The Evolution of American Labor Laws and Practices

Essay, 2018

6 Pages, Grade: 1


Senator Robert Wagner in support for the National Labor Relations Act argued that “democracy cannot function only in polling booth, but in extension to workplaces where men and women earn their daily bread” (BLS, 2015) Senator Robert’s statement summarizes the need for to labor laws and practices that do not only favor the employers but as well the employees. Americans workers understood this since the founding of the nation. They have been in constant fights to have their rights since then. This research paper traces the evolution of American laws and practices to the present.

Dramatic changes in the United States labor occurred immediately after the Civil War. It is during this time that large companies supplying new markets were established. Similarly, several labor unions emerged. The period was also observed with an increased regulated employee-employer relationship by the state governments. The 1892 labor strike was one of the US longest labor strife between the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers against the Carnegie Steel Company (Cihon & Castagnera, 2016). The strife occurred when the company had exhausted its resources during the war forcing the Pennsylvania state government to intervene. The increasing strained relationship between employers and employees also arose from the competition between the large-scale firms that were on the rise and the small scale companies. The large scale firms profited from significant economies of scale. Consequently, the small scale companies made pay cuts, increased production rates, and change work rules (Currie & Ferrie, 1996).

With the increase in the number of large-scale firms and the expansion of the markets, growth was felt in the membership in the labor unions. The main objective of being members of the trade unions was to have a collective action against their employers (Cihon & Castagnera, 2016). As at 1885, more than 700,000 workers had joined the labor unions. At this point, the state government could not sit as an observer. Previously, employer-employee disputes were resolved by the courts to set precedents for future similar cases. This can be tracked back from the 14th century. However, in the 1880s and 1890s, the legislatures and courts were called to resolve such disputes by developing new legal rules (Forbath, 2009).

1880s laws for the first time were enacted to determine the length of the workday. Previously, throughout the century, the state governments set the number of working hours for both women and children but were cautious to fix for men (Forbath, 2009). There was no rationale provided for not regulating the working hours for men. Courts argued that they could not intervene against freedom of contract enjoyed by both the employees and employers in dictating the number of hours the employees would work. Later on, in 1870, the state became a party to the labor contract by employing workers and hiring contractors. Therefore, they were forced by circumstances to regulate on employees’ working hours (Currie & Ferrie, 1996).

Another reason for the state involvement in the regulation of working hours was the increasing rise of industries in which fatigue as a result of long working hours would risk the safety of the workers. An example is the railroad industry to which New York State provided maximum working hours (Goldman & Corrada, 2011). The state also regulated the number of hours worked by employees who lacked formal labor agreement. Although the provision is argued to have been toothless, it was an indication from the government of having employees’ interests at heart. Illinois, New York, New Hampshire, Maine, and Connecticut had enacted this rule before 1880 (Currie & Ferrie, 1996).

Towards the end of the 19th century, the states legalized the existence of trade Unions in the American labor market. Initially, the courts used English Common Law’s doctrine of conspiracy to decide on cases involving striking employees to their wages. The Elizabeth Statute of Artificers cited in most of the court cases was designed to prevent employees from setting their on pay or demanding a pay increase. An example of such court cases was Journeyman Tailors case in 1721 (Cihon & Castagnera, 2016). The case set a precedent to New York and Pennsylvania state courts holding that having trade unions set to pay for their members could be equated to criminal conspiracies and illegal. A number of scholars have argued this precedent being that during the ruling there was no law regulating the United States labor pay. It was this reason that the Commonwealth versus Hunt case in 1842 quashed the precedent providing legality to labor unions and strikes. In fact, the number of cases against labor unions was significantly reduced between 1850 and 1860 (Lichtenstein, 2012).

Later on, after the Civil War, the number of cases against labor unions and employees rose again. The state courts repealed the application of anti-conspiracy laws. Determined, the Knights of Labor and other national labor unions forced the state legislatures to recognize their rights to exist. New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania established rules permitted the incorporation of the labor union. Nonetheless, this did not stop them from being tried under conspiracy laws for intimidating of colleagues (Currie & Ferrie, 1996).

