Labor Law Highlights, 1915-2015

By Boone, Graham | Monthly Labor Review, October 2015 | Go to article overview

Labor Law Highlights, 1915-2015


Boone, Graham, Monthly Labor Review


To help mark the Monthly Labor Review's centennial, the Review invited several producers and users of BLS data to take a look back at the last 100 years. This article highlights important U.S. labor legislation since 1915. Areas of focus are child labor laws, gender equality, racial equality, working conditions, and union membership.

"Democracy cannot work unless it is honored in the factory as well as the polling booth; men cannot truly be free in body and spirit unless their freedom extends into places where they earn their daily bread." This declaration, uttered by Senator Robert Wagner as he introduced the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935, offers a fair summation of the reasoning underlying many of the labor laws enacted during the past century. Equality and the rule of law are considered among the most important principles of democracy--principles that Wagner articulated. This article highlights some of the more important labor laws that have been passed in the hundred years that the Monthly Labor Review has been in publication. All the legislation discussed in this article has, in some way, advanced principles of democracy within the U.S. workforce.

Throughout the early 1900s, working conditions for the average American worker were fairly grim. Child labor was well entrenched. Discrimination of all types was common and acceptable. Lax safety regulations allowed hazardous working conditions to persist. And a lack of federal protection for unions made bargaining for better conditions very difficult for workers. In the years since, a number of changes have made life for the American worker more tolerable. The convergence of a variety of social and legal shifts created the environment necessary for such change.

The evolution of the nation has been met by an evolution of the law:

* As society has placed more value on education and child welfare, child labor laws have ensured that more children take advantage of education and the leisure currently associated with childhood.

* As society has become less concerned with traditional gender roles, laws promoting equality have increased opportunities for women in the workplace.

* As society has become less tolerant of prejudice, legislation prohibiting discrimination in the workplace has improved employment opportunities for minority workers.

* As society has become more concerned about the safety of workers, laws have been enacted that have contributed to a decline in the number of workers lost to grievous workplace injuries.

* And with the advent of federal protections for organized labor, access to union membership has given all workers more opportunity to bargain collectively for improved working conditions.

These changes have combined to produce a labor force that is better educated, more diverse, safer, and working under better conditions today than in 1915.

Child labor

The early-American view of child labor was largely inherited from colonial England. At least as far back as the 17th century, many people believed that idle children were a source of crime and poverty. (1) To combat such idleness, apprenticeships were common for children of working-class families. (2) Child labor, rather than being viewed as exploitive, was often considered an act of charity. (3)

Children remained an active part of the American workforce well into the 20th century. The 1900 U.S. Census revealed that the 1.75 million children ages 10-15 who were employed composed about 6 percent of the nation's labor force. (4) With the rise of the Industrial Revolution, more children were being exposed to the workplace hazards of factory jobs. In 1904, the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) was established to examine the impact of child labor. (5) The NCLC initially promoted state reforms, but because of vast differences in the implementation and enforcement of such reforms state to state, the committee began in 1912 to push for national legislation. …

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