30 victories for workers' rights won by organized labor over the years
Today, American workers have a host of rights and recourses should their workplace be hostile or harmful. While the modern labor movement works to continue to improve the working conditions for all with big efforts around a fair minimum wage and end of employer wage theft, the movement has a history rich with fights and wins. It put an end to child labor, 10-to-16 hour workdays, and unsafe working conditions. Today, every wage-earning American today owes a debt of gratitude to organized labor for the 40-hour workweek, minimum wage (such as it is), anti-discrimination laws, and other basic protections. Far from basic, those protections were, until fairly recently, pipe dreams to the millions of American men, women, and children who labored endlessly in dreadful conditions for poverty wages.
The gratitude is owed mostly to the unions those nameless and disposable workers organized, which they did under the threat of being fired, harassed, evicted from company homes, beaten, jailed, and, in many cases, killed. In 1886, for example, over 200,000 railroad workers went on strike to protest an unjust firing. In 1894, over 250,000 workers walked out of the Pullman Palace Car Company factories to protest 12-hour workdays and wage cuts.
The 2018 Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME established that public-sector workers who are protected by unions—of which there are five times as many as private workers—but don't wish to join, no longer have to pay fees on behalf of the union's collective bargaining. This dealt a blow to public-sector unions, though it didn't result in the mass exodus union detractors had hoped for. Overall union membership in the U.S. in 2019 was at 10.3%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While that's a historical low rate, some industries—like digital media, museums, and non-profits—are making inroads with new unions.
Over the decades, there have been far more losses than victories, but the victories the labor movement did achieve made earning a living in the United States a much more equitable, fair, safe, and profitable proposition. These wins show what is possible for the modern labor movement. Here are 30 hard-fought victories that America's working class won in our names.
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1794: Shoemakers organize America's first union
The rise of so-called journeymen societies in 1794 led to the creation of the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers of Philadelphia, which worked to protect the wages of shoemakers, who toiled in a large and profitable industry. The society was the first true union and can be considered the genesis of the American labor movement. The moment is also significant because it was the first time tradespeople organized for protection against "scabs," workers willing to undermine demands for better pay by agreeing to work for cheaper wages—a dynamic that would remain a central theme throughout the entire history of the labor movement.
1842: Commonwealth v. Hunt legalizes unions
In 1806, a court ruled against the shoemakers and declared the act of organizing for higher wages to be a criminal conspiracy. More than three decades later in 1842, a high court in Massachusetts overturned that precedent in Commonwealth v. Hunt, which declared that workers do, in fact, have a right to organize and strike.
[Pictured: 19th chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Lemuel Shaw, who served from Aug. 30, 1830–Aug. 21, 1860.]
1866: National Labor Union is created
The end of slavery emboldened laborers around the country to capitalize on the national sentiment and pursue better conditions for themselves. A year after the Civil War, the formation of the National Labor Union represented the first nationally organized workers' rights group. The organization's efforts went a long way to raising awareness, but the group dissolved in 1873 and soon after, a series of violent strikes and successful corporate anti-labor campaigns compelled much of America to sour on the movement.
1882: The first Labor Day Parade marks a movement
On Sept. 5, 1882, New York City hosted the country's first Labor Day Parade; around 10,000 workers marched in what is now an annual event, and the holiday was soon moved to the first Monday in September, just as it is celebrated today. Although a parade, of course, didn't directly improve working conditions, the moment signified a psychological victory for labor and indicated a shift in public opinion that would ultimately lead to the rise of the progressive era in the 20th century.
1898: Erdman Act briefly ends union blacklists
In the second half of the 19th century, several major labor groups like the American Federation of Labor emerged as major strikers and often-brutal government and corporate reprisals created a nearly constant state of unrest. Much of that unrest was concentrated around railroad work, most notably, the Pullman Strike of 1894.
In an effort to quell tensions, the federal government passed the Erdman Act, which provided workers with arbitration and mediation options, while banning railroad companies from firing or refusing to hire workers for joining a union, a common intimidation tactic known as yellow-dog contracts. It would eventually lead to the more comprehensive Railway Labor Act of 1926, but not before the Supreme Court struck down the Erdman Act's key provisions 10 years later in 1908.
1909: The Uprising of the 20,000 demands change
In 1909, the women's rights movement and the labor movement converged with the Uprising of the 20,000, a strike launched by sweatshop laborers known as shirtwaist workers, who were mostly young, immigrant women. The strikers protested low wages, long hours, and appalling conditions, especially the frequent and intentional locking of doors and fire escapes to prevent workers from leaving or even from taking breaks. The uprising secured the support of the powerful and well-heeled Women's Trade Union League, and by 1910, most of the protestor's employers agreed to sign union contracts.
1911: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire exposes conditions
On March 25, 1911, the deadliest industrial disaster in New York City history changed the course of the labor movement when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 sweatshop workers, mostly women. Although the owners and management staff escaped unharmed, the workers found themselves in a death trap of locked doors, blocked fire escapes, and highly flammable material, like the kind the 1909 protestors had warned about. Although the fire itself, of course, was hardly a victory for labor, the death of the workers was not in vain—it galvanized the previously scattered and frequently infighting labor movement to unify, and stoked public outrage and demand for change.
1913: The Department of Labor is formed
On March 4, 1913, the efforts of generations of labor activists were realized, at least in part, when President William Howard Taft signed a law creating the U.S. Department of Labor. The labor movement now had representation in a Cabinet-level agency.
1916: Keating-Owen Act briefly curtails child labor
By the turn of the 20th century, 2 million children were laboring on farms, on city streets, and in mills, mines, factories, and stores. The work of social reformers and a nationwide campaign by National Child Labor Committee photographer Lewis W. Hine to chronicle and publicize the abuses led to calls for reform. In 1916, the Keating-Owen Act limited the number of hours children could work and prohibited interstate sale of merchandise produced by child labor, but the Supreme Court ruled the act unconstitutional just nine months later.
1921: The Battle of Blair Mountain pits miners against the police
The disparaging term "redneck" can be traced to 1921 when 10,000 West Virginia coal miners rose up against mining companies, managers, and their allies in government after decades of abuses in what was the largest uprising in labor history and the most significant armed insurrection since the Civil War. Tying red bandanas around their necks in a show of unity, the miners faced off against thousands of heavily armed company agents, scab workers, law enforcement officers, and military personnel who confronted the workers with heavy machine guns and, eventually, the only aerial bombardment of American civilians in U.S. history.
At least 100 people died and 1 million rounds of ammunition were fired before the rebellion was put down, but the efforts of the miners would lead to some immediate improvement in conditions and, more importantly, a larger voice during FDR's future New Deal negotiations.