Beyond Labor Day: 3 Ways Unions Have Helped American WorkersBreaking News
tags: unions, labor history, Labor Day
Peter Cole is a Professor of History at Western Illinois University and a Research Associate at the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. He is the author of Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area and Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia.
A complete list of the ways labor changed American history would be immeasurably long—but, for Labor Day, here are three of the top ways unions helped American workers:
Unions help win the 8-hour day
When the industrial revolution commenced in the early 19th century, industrial workers toiled as long as farmers did: from sunup until sundown. Ten-, 12-, and even 14-hour days were common in mills and factories as well as printshops, restaurants and retail stores.
The first, halting efforts by workers to demand a shorter workday began in the 1860s. After a generation of fits and starts, in 1886, a nationwide movement arose that culminated on May 1 when hundreds of thousands of workers stayed away from work to push employers for eight-hour days. These efforts largely failed.
So, too, when union workers of Andrew Carnegie’s monopolistic steel company were defeated in 1892 at “Bloody Homestead” (just outside of Pittsburgh), the steel industry instituted 12-hour days, seven days a week. Every other week, steelworkers were compelled to make the hated “long turn,” a 24-hour shift.
Only in the 1930s did the tide turn for workers. With Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House, allies in Congress, and the first female cabinet member in Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, a series of reforms were implemented. In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act that established the eight-hour day and five-day week for wage-workers. But don’t solely thank the politicians. As FDR once told union and civil-rights leader A. Philip Randolph, he agreed with the labor movement’s ideas, but he needed the activists to “go out and make me do it.”
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