Labor is a general term with several meanings. As a noun, it refers generally to "work," but has a blue-collar connotation — a factory employee labors, an accountant works. When used opposite "management," it refers to the workforce of a company or concern, as opposed to the upper tiers of administration.
Labor-related concerns in modern society include:
- representation for the rights of workers (in the form of labor unions)
- the guarantee of good working conditions and fair treatment (and the abolishment of sweat shops)
- fair compensation (including issues such as a minimum wage or wage discrimination against women or minorities)
The existence and activity of U.S. labor unions are codified by several pieces of legislation. Beginning with the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the US Government committed itself to supporting the right of workers to organize. However, this right has steadily been eroded in law and in practice. A history:
Railway Labor Act (RLA), 1926
The RLA was the first piece of federal labor law ever enacted. Originally, it governed only the labor relations between railroads and their employees, but in 1936 the Act was amended to cover labor relations in the airline industry. The Act guarantees the right of employees in those industries to choose union representation free from employer interference or coercion. The Act requires railroads and airlines to bargain in good faith with the duly-certified collective bargaining representative of employees. Under the RLA, contract negotiations are subject to a lengthy procedure that is purposefully intended to forestall the occurrence of strikes that might cripple the nation's transportation infrastructure. Disputes over the interpretation of existing labor contracts are subject to binding arbitration between the parties with highly limited federal court review.
The Norris-LaGuardia Act, 1932
The Norris-LaGuardia Act was the earliest codification of federal labor policy specifically in favor of unionization. The Act recognizes that "the individual unorganized worker is commonly helpless to exercise actual liberty of contract and to protect his freedom of labor, and thereby to obtain acceptable terms and conditions of employment, wherefore . . . it is necessary that he have full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of his own choosing . . . ." Although the Act's public policy declaration is sweeping, the actual protective measures contained in the statute are more limited, but important and revolutionary at the time. The Act specifically outlawed "yellow dog" contracts, whereby an employer could require that a worker not join a union or not remain a union member as a condition of employment. The Act also made it far more difficult for employers to obtain anti-labor injunctions. Prior to the Act, employers commonly sought court injunctions to curtail union activity, such as strikes and boycotts, often arguing that such activity constituted a restraint of trade in violation of the Sherman Anti-trust Act.
National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), 1934
The NIRA was an act designed to revive America's industries during the Depression. It also contained within it Section 7(a), which for the first time protected the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively. This spawned a great wave of labor activity, culminating in general strikes in San Francisco and Minneapolis. But the law was thrown out by the Supreme Court in the infamous Schechter case in 1935.
National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act, 1935
In response to the Supreme Court's decision in the Schechter case, New York Senator Robert Wagner drafted a law that reaffirmed the right of workers to organize. This act also provided for the creation of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that would resolve disputes between labor and management.
The law sparked the high tide of labor organizing in America. The CIO, a breakaway group of unions from the more conservative AFL, organized major industries such as steel and auto manufacturing, the latter led by Walter Reuther and the UAW.
Fair Labor Standards Act, 1938
This law set a 40 hour work week and guaranteed that any work done over that time would be paid at time-and-a-half rates. The law lead to a formalization of the 8 hour, 5 day workweek. The law also contained the first federal Minimum Wage.
Taft-Hartley Act, 1947
Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (Landrum-Griffin), 1959
The LMRDA was enacted in the wake of Congressional hearings revealing that some labor organizations had engaged in financial improprieties and sought to stifle dissent within their memberships. Faced with the misdeeds of a few and believing that unions had become too powerful, Congress enacted union reform legislation. The LMRDA set up procedures through which unions must publically disclose financial information. Recently, the Department of Labor under the Bush Administration has stiffened the LMRDA's reporting requirements through federal regulation, requiring, among other things, detailed disclosure of any amounts expended by a union in excess of $5,000. The LMRDA also sets forth certain minimum standards that must be adhered to in internal union elections of officers.
