The Origins of Labor Conflicts in the History of U.S. Labor
The phrase “labor conflict” in US history relates to a period in time when this country was a highly industrialized nation. Conflicts between labor and management were prevalent, because the implorations for a fair wage system were deliberately ignored, while the workplace generally had an uncaring atmosphere.
During that era, conflicts were real and often; they culminated in bloody confrontations and produced stories of strife and tragedy. However, the objective of this article is not to go over those times but to make a brief study of the ten most common examples of conflicts between labor and management. How those issues were addressed by the federal government through the US Department of Labor has been highlighted in the following sections.
(1) The Right to Form a Worker’s Union
Labor unions were formed during the 1800s, but they were seen as mere troublemakers by employers. The courts of law often sided with the latter, as they declared labor unions unlawful and the workers guilty of criminal conspiracy.
It is important to note that during those times, state laws prevailed, and the courts decided whether such laws were legal and enforceable. Although dissenting opinions slowly surfaced in state legislatures, more than a century passed and workers were still literally fighting for their rights to fair labor practices. Courts still decided whether the law passed by the state should be upheld or not.
It was only in 1932 that labor unions won the support of the Supreme Court when the latter abolished the laws against union membership. Yet the succeeding years were still marred by more violence and disruptions; hence labor unions remained active in fighting for workers’ rights.
Finally, in 1935, the US Federal labor laws were passed and were called the National Labor Relations Act, which embodied the rights of the employees to fair labor. After two years, the said laws were ratified by the Supreme Court. By the middle of the 19th century, more states began to recognize the rights of workers to form labor organizations or unions.
As changes in governance throughout the years took place during the 19th century, Congress passed more laws that recognized the employees’ rights to fair labor. Years passed and employees saw more edicts enacted in response to their grievances. Accordingly, union membership started to decline in the 1950s.
Today, reports on labor union statistics reveal that only 12.5 percent of the workers remain active as union members; 40 percent belong to the public sector and only 10 percent are employees of private sectors.
(2) Wage Conflicts
The US Department of Labor became more active in seeking solutions to the continuing conflicts between labor and management. Although labor unions were recognized, employees' rights to fair labor and compensation were not. Child labor was prevalent; women and children were overworked and underpaid.
In 1937, the US Supreme Court upheld the state laws that recognized the implementation of a minimum wage system, and this paved the way for the passing of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938. This embodied the Minimum Wage Act which established a minimum wage per hour and the number of hours required for a day's work.
This also included the mandate which banned child labor. In addition, the Department of Labor was empowered to raise the minimum wage standards in certain industries, for as long as a committee held public hearings between employers and labor leaders.
Today, the minimum wage is set at $7.25 per hour from the original rate of $0.25 per hour–after going through twenty-two wage hikes in between. Although there are some US states that recognize higher pay standards, this is deemed necessary in order to meet the elevated costs of basic necessities as a result of increasing statutory tax rates. Readers who are interested to know more about the important facts about minimum wage laws may refer to a separate article entitled “Revisiting the History of Minimum Wage Laws.”
Please turn to page 2 for more on Conflicts Between Labor and Management.
(3) Working Beyond Regular Hours and Employees’ Entitlement to Overtime Pay
To address the workers’ issues against rendering hours of work beyond what was reasonable, the FLSA of 1938 initially established that workers should not work for more than 44 hours in a week. This was amended by the Contract Work Hours Standards Act of 1962 to 40 hours per week. Hours worked in excess of these provisions shall entitle the employee to the payment of salaries based on overtime pay.
Overtime pay was established as an incentive for employees to work beyond the maximum hours in a week and during holidays. The overtime rate stipulated by law was expressed as equivalent to “an hour and a half” of regular hours worked.
However, overtime pay is extended only to certain workers, which are generally those who work for manufacturing industries dealing in interstate commerce.
(4) Right to Equal Pay
Women workers raised issues about the inequality in pay rate computation based on gender. There was a general perception that women do not perform work in the same capacity as men do, for being weaker in strength and form. In addition, their role in the family was only secondary to the men, which denoted lower rank in status. In fact, early American culture considered wives and children as part of a man’s personal possessions.
This was likewise a cause of conflict between labor and management since it meant additional increase in overhead costs. However, the 1963 Equal Pay Act gave women the right to receive pay rates according to minimum wage standards, while the Civil Rights Act of 1964 totally prohibited any discrimination or bias against women.
(5) Safety Issues in the Work Environment
Labor unions started to broaden their agenda by broaching issues pertaining to the health and safety of the employees in their workplaces. Industrial accidents took place resulting in death and injuries that left the families virtually helpless and impoverished by the loss of the family breadwinner. Although state laws imposed regulations for safety, no laws addressed the fate of the worker and his family should the former fall ill, or become incapacitated or killed due to workplace accidents.
New York was the only state that recognized the importance of addressing this issue as early as 1910, even before the institution of the National Labor Relations Act. The state was the first to institute a law which forced companies to pay some form of restitution to the worker or his family in cases of workplace accidents.
