From Truthout, September 7, 2015
The celebration of Labor Day is a good time to remember the role that labor unions have played in raising living standards and improving the quality of life for working people in the United States. While most people recognize that unions have been beneficial for their members – raising pay, improving work conditions and increasing job security – there is little appreciation of role of labor unions in promoting benefits and work rules that protect all workers.
Unions were crucial in the passage of just about all the benefits and rules that we take for granted today, starting with the weekend. The 40-hour workweek became the standard in the 1937 with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act. This bill, which also put in place a federal minimum wage, required a premium of 50 percent of pay for any hours that an employer required in excess of 40 hours a week. Unions had pressed for similar rules for decades, but it took the power of a militant labor movement, coupled with a sympathetic president and Congress to finally make the 40 hour workweek a standard across the country.
This was also the year that the Social Security system was created. Again, the leadership of President Roosevelt was essential, but the Social Security would not have come into existence without the support of the labor movement. There was a similar story with the passage of the Medicare Act three decades later. The leadership of President Johnson was important, but there is no way the bill would have passed Congress without the pressure coming from organized labor.