Erin Hickey - 2009 Essay Winner


What is the Relevance of Unions Past and Present?





An essay by Erin Hickey

Unions began to form hundreds of years ago in both Europe and the United States. Most of the early unions were very specific craft unions that helped the workers get better working conditions and pay by organizing. United States unions have been instrumental in shaping labor law, working conditions, safety, and job security.

Workers in our country began to unionize in great numbers hundreds of years ago to overcome the imposing power of employers and to improve wages and working conditions. Initially unions were viewed by much of the public and law makers as trouble makers and rabble rousers. Until the unions began to get backing by the Federal government, there were actually many confrontations between large employers and employees that led to violence, injury, and death. These incidents highlighted the need for legal support of unions, thus the Railway Labor Act in 1926 which was the first major legislation to give workers the right to join unions and encouraged the use of arbitration and mediation. This act only applied to railway and airline workers.

The Norris LaGuardia Act in 1932 guaranteed the workers right to organize and to bargain without interference from employers. This act also prohibited yellow dog contracts which force a worker to agree to not join a union or participate with union activity. The Wagner Act in 1935 established the National Labor Relations Board, which required employers to bargain over wages, hours, and conditions of work.. The Labor Management Relations Act in 1947 refined labor regulations helping correct some abuses that had occurred.

While unions grew in membership, the support of them by the general public grew. Ideas that were initially declared to be counter-productive and too costly such as required safety measures gained support through the continued support of unions. Federal laws and programs were initiated, such as OSHA that dictated minimum safety requirements in all jobs union and non-union.

Unions were the primary driver to the Fair Labor Standards Act which requires all work conducted beyond 40 hours a week to be paid at least time and a half pay rate. This was a huge quality of life win for workers in the United States, keeping the work week hours in control and helping workers get paid equitably for their work.

Unions were also a major part in equality, helping get the Equal Opportunity in Employment Act, and Age Discrimination in Employment Act passed. Both these acts prohibited discriminatory employment practices.

Today, unions are still known for their continuing support of employees. Some of the critical areas that are of focus throughout the country are job security and health care costs. Companies are always trying to cut costs by getting cheaper labor through outsourcing, using contractors, and shifting jobs overseas. Unions have been essential in keeping union jobs by negotiating strong contracts and helping legislators develop trade laws that support U.S. workers through various tax incentives, import tariffs, and tools used throughout the world. Health care cost increases for employees have been minimized through good labor contracts.

Today unions are a foundation to the United States economy. The union labor provides a reliable skilled work force that is competitive world wide. The good living wages keep the workers and their communities thriving, and provide local and national stability through job security.

The future will be challenging for both businesses and unions. Operating in an international competitive world will require intelligent decisions. A modern union that will provide a diverse reliable work force will help keep the U.S. companies competitive and profitable while at the same time providing a safe, healthy, and rewarding work environment for employees.