Labor unions have a long history in America; however, recently, union membership has fallen to under 9% of the private sector, a low that has not been seen since 1932. Union leaders allege that corporate employers are responsible for their diminishing membership, because they illegally discriminate against employees who support the union.
The History of Unions
The first labor unions began in the late 18th century, but became significant following the Civil War, when the National Labor Union was established in 1866. Although the NLU dissolved in 1872, the concept of labor unions was beginning to spread rapidly. Following the NLU were the Knights of Labor, who sought to unionize all laborers and producers and led one of the first successful railroad strikes. Unfortunately, in 1886 government officials intervened and disbanded the group for alleged violence.
The American Federation of Labor quickly sprang up alongside the Knights of Labor. The AFL sought to establish basic rights for workers, such as an eight hour work day, and the prohibition of child labor. The AFL only included skilled workers, and refused to represent African American and women’s rights. The AFL thrived while the Knights of Labor dissolved.
The AFL allowed its members to represent their own trades and run their own strikes. In the 1900s, strikes and boycotts were fairly common, as union workers fought to earn their rights. Coal mine, railroad, and factory workers were especially prominent in the unions.
Many of the rights we have today are the direct result of the union struggles in the 19th and 20th centuries. Unfortunately, however, there are still workplace injustices that need to be addressed today.
Labor Unions Today
Most unions that exist today belong to an umbrella organization, either the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) or the Change to Win Federation. Although union membership is low, there is no shortage of injustice.
Many union leaders believe that corporate discrimination and exploitation is responsible for low membership numbers. Although it is illegal to discriminate against an employee because they are affiliated with a labor union, it still occurs. Many corporations threaten their employees with termination, “black listing,” or relocation.
Blacklisting means union workers will be put on a list when terminated and will likely experience difficulties finding new work.
Relocation occurs when a substantial number of workers organize to rally for better working conditions, but instead of recognizing their workers’ needs, businesses just pack up their stuff and leave. They will reopen a plant in another struggling city and employ hundreds of new workers for extremely low wages. In this way, businesses avoid addressing workers’ rights while exploiting economically impoverished cities.