Unions have served as the voice of American workers for more than 200 years. Throughout history, national and state legislation have affected the United States' unions in a variety of ways. Although many laws have been passed to ensure the safety and rights of union workers, laws have also been enacted to intentionally limit their power. Fortunately, for many union workers, changes occurring over the last 50 years have created a safe, fair, and more equitable work environment.
Although the Taft-Hartley Act took place more than ten years prior to the timeline of this essay, it has historical significance in union history. This Act limited the power of unions, banning certain types of picketing, strikes, boycotts, and revoked the rights of unions to contribute to political candidates. It also gave US presidents' ultimate control over unions during emergency situations. One example from 1981 was when Ronald Reagan fired 12,000 PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) union members when they refused to return to work. Another significant piece of legislation was The National Labor Relations Act of 1947. It allowed states to ban union security agreements and limited the collective bargaining of unions.
Fortunately, the 1960s brought many positive changes for unions. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 prohibited sex-based wage discrimination between men and women who performed the same job. Shortly after, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted into the United States Constitution prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin. Finally, in 1967 The Age Discrimination in Employment Act was enacted to protect employees over the age of 40 from discrimination on the basis of age in hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation, or terms conditions or pillages of employment.
Another pivotal date in union history was April 28, 1971 when the federal government enacted the Occupational and Safety Health Law (OSHA) and also created the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). OSHA enforces laws set for workplace safety and health standards, while NIOSH is responsible to conduct research to help prevent work related injury or illness.
In 1974 ERISA (The Employee Retirement Income Security Act) was established to protect the retirement plans of workers. It also set a minimum standards for pension plans. Following ERISA came two other very important acts COBRA (The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) and HIPAA (The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). COBRA gave workers and their families who lost their health benefits the right to choose to continue benefits provided by their health plans (U.S. D.O.L.). HIPPA was enacted to ensure and protect health privacy rights of workers.
Another significant piece of legislation, The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act of 1988 mandated employers to notify workers at least 60 days prior to closing business or layoffs and although not enforced, also can help workers retrain or find new jobs.
Several major national legislative acts during the 1990s brought even more changes for unions which included The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and The Family Medical and Leave Act. ADA gave the right to equal opportunity in employment, public accommodations, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications to people with disabilities. The Family Medical and Leave Act of 1993 provided employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid job protected leave with continued health benefits.
Fortunately, Washington State legislative decisions have been those hat have benefited unions. A few examples include RCW 49.46.110 which protects the bargaining rights of unions, RCW 49.46.020 mandating a minimum wage to all workers 18 years or older, and RCW 49.60.180 enforcing that employers cannot refuse to hire, discriminate, or discharge, because of disability, age, sex, sexual orientation, race, color, or national origin.
Although Washington State currently provides laws which protect unions, the Wisconsin legislature has recently proposed an anti-union bill that would restrict state employees of rights to collectively bargain. This bill has already caused other states like Ohio and Indiana to initiate discussions over creating similar bills with potential negative national ramifications.
Ultimately, the previous 50 years have been progressive for unions. In light of recent events and a struggling economy, one could only hope that that unions prevail and continue to provide unity and strength for all workers by ensuring that state and national governments continue to protect workers' rights, pillages, and safety standards.
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