History of Labor Law

Labor laws have not always existed in the United States. Just a few generations back, workers in the United States had few, if any, protections. The conditions in which many U.S. citizens worked at the time would surprise many people today. Throughout the early 1900s, young children were permitted to work in dangerous coal mines. Factory workers and skilled laborers earned only pennies a day. Work days could be as long as sixteen hours or more. Discrimination of all types was both acceptable and commonplace.

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There were no guidelines to protect the safety of employees at that time. Situations such as exposure to toxins, working in hazardous environments, and working under mental duress weren’t addressed or discussed. Workers therefore felt that they had no voice or ways to seek protection in their places of employment. The law didn’t protect Americans from employment situations that today are only found in underdeveloped countries.

After the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935, giving private sector workers the right to unionize, workers began to form unions to combat some of these issues. Because of the employment conditions of skilled workers, many joined these newly formed labor unions in order to have a strong force of solidarity. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was created. By 1947, in the post-World War II era, Americans began to prosper. The feelings of desperation of unemployment from a decade ago began to turn around as people went back to work and the nation’s bleak economic picture changed. People’s attitudes about the unions began to shift as well.

What was once viewed as a protector now became a villain. People now believed that labor unions wielded too much power. They blamed unionized striking workers for many of the shortages experienced during that time as well as for inflated prices. Once again, these problems became a legal issue. This dissention finally led to the Taft-Hartley Act being passed in 1947 as an amendment to the NLRA. It sought to balance the power of the unions against employers. Further amendments to the NLRA came through the Landrum-Griffin Act in 1959, which granted rights to union members and protected their interests through promoting democratic procedures in unions.

Unions have shaped labor law in the United States, and has garnered unionized workers higher compensation than non-unionized workers. Union membership was found to give workers greater influence in the workplace as well.

Throughout these pivotal points in history, new labor laws were put into place enforcing stricter working conditions. The major laws put into place by the Department of Labor that affect American workers include, but are not limited to:

  • Fair Labor Standards Act – dictates standards for wages and overtime pay for workers
  • Immigration and Nationality Act- authorizes aliens to work in the U.S. under nonimmigrant visa programs
  • Occupational Safety and Health Act- regulates safety and health conditions for workers
  • Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act- provides compensation and medical care for maritime employees who are disabled or die on the job and their dependent survivors
  • Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act – provides payment and medical benefits to employees/survivors of the Department of Energy and its contractors/subcontractors who are disabled or killed through exposure to hazardous materials in the line of duty
  • Federal Employees’ Compensation Act – workers compensation act for federal employees who are injured performing their duties
  • Black Lung Benefits Act – provides cash and medical benefits to coal miners disabled from black lung disease
  • Employee Retirement Income Security Act – regulates employers offering pension plans to employees
  • Comprehensive Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 – requires employers to continue health care for employees who lose their jobs
  • Family and Medical Leave Act – requires employers to give employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for birth/adoption of a child or serious illness of themselves or family member

New labor-related issues are now coming to light as the country faces outsourcing of jobs and illegal immigrants demanding rights. The old minimum wage is antiquated when compared with the current cost of living. Unions have once again come under fire from the government and from employers who wish to strip people of power. As discussion of these issues continue, labor laws in our country are likely to change and evolve.

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