Kennedy-Miller Act, proposed
Private sector union membership in the United States is at the lowest level since the 1920s, before there was any federal protection for the right to organize labor unions. This has multiple sources: (1) the clear establishment of the right of employers to permanently replace striking union members, (2) the improvement of working conditions through generally applicable laws that have reduced the desire for non-governmental action, (3) the decline in the U.S., in part due to outsourcing, of industries such as manufacturing which have traditionally been heavily unionized, (4) aggressive efforts by growing service sector employers, such as Walmart, to remain non-union, (5) labor laws which outlaw union shops, secondary boycotts and which permit the government to cancel strikes and (6) what some see as a problem with AFL-CIO leadership and more importantly organization - more bureaucratic than democratic, with a compromising labor aristocracy as opposed to a militant rank and file.
Meanwhile, public sector union membership growth has been vigorous, and some historically non-union classes of employees, such as graduate teaching assistants, teachers and professors, are increasingly turning to unionization. In part, this reflects the fact that public sector employers, unlike private sector employers, have little ability to discourage unionization with the threat of outsourcing. Indianapolis can't relocate its schools or police force to India. Also, municipalities generally are very limited in their ability to use Bankruptcy as a threat to prevent unionization. Also, the limited applicability of general employment law to governmental entities and the civil service security provided already to many public employees provide both an incentive and an ability to organize without fear of serious retribution.
International Labor Laws
Customary practice and regulation of union organizing varies widely from country to country. In Germany, for example, independent labor unions play a large role in the labor market and are entitled to a minority of seats on the supervisor board (similar to the U.S. Board of Directors) of publically held corporations. In Japan, in contrast, a concept similar to the "company union" which is prohibited by U.S. labor laws, is the norm. These unions are established, funded and controlled by the corporations and function primarily as a formal device for consultation between the company and the rank and file workers, rather than serving primarily as a collective bargaining institution.
Generally speaking, unions receive greater protection in Western Europe than in the United States.
Many developing or undeveloped nations have weak or non-existent legal protections for labor. One of the major arguments for Tariffs and other restrictions on Trade in the current environment is to create a level playing field between nations which have real protections for labor, and those which do not. Democrats generally seek labor law changes as part of new free trade agreements.
Issues and Implications
Labor has traditionally been one of the core constituencies of the Democratic Party. It has provided the grass roots volunteer force the Democratic party has needed to be effective in electoral process. Declining membership in unions, and the shifting character of the union movement, has also impacted the size and character of the Democratic party. The blue collar labor force is increasing made up of independent contractors who see themselves as small business owners and tend to vote Republican, instead of employees of big corporations who identify as members of labor who tend to vote Republican. Those who remain in labor are far more white collar and pink collar than labor union members in previous generations who were overwhelmingly blue collar men.
At times, the Democratic party has been divided between a faction more concerned about economic issues important to labor, and social issues more important to middle class social liberals who make up another important constituency of the party. Demographics such as the Reagan Democrats and even an occasional small union or union local which will endorse a Republican reflect this drift. For example, many union members felt betrayed when Democrats supported NAFTA and the U.S. membership in the WTO, as those free trade pacts have helped imported manufactured goods at the expense in many case of the domestic Manufacturing industry.
A deep, and largely unresolved, issue facing labor is what sort of future for labor we should work to achieve and by what means. Some see the decline of blue collar labor unions as part of overall trends in the Economy which are largely immune to legislative efforts. In that view, blue collar labor is declining because manufacturing is declining, and short of huge tariffs to make up for the effects of cheap foreign labor and an end to technological innovation which has reduced the number of workers necessary to produce goods, this fundamental change in the industrial makeup of the United State economy is no more desirable than a return to a U.S. economy which employed 70% of the work force in agriculture because that was necessary to feed everyone in a lower technology era. Others see the decline of U.S. manufacturing as a result of poor public policy, which could be reversed with more sensible trade agreements and other policy changes, and believe that union strength can and should be restored in the the U.S. with a reversal of the law in key areas like the permanent replacement of striking workers. Still others think that labor needs to adapt to a changing economy by organizing the burgeoning service sector in the United States, perhaps with industry-wide unions, rather than unions confined to single employers. And, yet others who examine the situation think that a focus on controlling the labor market through legislation that protects workers may be more useful at this point than industry by industry and employer by employer efforts obtained through collective bargaining. Labor leadership does not have a consensus on a larger vision for labor, and as a result, can often seem indecisive.
- United Farm Workers
- Service Employees International Union
- Employee Benefits
- Jdimytai Damour