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The Legal History of Labor Unions

The history of unions in America is as old as the country itself. Labor law has developed in response to a rise in popularity of unions in order to shape the development of labor in this country. Read on to learn more about 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 eighteenth century. Indeed, unions in the U.S. have origins in the original colonies. The first recorded American strike occurred 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, was organized in Philadelphia in 1794, and marked the beginning of sustained trade union organization.

Union development also aligned with the fight for American independence. Prevalent in early American society were concepts of social equality and honest labor. A notable early labor union was the American Federation of Labor (AFL) founded in 1886 by Samuel Gompers. At its peak, the AFL had 1.4 million members, and successfully negotiated wage increases and improved workplace safety. The need for skilled and unskilled workers increased following the Civil War, due in part to the end of slavery.

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

Unions in the Modern Era

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

The peak of union power and membership occurred the 1970s. However, several factors have led to a decrease in union membership over the past few decades. Some corruption in union leadership led to an entanglement with organized crime. Moreover, advancement in labor law, including federal law outlawing child labor, setting wage and hour standards, and prohibiting discrimination based on race and gender, resulted in a decreased reliance on unions for workers' rights protections.

Legislation Impacting Labor Unions

Two major federal laws have impacted the history and development of labor unions in the United States. The first was the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, commonly referred to as the Wagner Act, which at the time was considered the "Labor Bill of Rights." The Wagner Act guaranteed the basic rights of employees to organize into unions, collectively bargain for better working conditions, and take collective action by striking if necessary.

In 1947, Congress took legislative action which significantly dialed back the protections offered by the Wagner Act by enacting the Labor Management Relations Act, otherwise known as the Taft-Hartley Act. The Taft-Hartley Act made "closed" shops—those that only employ unionized workers—illegal. The Act further prohibited certain types of actions, including secondary boycotts, sympathy strikes, and jurisdictional strikes. Under this law, unions were prohibited from contributing the political campaigns. The Taft-Hartley Act also gave the individual states the right to pass legislation to limit union activity.

Following the enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act, more than half of U.S. states have enacted laws impacting unions, which are known as "right to work" laws. These laws dictate that no worker can be compelled to join a union as a condition of continued employment. Right to work laws can be controversial. Proponents argue that such laws advance the individual freedom of workers, while others argue that the laws are innately anti-union.

Get Legal Help with Labor Union Issues

Frequently, members of unions are provided with legal representation by their union. However, if you are a member of a union and need legal advice, there may be circumstances under which you are better served by speaking with an independent attorney. The FindLaw lawyer directory can help you find an experienced labor lawyer in your area.

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