Certainly, today's worker has come a long way. And we can be thankful that we have traveled the distance. As Americans, we know we have certain rights in the work world. That we have the right to a safe environment and compensation when we are injured. That we are entitled to fair and equal hiring and management practices. And that we are entitled to a minimum wage.
Obtaining these rights did not happen overnight. Some of the earliest gains can be traced to the labor union movement in the early 1800s.
Most historians believe workers banded together to form unions to fight wage cuts and the increasing power of industries. By the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution was underway. New machines were being invented to make the work of man easier and more efficient. But the working day was still long—12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week. Wages were low, particularly for women who earned a small fraction of men’s low wages. They were essentially at the mercy of their employers.
Union laborers were able to gain higher wages and better conditions through strikes and bargaining. The American worker in turn gained greater status.
One of the first nationwide unions, the Knights of Labor, was a group of farmers, merchants, and garment workers who joined together in 1869 to lobby for equal pay for equal work, the abolition of child labor and an 8-hour workday. (At the time, most laborers worked 10 hours a day.) They did not accomplish all of their goals but did win an 1885 strike against railroads owned by American millionaire Jay Gould.
In 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill making Labor Day a national holiday commemorating America’s working people. National law began to reflect the idea that industrial prosperity must be balanced with workers’ rights.
The first federal child labor law was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1916. The standards included a 16-year minimum age for work in mines and quarries, a 14-year minimum age for other type of work, and an eight-hour work day. While the problem is not as prevalent today as that era, child labor abuses still occur in the United States. The General Accounting Office reported that child-labor violations increased by 286 percent between 1985 and 1990. However, most of the abuses happen worldwide.
The workers' life improved greatly by the turn of the century. The federal government began the first worker's compensation program in 1908. The program was aimed at federal employees but eventually expanded to include a system for all workers who have been injured on the job.
We have more opportunities and benefits than ever as workers. That may be hard to believe when you hear the sometimes bleak news about the economy. But, we cannot overlook the steady, unflagging progress that laborers have made in acquiring more rights for themselves.
This Labor Day week, let’s thank them in our own way for paving the way for our work world and for the contributions that workers continue to make to this great nation.
Have a great week ahead.
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