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History of Labor Law

Labor laws in the United States are relatively recent additions to our legal system when looked at on an historical timeline. Just a few generations back there were few protections, if any, for workers in the United States. The conditions in which many U.S. citizens worked would surprise many today. At one time young children worked in dangerous coal mines, factory workers and skilled laborers earned only pennies a day, and work days could be as long as sixteen hours or more. There weren't any guidelines for an employee's safety either.

Situations such as exposure to toxins, working in hazardous environments, or working under mental duress weren't addressed. Because of these situations, workers felt they had no voice or protection in their places of employment. They had nowhere to turn for help. The law didn't protect people from employment situations that today we might only find in underdeveloped countries.

In the early part of the nineteenth century, workers began to form unions to combat some of these issues. At the forefront of what is now known as the Labor Movement was the demand for reasonable wages. Because of the employment conditions of skilled workers, many joined these newly formed labor unions in order to have a strong force of solidarity. Around the time of the Civil War carpenters and blacksmiths pioneered the first official labor unions. Following these were railway employees and mine workers. By the time the Great Depression hit and people were desperate for work, they turned to the unions for work and union protections.

Employers fought back as workers banned together to strike. The battles lines were drawn and court action followed. In 1935 the National Labor Relations Act was enacted and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was created. By 1947, after WWII people began to prosper. The desperation of unemployment from a decade back began to turn as people went back to work and the nation's bleak economical picture changed. As history shows, people's attitudes about the unions began to shift.

What was viewed as a protector now became the villain. People believed that labor unions now wielded too much power. They blamed union striking workers for many of the shortages experienced during that time as well as inflated prices. Once again the problems became a legal issue. This dissention finally led to the Taft/Hartley Act that sought to balance the power of the unions against employers. Following these earlier twentieth century disputes were issues of discrimination of women and minorities leading to further the definition of our labor laws in place today.

Throughout these pivotal points in history, new laws were put into place enforcing stricter working conditions. They served to set a minimum wage law; restrict the length of workdays; afford union workers the right to strike without fear of retribution, and much more. The labor laws in place today are still in a state of flux. New issues are coming to light as the country faces outsourcing of jobs and illegal immigrants demanding rights. The old minimum wage is antiquated against the cost of living. Unions are once again under fire from the government and employers who wish to strip people of power. As discussion of these issues continue, the labor laws in our country are likely to once again become sifted and sorted and new labor laws will likely follow.

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