Unions and striking workers have been much in the news lately. As of August 17, there have been 233 labor actions in 352 locations across the United States in 2023, according to the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations Labor Action Tracker. Some of the most well know strikes are the Writers Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild, Unite Here Local 11, representing hotel workers in California, and the United Steelworkers Local 4-200, representing nurses in New Jersey. Additionally, members of the United Auto Workers are voting this week on authorizing their leaders to call strikes against the Detroit automakers, and UPS workers were gearing up for a strike that was avoided when Teamster members voted last week for a new five-year contract negotiated by the union leadership. New unions have also been formed this year. These include dancers at Star Garden Topless Dive Bar in North Hollywood, workers at Barnes & Noble locations in the northeast, and employees at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago.
These union workers stand on the shoulders of all those who have come before them. The nineteenth century saw unions emerge as a response to the dire working conditions, extended work hours, low wages, and child labor that characterized the early industrial era. As labor unions grew, their collective bargaining power compelled employers to change. Strikes, negotiations, and advocacy helped unions pave the way for major labor reforms, including the establishment of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which introduced the federal minimum wage, overtime pay, and restrictions on child labor.
The growth of labor unions also was closely intertwined with the broader movements for workers' rights and social justice. For example, during the civil rights movement, many labor unions stood beside activists, fighting for desegregation and equal opportunities in the workforce. While often forgotten now, the full name of the 1963 civil rights march was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and union leaders as well as civil rights leaders spoke to the huge crowd.
In the 1960s unions represented about a third of US workers but that is now down to just over ten percent. Globalization, technology, and a shift to the service sector have been influential in this decline. Ironically, unions’ successes in helping establish extensive worker protections in the law, including health and safety standards, unemployment compensation, and retirement benefits, may also have influenced union decline as government became more active in defending labor. Nonetheless, our current news shows that the role of labor unions remains relevant. As the economy continues to evolve, unions are seeking to ensure that workers' rights are not left behind. The gig economy, remote work, and automation and artificial intelligence present new challenges that require collective representation to safeguard workers' interests.
Next week we will celebrate Labor Day. It was originally established as a federal holiday in 1894 to emphasize “the equality and dignity of labor.” Today much of its focus has shifted to a commemoration of the end of summer and a time for picnics and barbeques. However, Labor Day still can be a time to acknowledge the achievements and contributions of American’s workers throughout our history, as well as the importance of labor unions in helping create safer and healthier working environments for future generations. To learn more about the history of labor and unions in the United states check out these Library resources.