A Short History of Labor Organizing

Once upon a time, anyone who provided services or labor for another person was paid at a wage or price agreed upon between the parties.  The assumption was that each person had equal power in the relationship: the employer could fire the employee and the employee could quit; the housewife could purchase services from another purveyor and vice versa.

The reality of those relationships, of course, was significantly different and much more complex.  Ask any medieval serf…

Anyway, as the Industrial Revolution took hold, workers began to band together (I did mention this would be a very short summary, right?) into “unions” and some died in the effort to create better working conditions.  Unions were originally organized in industry (carpentry, mining, steel, trucking (via horses at the time) and more).  Over time, unions were able to secure many benefits for all workers, not just members: the 40-hour work week, overtime pay and safety laws are just a few examples.

Labor Day, which celebrates the American worker, was declared a national holiday in 1894.

By the mid-20th century, public employees were organizing into unions, too.  Their interests were similar to, but not quite the same as, those of workers in private industry.  In particular, professional workers like teachers wanted to be able to affect working conditions that were different from heavy industry, as well as negotiate better salaries and benefits.  Because they were public employees, though, their legal status was different.

State legislatures around the country passed bills permitting public employees to negotiate about work-related topics with their public employers. However – and here’s the rub – each statute is somewhat different.  Maine’s laws do not read exactly the same as New Jersey’s.

Across the country, teachers used the already-existing National Education Association structure as the underpinnings of their unions.  What had previously been administrator-driven organizations became one for front-line educators themselves.  Here, the Maine Education Association developed into the parent organization for local Associations around the state.

Next time: collective bargaining, what it is.

For better and much more complete histories of labor organizing, try these links:

Illinois Labor History Society: http://www.kentlaw.edu/ilhs/curricul.htm

American Federation of Labor/Congress of Industrial Organizations: http://www.aflcio.org/aboutus/history/history/timeline.cfm

International Brotherhood of Teamsters: http://www.teamster.org/history/teamster-history/overview

Or just try a search for “labor history” or “American labor history”.



Filed under Collective Bargaining

7 responses to “A Short History of Labor Organizing

  1. Labor Organizing has done some great work here in our USA, but things have also changed dramatically over the past 50 years. In particular, it’s a real shame that certain large labor union bosses have become more focused on their own personal gains than that of their membership. FACT: The National Education Association (NEA) Shares Teacher Dues with Many Organizations – “An Education Intelligence Agency analysis of NEA’s financial disclosure report for the 2007-08 fiscal year reveals the national union contributed $11.7 million of teacher dues to a wide variety of advocacy groups, charities, and advisors.”
    Hmmmm, what a surprise… ACORN is at the top of this list. Why should members’ dues go to support organizations/campaigns/candidates they personally oppose? This happens all-the-time with groups like the MEA and NEA.

    • I appreciate your enthusiasm for your topic, Mark, but this is my blog. I encourage dialogue and debate, but not repeated usurpation by an organization for its own purposes. Maine Taxpayers United has a forum where your political views can be espoused. I’ve even put it in my blogroll!

  2. BTW, here’s a recent & local example which deserves discussion: the massive 2009 one-sided donations from MEA and NEA to a PAC called Citizens Unified for Maine’s Future –> http://www.mainecampaignfinance.com/Public/entity_summary.asp?TYPE=PAC&ID=4499&YEAR=2009

  3. Pingback: Collective Bargaining 101 (part I): Forming the Unit | edumaine

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