As a recognized representative of the workforce, union leaders brought the health and safety issues to their respective management’s attention. Some employers paid heed and cooperated while others did not. It was only later that such employers were forced to give in to the labor union’s demand, when Congress passed the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974, which included the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Agency.
However, the matter of seeking compensation in cases of wrongful deaths due to accidents or catastrophes emanating from the workplace was covered by state laws in conjunction with the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974.
(6) The Right of Employees to Paid Sick Leave
The changes in the structure in American families gave rise to issues about the entitlement of paid sick leave. Workers who needed to stay home to recuperate from a debilitating illness sought assurance that the job they left vacant remained available to him or her. In some cases a father was constrained to take time off to attend to his spouse and assist in the arrival of their child.
Some companies are generous enough to offer paid vacation and sick leave benefits, in order to entice top-caliber employees into working for them. However, not all companies can afford to provide their workers the same benefits. Their contention is that the prolonged absence of a worker does not bring any benefit to the company but instead affects its operations negatively. Based on the “at will” concept of employment, employers have a right to replace workers who cannot report for work for an unreasonable period of time. Hence, labor and management were at odds in coming up with a suitable solution for this issue.
To date, this is still a source of conflict between labor and management as exemplified in the service units of public sectors like the police force and fire departments.
In view of this, the federal government enacted the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). To learn more about FMLA, readers can find additional information in other Bright Hub articles entitled “Employment Rights & Sick Leave” and Explaining the Key Employee Provision of FMLA.
Please turn to Page 3 for more examples of conflict between labor and management.
(7) Discrimination Against Older Workers in the Work Place
The “at will” concept in employer-employee relationships was often used by employers as a liberal excuse to discriminate against older workers. This was prevalent at the time when businesses where faced with the rising need for fast-paced productivity. In addition, older employees also entailed bargains for retirement benefits; hence employers discriminated against age even at the onset, by setting age limits for job postings.
This was a common conflict that was resolved only upon the enactment of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, which expressly prohibited employers from discriminating against older employees. However, there are certain qualifications to this rule that require a deeper understanding of the protection provided to the employee. For a comprehensive report about this law, read this separate article with the title “Examples of Age Discrimination and Wrongful Termination”.
Retirement benefits, however, are still at the discretion of the employer, since the labor union’s position against this was marred by the anomalies pertaining to union-managed retirement funds
(8) Racial Discrimination in the Work Place
Migrant workers are often placed at a disadvantage in the workplace because some of them entered the US as illegal aliens. However, even those who are considered as immigrants, and properly documented as such, are affected by the racial discrimination prevailing in the workplace. Salaries offered are much lower, working conditions are less favorable, and opportunities for advancement are hardly offered.
Labor unions particularly in the agricultural sector fought long and hard for the recognition of the rights of the migrant and seasonal workers. The government recognized the value of these workers, since more and more Americans have shown less interest in working at the farms. In line with this, the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, mandated the farm labor contractors to register with the US Department of Labor to ensure that proper wages, working conditions, and other work-related issues are observed in the hiring of migrants.
In addition, to further preclude employers from discriminating against all members of society considered as less productive because of their age, gender, religion, color, and racial origins, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established to aid in carrying out the Civil Rights Act of 1965.
This agency is tasked to investigate any claims of discrimination and to mediate between union and management on any conflicts regarding such issues or to penalize companies who are in direct violation of the Civil Rights Act provisions.
(9) Negotiations for Expiring Contract
Labor unions ensure the protection of their members by trying to secure the best deal for their union members before their work contracts expire. Although conflicts may arise during negotiations, the significant and numerous laws that have been enacted in the past have made it easier for labor union leaders to arrive at an agreement with employers–whereas before, negotiations often led to strikes and protests before a “collective bargaining agreement” could be finalized.
(10) Opposition Against Global Trade Agreements – Offshore/Outsourced Jobs
The most recent issues that union leaders have raised against employers are the trade agreements entered into by management to developing countries for offshore or outsourced jobs. Most companies see this as a way of reducing labor costs since dollar wages are less than what they pay for American workers, when converted into the foreign country’s minimum wage equivalent.
Local American workers are losing jobs as a result of downsizing efforts; but on the other hand, work is transferred to offshore workers, which union leaders strongly oppose. However, unionism in the private sector has dwindled and is no longer as strongly heard as before. This particular conflict between the labor and management is currently unaddressed since there are still conflicting views about its economic benefits.
Reference Materials and Image Credit Section:
- A Curriculum of United States Labor History for Teachers.–https://www.kentlaw.edu/ilhs/curricul.htm
- Labor Law and Legislation –https://www.referenceforbusiness.com/encyclopedia/Kor-Man/Labor-Law-and-Legislation.html
- Congressional Records –ards%20Act%20of%201938&f=false
- The front page of the Seattle Union Record at the beginning of the Seattle General Strike.
- WPA poster USA 1936 Category:Labour movement in the United States images
- History of US federal minimum wage increases
- Sickness remedies
- Old people are making sports