Over the past few weeks, right-wing legislators have unleashed a torrent of radical legislation upon the American electorate designed to gut collective bargaining rights and attack the middle class. As these conservatives have launched their assault, a Main Street Movement consisting of ordinary Americans fed up with living in such an unequal country has fought back.
Conservatives have sought to malign this movement by claiming that it is simply defending the parochial interests of labor unions, who they claim are imposing huge costs on taxpayers with little benefit. Yet the truth is that America’s public and private unions have been one of the major forces in building a robust and vibrant middle class and have fought over the past century to improve the lives of all Americans in a variety of ways. ThinkProgress has assembled just five of the many things that Americans can thank the nation’s unions for giving us all:
1. Unions Gave Us The Weekend: Even the ultra-conservative Mises Institute notes that the relatively labor-free 1870, the average workweek for most Americans was 61 hours — almost double what most Americans work now. Yet in the late nineteenth century and the twentieth century, labor unions engaged in massive strikes in order to demand shorter workweeks so that Americans could be home with their loved ones instead of constantly toiling for their employers with no leisure time. By 1937, these labor actions created enough political momentum to pass the Fair Labor Standards Act, which helped create a federal framework for a shorter workweek that included room for leisure time.
2. Unions Gave Us Fair Wages And Relative Income Equality: As ThinkProgress reported earlier in the week, the relative decline of unions over the past 35 years has mirrored a decline in the middle class’s share of national income. It is also true that at the time when most Americans belonged to a union — a period of time between the 1940’s and 1950’s — income inequality in the U.S. was at its lowest point in the history of the country.
3. Unions Helped End Child Labor: “Union organizing and child labor reform were often intertwined” in U.S. history, with organization’s like the “National Consumers’ League” and the National Child Labor Committee” working together in the early 20th century to ban child labor. The very first American Federation of Labor (AFL) national convention passed “a resolution calling on states to ban children under 14 from all gainful employment” in 1881, and soon after states across the country adopted similar recommendations, leading up to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act which regulated child labor on the federal level for the first time.
4. Unions Won Widespread Employer-Based Health Coverage: “The rise of unions in the 1930’s and 1940’s led to the first great expansion of health care” for all Americans, as labor unions banded workers together to negotiate for health coverage plans from employers. In 1942, “the US set up a National War Labor Board. It had the power to set a cap on all wage increases. But it let employers circumvent the cap by offering “fringe benefits” — notably, health insurance.” By 1950, “half of all companies with fewer than 250 workers and two-thirds of all companies with more than 250 workers offered health insurance of one kind or another.”
5. Unions Spearheaded The Fight For The Family And Medical Leave Act: Labor unions like the AFL-CIO federation led the fight for this 1993 law, which “requires state agencies and private employers with more than 50 employees to provide up to 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave annually for workers to care for a newborn, newly adopted child, seriously ill family member or for the worker’s own illness.”
In 2007, Australia’s Manic Studios produced a short film titled, “What Have Unions Ever Done For Us?” which satirically portrays a handful of employers asking that question and realizing that unions have actually done a lot for the average person in their country. Although the film deal’s with Australia’s unions and not the United States, many of the rights mentioned by the mock executives — like workers’ compensation and expanded health care — are exactly the same. Watch it: