Sarah Chute - 2015 Essay Winner


A Devotion to the Public Interest





An essay by Sarah Chute

American labor unions have made an impact on the workplace since the first one was founded in 1866. President John F. Kennedy once said "The American Labor Movement has consistently demonstrated its devotion to the public interest. It is, and has been, good for all America". This devotion has been seen since the late nineteenth century and continues to improve the health and safety of workers.

The early twentieth century saw American families and community members concerned about the next generation. Children even younger than seven were working in factories and mines. This young workforce was paid with cheap wages and was subject to horrendous conditions, affecting both physical health and emotional spirits. In 1881, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) beckoned states to ban children under fourteen from gainful employment. Many states established their own regulations. The union's actions would encourage future development of child labor laws.

The Uprising of the 20,000 in New York focused on the health and safety of not children, but immigrant workers. Many young, foreign-born women went on strike in November 1909. The women, members of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union and backed by the Women's Trade Union League, pressed for better pay with less hours and safer conditions. The union's representation of the women strengthened their chances of success. The women garnered assistance in a number of ways, allowing contracts to be signed by most employers in three months.

In 1912, the organization of marginalized workers, again, proved to be effective. The "Bread and Roses" strike extended for eight weeks. The workers - primarily immigrants and women - were organized under the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and demanded a dignified working atmosphere and a wage increase. IWW support provided strikers with publicity, organization, and funds. The workers were victorious and their demands were met.

Unions continued improving working standards in the 1900s. Automobile workers went on strike in 1937 against General Motors in Flint, Michigan, requesting recognition of the United Auto Workers (UAW), a fair wage scale, and a method to protect workers at the assembly-line from injury. The sit-down strike ended with GM being entreated by President Roosevelt to acknowledge the union. GM and the UAW agreed on terms and the workers were provided with benefits. The UAW was able to organize its members and negotiate with GM to better the conditions workers were subject to.

Since 1881, with the AFL's contributions in bringing working conditions to the attention of states, the union had also pushed for federal regulations. In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act finally established federal labor guidelines. Issues like minimum wage and child labor were attended to through this act, due to the focus unions had on shedding light to a number of problems.

The '30s and '40s saw a growth of unions. More issues were addressed. The National War Labor Board was created in 1941 with union support. Health insurance was one element that came from this establishment. By the 1950s, a majority of large companies offered health insurance, benefitting most workers.

In modern times, the benefits of labor unions can still be observed. In 1993, the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) was a stanch supporter for the Family and Medical Leave Act, which grants employees 12 weeks of leave to care for new children, ill family members or for the worker's own illness. The AFL-CIO's support for the act ensures that workers are able to attend to their personal health concerns, knowing that they will have a job to return to when the designated period has elapsed.

Recently, the American workforce has seen additional improvements in the workplace, brought about through union support. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) supported the Employee Free Choice Act of 2009, which helps workers join unions and improve their living standards.

Workplace health and safety has improved over the last hundred and fifty years, thanks to the strength of unions. Without the organization they create and the representation they provide for their members, the concerns faced years ago could be current problems. To continue to improve the workplace, unions need to increase memberships, as there is strength in numbers. With a larger internal population, unions have a greater chance to reach out to potential members and have pressing issues heard by the public. Today, unions need to be seeking out new members if they want to continue their devotion to public interest.