Formation of Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers, began in Philadelphia in 1794. It marked the beginning of many years of trade union organization.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was a notable early labor union. Samuel Gompers founded the AFL in 1886. The need for skilled and unskilled workers increased following the Civil War, in part due to the end of slavery. The AFL had 1.4 million members at its peak. It successfully negotiated wage increases and improved workplace safety.

As the United States grew and industry developed, the need to protect the interests of workers increased. This was particularly true in the industrial sector. Workers needed protection from sweatshops, long hours, and dangerous working conditions there. Unions made great strides in stopping child labor and gaining health care benefits and aid for injured workers.

Worker-organized unions in the United States have a long history of fighting for employee protections such as a minimum wage and a shorter workday.

Unions in the Modern Era

An increase in factory work leading up to World War I caused a rise in the power of unionized workers. The strength and popularity of unions grew further during the Great Depression because of President Roosevelt's New Deal policies. But during World War II, the government banned some industries from striking out of fear that a strike might impede wartime preparation and production.

The peak of union power and membership was in the 1970s. Shortly after, private-sector membership numbers began to decline. But, membership in public sector unions continues to grow.

Several factors led to decreased union membership over the past few decades. Some corruption in union leadership led to an entanglement with organized crime. Also, advancement in labor law led to a decreased reliance on unions for workers' rights protections. These include federal laws banning child labor, setting wage and hour standards, and prohibiting discrimination based on race and gender,

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, union membership was 10% in 2023, about 14.4 million. In 1983, union membership was 20%. While private sector members show 6% membership, public sector membership is much higher at 32.5%.

Some of the most prominent unions today include:

  • The United Auto Workers
  • United Mine Workers of America
  • United Steelworkers
  • Service Employees International Union
  • International Brotherhood of Teamsters
  • The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees

Increased Union Activity

Today, union activities are on the rise. According to Forbes, three Starbucks locations recently unionized in a single afternoon, while workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island made history by voting to unionize, marking the first such instance for the e-commerce giant. And, in a first for the state, Maryland doctors recently formed a union.

There's a growing belief that the recent surge in interest in unions and the labor movement stems from a realization that employers haven't adequately recognized workers' contributions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Legislation Impacting Labor Unions

Several federal laws have affected the history and development of labor unions in the United States. These include:

  1. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA), commonly called the "Wagner Act"
  2. The Labor Management Relations Act, also known as the Taft-Hartley Act
  3. The Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, also known as the Landrum-Griffin Act

The Wagner Act protects the rights of employees to engage in collective bargaining and other concerted activities. It guarantees the basic rights of employees to:

  • Organize into unions
  • Engage in collectively bargaining for better working conditions
  • Take collective action by striking if necessary

Before the Wagner Act, employers refused to bargain with unions, and courts struck down employees' right to strike. The Wagner Act granted workers the right to unionize and collectively bargain.

But, in 1947, Congress significantly reduced the worker protections under the Wagner Act by enacting the Taft-Hartley Act. The Taft-Hartley Act made "closed" shops — those that only employ unionized workers — illegal. The law also banned certain types of actions, including:

  • Secondary boycotts
  • Sympathy strikes
  • Jurisdictional strikes

Under Taft-Hartley, unions couldn't contribute to political campaigns. The federal labor legislation also gave states the right to pass legislation to limit union activity.

The Taft-Hartley Act specified that unions could get sued for picketing and boycotting and that employees had the right to reject union membership.

By the mid to late 1950s, Congress wanted to correct deficiencies in the Wagner Act and Taft-Hartley Act. The Landrum-Griffin Act became law to fix these problems. It bans misconduct by labor organizations and employers. It establishes a "Bill of Rights" for union members. It also creates standards for the election of union officials.

Other Relevant Labor Laws

Several other employment and labor laws play a role in shaping employee rights and working conditions.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows employees to take unpaid leave for family and medical reasons.

Title VII of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans employment discrimination.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) bans child labor, mandates a 40-hour workweek, and sets the federal minimum wage.

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 requires that women and men get equal pay for equal work.

Agencies Affecting Labor Unions

Several federal agencies also play a role in shaping employee rights and working conditions.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) enforces U.S. labor law, particularly the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRB oversees the administration of laws dealing with collective bargaining and concerted activities. The federal agency:

  • Handles disputes between employers and employees
  • Investigates unfair labor practices
  • Conducts union representation elections
  • Serves as an impartial arbiter in labor disputes, striving to maintain a balance between the interests of workers and employers

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) enforces the nation's employment laws. One of these laws is the Railway Labor Act. The act governs labor relations in the railway and airline industries. It established procedures for dispute resolution and collective bargaining agreements.

While the NLRB and Labor Department handle labor-related matters, they operate separately with distinct jurisdictions and responsibilities. The NLRB focuses specifically on protecting the rights of employees to engage in collective bargaining and other concerted activities. The Department of Labor has a broader mandate that includes enforcing a wide range of labor laws and regulations, such as workplace safety, minimum wage, and overtime pay.

U.S. Supreme Court rulings also affect the application of laws to union activity.

State Laws

State law also plays a role. Following the enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act, more than half of U.S. states put laws into place impacting unions. These are right-to-work laws. These laws mandate that companies can't force workers to join a union as a condition of employment.

Get Legal Help With Labor Union Issues

Many people assume that labor law and employment law are the same, but it's important to recognize that these are distinct areas of the law. A labor law attorney can represent employers or employees in cases of labor union issues and labor disputes or cases related to labor conditions and claims.

Unions often give their members legal representation. But if you are a union member and need legal advice, you might be better served by speaking with an independent attorney. Find an experienced labor lawyer in your area.

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