The Role of Labor in American History

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This brief history of more than 100 years of the modern trade union movement in the United States can only touch the high spots of activity and identify the principal trends of a "century of achievement." In such a condensation of history, episodes of importance and of great human drama must necessarily be discussed far too briefly, or in some cases relegated to a mere mention.

What is clearly evident, however, is that the working people of America have had to unite in struggle to achieve the gains that they have accumulated during this century. Improvements did not come easily. Organizing unions, winning the right to representation, using the collective bargaining process as the core of their activities, struggling against bias and discrimination, the working men and women of America have built a trade union movement of formidable proportions.

Labor in America has correctly been described as a stabilizing force in the national economy and a bulwark of our democratic society. Furthermore, the gains that unions have been able to achieve have brought benefits, direct and indirect, to the public as a whole. It was labor, for example, that spearheaded the drive for public education for every child. The labor movement, indeed, has served as a force for American progress.

American Labor's Second Century

Now, in the 1980s, as the American trade union movement looks toward its second century, it takes pride in its first "century of achievement" as it recognizes a substantial list of goals yet to be achieved.

In this past century, American labor has played a central role in the elevation of the American standard of living. The benefits which unions have negotiated for their members are, in most cases, widespread in the eco...

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...en excluded from the legal protections afforded to most workers in industry and commerce.

Suffering from low pay, abominable temporary housing, lack of access to decent schools for their children, and often deprived of adequate medical care or safety protection measures, the migrant farm workers have been too often the "forgotten people" of the American economy.

In recent years, the Farm Workers union-in the face of great difficulties-has been able to organize some of them, principally in California, and bring them the benefits of collective bargaining.

Public response, in the form of consumer boycotts of grapes and lettuce at various times, has helped their cause. The beginnings of legislation, both federal and state, and attention to their plight in the press and on television, have brought some relief to the farm workers. But much remains to be done.

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