reflective paper due in the course. This paper is intended for you to pull together course readings and relate lessons from the course to your professional practice and/or personal life. The paper are intended to be very general, allowing you to choose any topic, theme, or idea covered by the authors in the assigned readings for a given week.
Perhaps at no time in our nation’s history have labor unions been more hotly debated by ordinary citizens than today. It’s not hard to see why: in an era of rampant layoffs, firings, and so-called downsizings, unionized workers are portrayed in the mass media as enjoying protections from arbitrary firings as well as boasting higher than average wages and benefits that most American workers envy.
This course is an examination into the oftentimes controversial, complex, and convoluted system that governs how labor and management interrelate. During the next eight weeks, we will explore topics as varied as the process by which labor and management negotiate contracts, to the basic laws that undergird how labor relations transpire, to more macroeconomic concerns such as the economic factors that are affecting organized labor. In addition, we will of course attempt to answer the important question of why at a time of rampant job insecurity are labor unions having a difficult time gaining traction in companies all across the United States and, indeed, around the world.
As you maneuver through the readings for this week and for the remaining weeks of the course, it is important that you examine current events because on a virtual daily basis major national and international newspapers such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times, discuss, analyze, and opine on the extent to which the private sector, the public sector, the courts, Congress, and international organizations such as the United Nations can and do impact and amplify issues concerning organized labor.
In addition, please discuss your views of organized labor in the classroom so long as it is supported by the readings and any information you glean from either personal/professional experience or from newspapers. I strongly believe in academic freedom, and I want you to feel free to express your views on this highly-charged subject so long as it is done in a respectful way and informed by the facts. Do not merely stand on the proverbial soapbox and shout unsupported assumptions. You already know that, but it is worth repeating.
Most importantly, engage with each other. Whether we are members of a union or not and I am not a union member we all have strong views regarding the subject in all likelihood. My father was a proud union member for over four decades, and indeed unions helped pay for my college education. That does not mean that I, as well as many other people, do not have mixed views about organized labor today. Like any other institution in our society, organized labor has strengths and weaknesses, and part of the challenge to you as a student in this course is to identify what those challenges and strengths are and ways that society can or even should ameliorate the challenges affecting organized labor.
This week we spend some time examining the history of American labor relationships. The history of American labor in the 19th and 20th century (and a bit from the 21st century) reveals organized labor’s remarkable growth then a remarkable downside in terms of power, influence, and scope of organized labor.
For much of 19th century, organized labor was not only a vital element of the American economic landscape but indeed was virtually a life-saving one. Best exemplified by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in 1906, American workers during the Industrial Revolution confronted a workplace fraught with hazards, many of which were life-threatening. Managers wielded almost total power over employees, and child labor was widely employed to the detriment of childhood education. The end of the 19th century saw a flurry of union and legislative activity involving protecting workers partly in response to real and perceived abuses in the workplace. That same reaction mirrored the tremendous economic engine developing in the United States.
The hallmark of American industrial productivity was the first half of the 20th century, and indeed for the first half-century unions not only were a tour de force in the American workplace but were also highly radicalized and at times engaged in violent behavior to promote worker benefits, wages, and safety. The famous Pullman Strike in 1894 presaged crippling strikes in 1946 that were violently put down by federal authorities, and union clashes with local, state, and federal law enforcement were common. Union activism although interrupted briefly by World War I and World War II continued after the wars and led to widespread strikes, work stoppages, and tenuous relationship between management and labor.
It is also important this week that we examine the crucial impact of World War II upon organized labor. World War II not only created the massive economic miracle that remains the United States economy, but also led to huge demographic changes across the American landscape. A migration from the South to the North, and movements from country to urban areas, led to aggregations of workers in the nation’s major urban centers. These individuals were able to achieve jobs and opportunities unlike anything seen in previous generations. That aggregation of workers in the nation’s cities made it much easier for organized labor to create union workplaces and also helped to create political influence that continues, although in undiminished form, to this day.
The modern era has been highlighted far less with union power and politics. Although unions continue to remain a potent political force in presidential campaigns, particularly for the Democratic Party, and although some cities such as Chicago continue to be highly impacted by organized labor, in many parts of the country organized labor is on the defensive. Manufacturing plants, particularly in the South, are typically not organized today by choice. States in the Mountain West and in the Deep South have been openly hostile to organized labor, and the nations largest private-sector employer, Wal-Mart, is well-known for its anti-unionization platform.
Where organized labor heads in the 21st century remains to be seen, but it is unlikely it will achieve anything like the dominance it once had in the late 19th and early 20th century.
During this week, we explore a number of state and federal pieces of legislation that have had a critical and lasting impact upon organized labor. But before we navigate into the legalistic wording and contextual meaning of these important laws and regulations, it is crucial to pose a number of fundamental and complex questions:
What, exactly, is labor law?
Why does it matter?
And whose job should it be to enforce labor laws?
These are all vital questions that the materials for this week help to answer, but also require you to think deeply about the implications of labor law in the public workplace. The history of labor law in the United States has been, in the modern era, undergirded by a fundamental belief that all Americans should have an equal right to be considered for employment, and once employed should have an equal opportunity to perform their tasks. In short, it is a social contract between employer and employee that allows the American workplace to function effectively.
Although the nature of organized labor and employment laws have been open to vigorous debate in recent years, one thing is abundantly clear: without the legal protections for the American worker in the workplace, the United States would not likely enjoy the superior productivity and efficiency gains witnessed in the post-World War II era, and would hardly be a magnet for top-quality talent not only from cities and towns across the United States, but also from villages and cities around the world.
As you maneuver through the readings for this week, keep in mind that the source of most labor laws originates from the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which allows the Congress to regulate interstate commerce. Congress has not always wielded this power effectively in favor of organized labor. An fact, it is easy to see how the political winds have shifted in Washington based upon the durability of labor laws that have emanated from the federal government. Since the passage of the Wagner Act, much has changed politically in the United States. Because of that, in reviewing the legal framework of labor law, it is vital to realize the political winds that predominate today. Whereas the United States once boasted an activist Congress that was decidedly pro-union, today there are many managers and workers who believe that labor laws have created an environment that impedes the ability of private sector employers to successfully compete against domestic and international companies, and slows down the United States at precisely a time when international competitors are competing more fiercely than ever before.
Whether these allegations are with or without merit ultimately depends upon your political perspectives, but it has had a lasting legal effect upon the consideration of future labor laws. Hopefully the readings this week will help you to forge an opinion based upon your review of the historical underpinnings of labor law in the United States.