NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Victories of Unions Enjoyed by Many

August 28, 2003

Despite labor unions' many important legislative victories, membership has dropped precipitously. Organized labor need look no further than its own successes to find why, say James T. Bennett and Jason E. Taylor.

During the past century, unions have used their political clout to pass legislation and establish regulatory agencies that largely supersede the need for collective bargaining on many important workplace issues, say Bennett and Taylor. Take shorter working hours, for instance:

  • A century ago, unions attracted membership by pushing for the eight-hour workday and by 1930, union members typically worked 40 hours a week, while workers in non-organized industries worked 50 to 60 hours.
  • The Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938 with the help of organized labor, set 40 hours as the standard workweek by mandating that hours in excess of 40 be paid time and a half.
  • As a result, an issue that attracted many workers to the early labor movement became a protection enjoyed by virtually all employees.
  • In the decades before the Great Depression, unions maintained funds to support furloughed members, and unionized workers were far more likely to secure employer-run pension plans than their non-union counterparts.
  • The labor-supported Social Security Act of 1935, mandated that all states establish unemployment compensation programs and set up the pay-as-you-go pension-plan system that has given all U.S. workers at least some measure of income security after retirement.

And workplace safety now has its own federal agency (Occupational Health and Safety Administration). In 1969, the AFL-CIO called for federal guidelines on occupational safety and health. A year later, Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act; its 4,000-plus regulations today cover nearly 100 million U.S. workers.

Source: James T. Bennett and Jason E. Taylor, "Unions work selves out of job," USA Today, August 28, 2003.

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