Labor Rights Overview
The labor movement in the United States gained momentum in the mid 19th century as an attempt to obtain higher wages and better working conditions in factories, among other goals. Today, unions and other labor organizations continue to fight for better wages and benefits, workplace health and safety standards, and other labor rights through the power of collective bargaining. While critics argue that unions hinder economic freedom and growth, the labor movement contends that its efforts are crucial to protecting labor rights for workers in otherwise unfair negotiating scenarios.
Different labor rights have been emphasized in different countries and at various times during the labor movement. Some of the more common labor rights championed by the labor movement in the U.S. are described below.
Early Labor Rights
During the 19th century, collective bargaining was viewed by many as a criminal conspiracy, and even where it was allowed, employers often retaliated against workers who did join a union. The right to unionize was finally recognized in 20th century. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 was and is one of the most significant pieces of federal legislation as it covers most private sector workers and protects employees’ rights to form and join a union, and prohibits retaliation and other unfair labor practices. Furthermore, the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act details and protects the rights of members within a union.
The labor rights of children were also included in issues addressed by the early labor movement. Child laborers were usually paid less and often deprived of an adequate education. To end such exploitations, laws were implemented with minimum working age requirements and excluding children from working in certain dangerous environments.
Labor rights proponents also argued for the right to a reasonable limitation of working hours. Movements for a ten-hour and then eight-hour workday began in the 19th century. With the passage of several different federal laws, including the Fair Labor Standards Act, the eight-hour workday became a right for many public and private sector employees.
Additional Labor Rights
In addition to the labor rights mentioned above, the labor movement continues to fight for workers’ rights on a range of issues, including the following:
Wages and Benefits
The labor movement has consistently fought for improved wages and benefits as a right to just compensation. While state and federal laws set the minimum wages every worker has a right to receive, there are continued efforts to raise those minimums. The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division enforces several of the federal laws regarding wages and recordkeeping.
Health and Safety
Employees also have a right to work in an environment that is reasonably safe. Beginning with the efforts of the early labor movement who sought improved conditions in the factories of the Industrial Revolution, labor advocates push for better health and safety standards, medical leave, and other benefits. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) protects certain labor rights and enforces many of the rules regarding working conditions.
An obvious labor right is the right to choose your employment and to be free from coercion and forced labor. Unfortunately, many people are denied these rights because of human trafficking, often in the context of sexual exploitation. In addition to the passage of laws like the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, efforts to protect victims of forced labor and sexual exploitation continue.
Labor rights also include the right to be free from discrimination in the workplace. State and federal laws prohibit employment discrimination based on various grounds such as race, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, and sexual orientation.
Certain state and federal laws protect the rights of whistleblowers to complain about wrongdoing committed by their employers without fear of retaliation. These laws vary in terms of who is covered and the types of actions that are protected, and efforts are ongoing to strengthen whistleblower rights and protections.
Rights of Veterans and Military Personnel
The labor rights of veterans and other military personal are also protected by certain federal laws. For example, the government provides preferences to veterans with regard to employment within the federal government. Additionally, certain people who serve in the military have a right to reemployment with the employer they worked for before entering active duty.
Protect Your Labor Rights with the Help of an Attorney
There are many more labor rights in addition to the ones outlined above. Labor advocates continue to fight for additional labor rights and to strengthen existing laws so that workers are more adequately protected in both the public and private sectors. If you’re unsure about your rights as a worker, or you’re dealing with a violation of your rights, contact a local labor attorney who can help you take appropriate action.