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Throughout American history, the workplace has greatly affected society. Prior to the development of heavy industry in the nineteenth century, most work was localized, often following the traditional master-and-apprentice system in which young workers learned a skill from a master tradesman. The master provided lodging and trained the apprentice; thus, a bond formed between employer and worker, and both parties had a stake in the well-being of the other. Industrialization and standardization eclipsed this system, however. The need for complex skills diminished because machines performed specialized functions. As noted by Lewis Mumford in Technics and Civilization, the specialized functions of early machines— which only performed one task and required other machines or workers to perform the other tasks in order to produce the finished product—diminished the role of workers to that of machines. Workers no longer functioned as tradesmen who produced a completed product. As a result of specialization and standardization, the business elite—company owners, employers—relied less on skilled workers, and the relationship between workers and employers deteriorated; by the late nineteenth century, an outright labor war was underway.
The late nineteenth century and early twentieth century were times of intense labor conflict. The popularity of Social Darwinism—the application of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection (the “survival of the fittest”) to society— among wealthy businessmen increased the conflict between the poor and the wealthy. Whereas pre-industrial employment had encouraged ties between master and apprentice, fostering a noticeable but innocuous class division, employer and employee relations in nineteenth-century industrial society became confrontational. Attempting to consolidate their position against employers, workers developed labor unions such as the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Unions, whose success depended on the cooperation of a large percentage of workers, allowed laborers to voice their discontent by means of strikes, through which they hoped to force employers to provide better working conditions and higher pay.
At times, strikes degenerated into violence, an outright fight between the workers and the business elite. The government typically sided with the elites, so the labor movement became more radical over time. The Haymarket Square Riot in Chicago in 1886 and the Pullman Strike in 1894 are good examples: both led to increased federal measures to secure the position of American business and worker dissatisfaction with the American government. The pro-business stance of the government contributed to the spread of socialism among the urban poor as a means of escape from what they believed was an oppressive system. The popularity of socialism and communism among the urban poor of all races and ethnicities alarmed business and political elites; in response, the elites renewed their efforts to secure the position of individual initiative and free-market capitalism. It was not until the stock market crash of October 1929 and the unpopular response of President Herbert Hoover that the federal government—under the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt—decided to pay attention to the demands of workers.
In general, labor unions benefited during the New Deal. The 1933 National Recovery Administration (NRA) was the first attempt to facilitate industrial recovery through coordinating labor and business with the government. The primary intent of the NRA was to decrease competition and thereby increase efficiency. To accomplish this, the NRA allowed businesses to draft codes of fair conduct and allowed labor leaders to establish a maximum number of work hours, a minimum wage, and collective bargaining. However, the NRA failed to give workers real improvements, and many companies ignored the collective bargaining clause, set minimum wages at starvation levels, and set up company-controlled unions to negate the power of worker-led unions. Despite this, labor received some benefits during the 1930s. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act (also called the Wagner Act), proposed by New York Senator Robert Wagner, strengthened the federal government’s support for unions and allowed unions such as the AFL and Committee on Industrial Organization (CIO) to win concessions—bargaining rights, an end to company-sponsored unions, and wage-hour protection from large industrial corporations such as General Motors in 1936 and U.S. Steel in 1937. These successes were not direct results of New Deal programs but attributable to the willingness of government and labor leaders to work together. Roosevelt’s “try anything” approach to the New Deal allowed workers to have a greater political voice; the Great Depression broke down the federal government’s reluctance to oversee the issues of the workplace.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), first passed in 1938 and administered by the Department of Labor, is one of the most significant contemporary labor laws. The FLSA sets standards for wages by requiring employers to pay all employees at least the minimum wage, and it sets standards for overtime pay—at least one-and one-half the normal pay rate. The FLSA also sets standards for the employment of migrant and seasonal agricultural workers. Under the FLSA, employers are not required to pay migrant workers overtime; however, the law does require employers to pay at least the minimum wage when they employ seven or more full-time workers. One of the most significant aspects of the FLSA is its regulation of child labor.
Child labor is another significant issue. Prior to the implementation of FLSA regulations that prohibited children from performing hard labor, many working-class American families relied on the wages of all family members, including children, to survive. The idea that the male is the bread winner and the wife stays home with the children is a middle-class ideal—a luxury that the working class could not afford. Employers often preferred women and children because they could pay them lower wages, justifying the practice with the spurious reasoning that the male was the primary wage earner of the family, which made the earnings of women and children secondary. Late nineteenth-century Progressives noted that working-class children had few opportunities for advancement under this system, so reformers pushed for mandatory education and restrictions on child labor. Laws passed in the twentieth century, such as FLSA, served two purposes: to limit children’s exposure to hazardous employment and to encourage children to better their future prospects through education.
The FLSA prohibits children under age sixteen from working in dangerous or “hazardous” jobs or from working during times that preclude their ability to obtain an education. The FLSA specifically prohibits children under eighteen from working jobs involving explosives, driving a motor vehicle, coal mining, logging, working with power-driven machines, exposure to radioactive substances, meat packing or processing, or roofing. Compulsory education laws further ensure that more children grow up with the basic educational skills that will allow them to obtain jobs that are more satisfying and higher paying.
Department of Labor
Labor relations with business and government have grown increasingly amenable in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries compared to the controversies of the 1800s. Part of the reason for this is the increased role of the federal government. Since the creation of the Department of Labor (DOL) in 1913, influential unions like the AFL-CIO are more apt to treat the federal government as a friend rather than an enemy. The DOL has been successful in overseeing and implementing labor policy. Most laws administered by the DOL ensure that all employees receive at least the minimum wage and have safe working conditions. The DOL also requires employers to give employees access to retirement and health care benefits. A primary task of the DOL is to oversee and enforce federal employment and labor laws. At present, the DOL oversees 180 federal laws affecting about 10 million employers and 125 million employees.
- Conkin, Paul, The New Deal, 2nd ed. (Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1975); Department of Labor (www.dol.gov);
- Divine, Robert A., T. H. Breen, et al., The American Story, 2nd ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2005);
- Mumford, Lewis, Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1935, reprinted 1962);
- Patterson, James T., America’s Struggle against Poverty in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).
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