Before There Were Unions, Workers Lived Desperate, Dangerous, Impoverished Lives


June 2014 - Every now and then, to fully appreciate where we are, what we have accomplished, and where we are headed, it is useful to take a look back at where we have been.

For much of the industrial revolution in England, between the early 1700s  and 1920, there existed a system called "the Workhouse." Every town and every city had these facilities. In concept, it was a charitable, benevolent institution. In reality, it was the industrial revolution's system for disposing of the old, the sick, and the orphaned, who had no work life, capacity, or use. Old people were brought there when they could no longer work. Sick workers and young, orphaned children were brought there to be starved and disposed of. We did not want the streets clogged with the sick and dying, so this was the system where people could be disposed of, out of sight. This was the industrialists' version of Social Security, Medicare, and pensions.

During the same period, for workers, the United States was not much better. For the working men and women who comprise our Building Trades unions and other unions, we've come a very long way indeed, and by getting organized and acting with tough, tenacious unity, have improved our quality of life by an astonishing degree.

By looking back at the way things were in the recent past, in the first half of the last century, before unions, we can see the incredible dangers we still face should we ever lose our focus and our unity. History proves that some wealthy business owners, left to their own devices, will happily sacrifice the quality of life, economic well-being, the health and safety, and the very lives of working people if it pads their profit margins.

In each case, it was workers organizing and battling together that turned the tide.

We can start with wages. Early in the industrial era, workers were lucky if they could make enough to eat a meal occasionally. There were no minimum wage laws. In fact, many operators chose to pay workers not in cash but in company scrip, redeemable only at the company store. You worked for food, or you starved. That was the choice.

You also worked virtually every waking moment. Work days were not eight hours, but 14, 16, even 18 hours. Every day (seven days a week), without meal or rest breaks and without overtime pay.

Working conditions were appalling. Workers were commonly killed, injured and sickened by their workplace. Government mandated health and safety standards didn't exist. Workplaces were filthy and polluted. Dangerous chemicals, hazardous machinery, and unsafe conditions were the norm. Workers were considered old if they reached 40. In 1911, 146 garment workers, mostly young women and girls, were killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire after some equipment ignited, because their employers had locked them in a room with no exit or fire escape.

Children were expected to work as well as part of the deal for a job; in the mines, in the fields, in the steel mills, and everywhere else their labor could reap extra profits for the owners.

Workers couldn't afford and didn't have access to health care. If you got sick or injured you were on your own. If you were too sick to work, you simply lost your job and your pay, then you starved. Sick pay as we know it today didn't exist.

In fact, there was no safety net of any kind. You didn't have health care. you couldn't earn a pension. There were no such things as social security, unemployment insurance, or workers' compensation.

It wasn't until workers organized and formed unions, and fought tenaciously together to elect public officials that listened to our voices, that things began to improve. It is no coincidence that the period of the greatest improvement of quality of life for the greatest number of people was a time of union ascendency, in the mid-20th century, starting with the New Deal Era and continuing through the post-war economic expansion.

That era saw the first enactment of child labor laws, the minimum wage, the Social Security Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act, to ensure living wages and hours for workers. Unions helped pass the federal Davis-Bacon Act and state laws to assure area prevailing wages for construction workers on public works projects. Union support also was crucial to passing the Occupational Safety and Health Act, to ensure that workplaces operated in ways that didn't threaten the lives and health of the people working there. Workers' compensation and unemployment insurance laws followed.

All of that progress came because of working people standing together through their unions. But there are still some in power who would return us to the days of impoverished, helpless workers and all-powerful wealthy business tycoons.  They seek the destruction of labor unions, because we are the only voice of the workers, and the things we fight for help everyone. Some states have brought that destruction about, with severe consequences for working families in those states.

We have made amazing progress in California. But we will have to continue the fight if we expect to maintain what we've earned and move further ahead.  If we ever lose our toughness, our resolve, and our unity, all we have fought for and achieved would soon vanish. In other words, the job is never done and the journey never ends. It is up to us to ensure that our grandchildren are not delivered to the workhouses of the future.

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