The 200-Year History Of American Employee Rights

Railroad workers

Photo: Library of Congress

Employees have been fighting for their rights for centuries. Here’s a brief look the history of U.S. labour law.This post originally appeared at Inc.

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The Right to Strike

The First National labour organisation in America

Though it lived for just seven years starting in 1866, the National labour Movement paved the way for future labour parties.

Led by William H. Sylvis, who headed the Iron-Molders' International Union, the movement tried to organise local trade unions under a national umbrella.

They were also among the first advocates of the eight-hour workday. But the political organisation fell apart when it couldn't perform at the polls, and many of its members left for the Knights of labour

Protecting Workers Who Get Injured on the Job

Working on the railroad was a dangerous business for many workers. In a speech to Congress, then-president Benjamin Harrison said about railwork: 'It is a reproach to our civilisation that any class of American workmen, should in the pursuit of a necessary and useful vocation be subjected to a peril of life and limb as great as that of a soldier in time of war.'

The Federal Employers Liability Act, which would become the foundations for states' Worker's Compensation laws was enacted in 1908 'to put on the railroad industry some of the costs of the legs, arms, eyes, and lives which it consumed in its operation.'

United Auto Workers is Founded

Since the UAW was founded in 1930, it has become one of the most important labour unions in the country's history.

Its leadership has successfully lobbied for health insurance plans for industrial workers, the first cost-of-living allowances, as well as training, and educational programs. The UAW has also faced wide-scale criticism, especially from anti-union advocates that protested the bailout of major motor companies of 2008 to 2010.

Child labour Laws and Minimum Wage

Fair Pay for Workers

The wage gap between men and women in the early 1960s painted a bleak portrait of pay equality in the United States: Women with full-time jobs got paid about 60 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts.

In 1963, the Equal Pay Act required pay parity between all genders and races. Yet in 2010, white women earned about 80 cents for every dollar made by a man, according to the General Accounting Office.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act

The Occupational Safety and Health Act was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970. But it was during WWII that industrial accidents put a renewed focus on worker safety.

According to the Duke law journal Law and Contemporary Problems in the “two years preceding OSHA's enactment, 14,000 workers died each year from workplace hazards, and another 2 million were disabled or harmed.

Work-Life Balance

'Family and medical leave is a matter of pure common sense and a matter of common decency,' said former President Bill Clinton upon signing the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993. 'It will provide Americans what they need most: peace of mind. Never again will parents have to fear losing their jobs because of their families.'

Sexual-Orientation and Non-Discrimination

While most companies have instituted non-discrimination policies, it still remains technically legal in 29 states to discriminate based on sexual orientation, and in 35 states to do so based on gender identity or expression.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act seeks to make it federally illegal to discriminate, but has stalled within Congress for the last 17 years, despite current support President Obama.

Next on the Docket

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is intent on reforming labour laws. In August 2011 he introduced to Congress the Employee Rights Act, which he hopes will help shield individual workers from powerful union leaders.

But Hatch expects opposition. 'I fully expect the unions and their supporters to come out against the Employee Rights Act, and characterise it as a radical, anti-union bill,' he told the National Legal and Policy centre in September 2011.

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