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How unions helped build a middle class for workers in the U.S.A.

Jeremy Sprinkle
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Essay by Harry Kelber

This essay was published in the Feb. 13, 2012 edition of the Labor Educator, and it is reprinted here with permission because we cannot be reminded too often of why the labor movement has been so important to the ongoing struggle by the People to form a more perfect Union.

Unions have been around for more than a century, and they've done more good for America's working people — union and non-union — and have gotten less credit for it than any institution in the United States.

In producing their remarkable achievements, unions had to overcome selfish, stubborn employers and their conservative allies, both in and outside of Congress.

As far back as 1828, thanks to unions, America's children have the right to a free elementary school education. Wealthy people at that time said that workers should pay the same for education, as they paid for the food, clothing and other necessities for their children.

During the dark days of the Great Depression, unions fought for and won several of the greatest landmark victories that helped build an American Middle Class. In 1935, they played a principal role in creating Social Security, at a time when few workers had pensions to help them in retirement.

That same year, the National Labor Relations Act was born, giving workers the right to be represented by a union in collective bargaining with their employer. Workers no longer had to face their boss all alone in asking for a wage increase or some other benefit and risk the possibility of being fired.

The passage of the Wages and Hours Act in 1938 led to the 40-hour workweek, supplanting a system where workers toiled for 60 hours or more in a six day workweek, mostly without overtime pay. (Unions had made the 8-hour workday their top priority for decades.)

Hundreds of thousands of working women and ethnic minorities joined the newly-born Committee for Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1939. They found that unions could protect them against discrimination and harassment and they could win better wages and benefits.

Unions, in coalition with consumer groups, compelled Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906), which companies fought against, calling it government meddling. An intense lobbying campaign by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) created a workers' compensation law in 1917, covering compensation for accidents on the job in 30 states. In the past 90 years, the law has benefited millions of workers who were temporarily or permanently disabled.

The AFL-CIO was in the forefront in the battle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1965. In Title VII, the Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion or national origin.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1970 was a milestone in the AFL-CO's continuing campaign to protect the health and safety of its members in the workplace.

Why Big Business spends millions to try to get rid of unions

It is no secret that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and major corporations have spent million of dollars to attack unions in order to weaken their bargaining power. They hire a brigade of union-busting consultants and lobbyists to promote anti-labor laws in Republican-controlled state legislatures. There was even an anti-union ad that ran during this year's Super Bowl on Washington, DC television, advocating passage of the anti-union Employee Rights Act.

It's not hard to figure out why Big Business is so adamant about crippling unions and creating a union-free environment. It boils down to the issues of money and power. If organized labor could be wiped out as the voice of 15 million unionists, employers could control the nation's economic system to their complete advantage. Just imagine what would happen to wages, benefits, middle class standards and protective social legislation if unions ceased to exist.

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Unions have improved the lives of all workers in the past and have the capacity to do even better in the future. But, the labor movement has much to do to educate their own members about labor's history and to convince non-members that unions will work for them.

On the basis of historic evidence, millions of additional workers should come together and join unions for their mutual advantage.


Harry Kelber, author of the series of The Labor Educator booklets, has served the labor movement for more than seven decades as a journalist, organizer, educator and constructive critic. For decades, international unions and hundreds of locals and labor councils have used The Labor Educator publications to educate members and the public and to facilitate organizing and political action. The most popular booklets have been "Why Unions Are in Politics," "Why Unions Are Good For You and Your Family ," "Por Que Los Sindicatos Son Buenos Para Usted Y Su Familia" and "Belong and Be Strong: The Union Story for Students."

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