The 1890s saw the rise of court injunction placed against the striking employees. The state and federal courts had initially issued injunctions meant to curb destruction of property and injury. The implementation of the injunction delayed until the courts included employers’ right to the category of “business under property at risk of injury” (Lichtenstein, 2012). The injunctions were then applied to stop certain workers behavior during the strikes and to safeguard work from stopping. The application of the injunction was a powerful tool used against worker stoppages. The injunctions could easily be granted after a brief court hearing on assumption that the strikes would harm the firm’s being in business. Not understanding, the injunctions were demoralizing and resulted in more loss to the firms than anticipated. The unions understood this, thus, continued with their efforts to be heard (Cihon & Castagnera, 2016).

Throughout the early 20th century there were unattractive working conditions for almost every employee. Child labor was highly embedded in the American labor market with discrimination in whichever form common and acceptable. Although the labor unions were legal, both the state and federal governments failed to protect them (Cihon & Castagnera, 2016). Later on, after the Senate enacted the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933, there was an increase in the protection of striking employees. The Act provided particular rights enjoyed by the Unions to operate and negotiate with their employers. The law might not have been having enforcing powers; however, it recognized rights of unions to organize. This law operated until 1935 when the Supreme Court ruled off its unconstitutionality. In the same year, the Congress went to the drawing board and passed the National Labor Relation Act (NLRA) that granted stronger protections for the Unions (Sachs, 2008). NLRA guaranteed employees in the private sectors the right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining as a national policy. In addition, the law protected Union members from coercion, reprisal, and intimidation from their employers. The law was later amended twice in 1847 and 1959 through Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin Acts respectively. The number of unionized workers increased heavily immediately after the passing of NLRA. Laws on unions have had great impact on American employees especially on their pay compensation (BLS, 2015)

As the Unions were fighting for recognition, other forms of labor laws were evolving early in the 20th century. Among these laws were those that regulated working conditions. For instance, Workmen’s Compensation Law began to be adopted as early as 1910 by the New York state. As at 1929, only four states had not adopted the law which they did in 1949. The law provided compensation means after an injury had occurred to the employer. Due to this, efforts were placed in ensuring the safety of employees at their work places (Sachs, 2008). The need for protection against hazardous chemicals from had no law to support until in 1970 when an expansive federal legislation was passed (the Occupational Safety and Health Act regulated workplace safety) (BLS, 2015). The Act had to wait until 1971 to be effected. It defines an employer as a person with employees in a business affecting commerce and empowers the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to enforce workplace practices and standards. According to the Act, employers are required to keep workplaces “free from recognized hazards probable to cause serious injury or death” (BLS, 2015).

Laws against child labor were similarly developed in the 20th century. Child labor was normal practice across the 19th century and in the early 20th century. It was believed that idle children were a source of criminal activities. Therefore, rather than been exploitive, child labor was viewed as a charitable act. This was majorly observed during the industrial revolution (Cihon & Castagnera, 2016). This continued until in 1904 when the National Labor Committee began pushing for legislation against child labor. It went until 1916 when the first law against child labor was passed. Keating-Owen Child Labor Act banned selling products produced by children below 14 years. The law as well restricted children less than 16 years from working (BLS, 2015). The law only operated for two years after which it was termed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1918. A year later, Child Labor Tax Law was passed. Again, this law was declared unconstitutional. The institution of a permanent federal child labor law through the Fair Labor Standards Act was done in 1938 (Sachs, 2008). The law had a similar structure as Keating-Owen law (Lichtenstein, 2012). It restricts industries from employing children below 18 years, limits working hours for children below 16 years and ban children below 14 years from several forms of employment. In addition, the law requires the Secretary of Labor to investigate any probable violations against children in workplaces. The employers are required to document the age of children employed in their firms. Unlike the previous laws, when the constitutionality of the law was challenged, the Supreme Court ruled in its favor (Goldman & Corrada, 2011). The successful implementation of the Fair Labor Standards Act resulted in an increase in the number of children enrolled in schools and universities. This eventually increased the number of skilled workforce in the United States.


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The Evolution of American Labor Laws and Practices
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Caroline Mutuku (Author), 2018, The Evolution of American Labor Laws and Practices, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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