In 1794, shoemakers in Philadelphia organized a union, which they named the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers. Ten years later, the union went on strike, arguing for higher wages. In response, their employers brought them to court—and won. The case, Commonwealth v. Pullis made striking a federal crime, akin to conspiracy. Thirty-five years later Commonwealth v. Hunt reversed the decision and granted unions the legal right to strike.
Though it lived for just seven years starting in 1866, the National Labor Movement paved the way for future labor parties. Led by William H. Sylvis, who headed the Iron-Molders' International Union, the movement tried to organize local trade unions under a national umbrella. They were also among the first advocates of the eight-hour workday. But the political organization fell apart when it couldn’t perform at the polls, and many of its members left for the Knights of Labor.
Working on the railroad was a dangerous business for many workers. In a speech to Congress, then-president Benjamin Harrison said about railwork: “It is a reproach to our civilization that any class of American workmen, should in the pursuit of a necessary and useful vocation be subjected to a peril of life and limb as great as that of a soldier in time of war.” The Federal Employers Liability Act—which would become the foundations for states’ Worker’s Compensation laws—was enacted in 1908 "to put on the railroad industry some of the costs of the legs, arms, eyes, and lives which it consumed in its operation."
Since the UAW was founded in 1930, it has become one of the most important labor unions in the country’s history. Its leadership has successfully lobbied for health insurance plans for industrial workers, the first cost-of-living allowances, as well as training, and educational programs. The UAW has also faced wide-scale criticism, especially from anti-union advocates that protested the bailout of major motor companies of 2008 to 2010.
The surge of textile mills during the industrial revolution in the late 1700s placed new demands on a limited resource: cheap labor. A number of organizations existed in the early 20th century to curb the use of child workers, but there was no federal law put into place until 1938. The Fair Labor Standards Act set a minimum wage, required employers to pay overtime, and made it illegal to employ children under the age of 14.
The wage gap between men and women in the early 1960s painted a bleak portrait of pay equality in the United States: Women with full-time jobs got paid about 60 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts. In 1963, the Equal Pay Act required pay parity between all genders and races. Yet in 2010, white women earned about 80 cents for every dollar made by a man, according to the General Accounting Office.
The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s resulted in several new laws about how people of all races must be treated—especially in the workplace. In 1964, Congress passed the landmark bill, Title VII, which “prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.” In 1967, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act was passed to prohibit discrimination of workers age 40 or older.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970. But it was during WWII that industrial accidents put a renewed focus on worker safety. According to the Duke law journal Law and Contemporary Problems in the “two years preceding OSHA's enactment, 14,000 workers died each year from workplace hazards, and another 2 million were disabled or harmed.”
“Family and medical leave is a matter of pure common sense and a matter of common decency,” said former President Bill Clinton upon signing the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993. “It will provide Americans what they need most: peace of mind. Never again will parents have to fear losing their jobs because of their families.”
While most companies have instituted non-discrimination policies, it still remains technically legal in 29 states to discriminate based on sexual orientation, and in 35 states to do so based on gender identity or expression. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act seeks to make it federally illegal to discriminate, but has stalled within Congress for the last 17 years, despite current support President Obama.
Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is intent on reforming labor laws. In August 2011 he introduced to Congress the Employee Rights Act, which he hopes will help shield individual workers from powerful union leaders. But Hatch expects opposition. "I fully expect the unions and their supporters to come out against the Employee Rights Act, and characterize it as a radical, anti-union bill," he told the National Legal and Policy Center in September 2011.