Union-backed collective action is responsible for many of the labor protections and laws that currently define our American workforce. In fact, many aspects of our culture revolve around things that unions helped establish: a 40-hour workweek, weekends off, overtime pay, and more.


“Over the years, these rules have become mainstays of the American workplace experience, constituting expressions of cherished public values,” writes the Economic Policy Institute.


While many pundits may want to wash over the productive history of unions and the landmark protections they’ve afforded us today, the fact remains that unions have made massive contributions to our rights as workers.


With this in mind, here are some of the most important pieces of legislation that union lobbying and political action have brought to bear.


1935 – National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) 

The granddaddy of all worker protections, the NLRA established workers’ rights to unionize, engage in collective bargaining, and to be spared from oppressive management and private labor practices that attempt to undermine union power and support.


Under the NLRA, employers were no longer able to legally discriminate against union members or group-related worker activities. The act also established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which continues to serve as the major labor law enforcement agency in the United States. 


Individuals concerned about workplace abuses can report employers to the NLRB for investigation. Originally, unions wishing to engage in collective bargaining with major employers could request NLRB representatives to serve as mediators during negotiations. That function has since been transferred to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS).


1935 – Unemployment Insurance (Passed with the Social Security Act of 1935)

Unemployment insurance (UI) acts as a safety net to partially protect workers from income losses caused by losing a job through no fault of their own. Individual states modeled their own UI programs off of the national standard, and now UI is provided to individuals through a combination of federal and state funding.


1938 – Fair Labor Standards Act

This landmark legislation established a federal minimum wage and proscribed a standardized 40-hour workweek schedule for most workers. Workers who exceed this time are entitled to “time-and-a-half” pay based on their hourly wage for every hour of labor that exceeds 40 in a given period.


1906-1949 – Workers’ Compensation Laws

Workers’ compensation laws are passed on a state-by-state basis, but none would have been enacted without collective union backing in nearly all contexts. 


New York was the first state to attempt to pass a statewide workers’ compensation system in 1898. Many states followed suit, and by 1906 the first federal workers’ compensation system was established.


Without workers’ compensation protections, workers could be left responsible for paying for the costs of an injury their job caused, directly or indirectly. Further, employees do not have to even prove employer fault to be eligible for compensation, just that the injury happened “within the scope of employment.”


1970 – Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)

The birth of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1970 gave rise to new protections for workers whose health and safety were threatened by workplace practices. 


Importantly, OSHA not only investigates incidents and reports, but it also sets national standards for workplace safety. Many standard workplace safety procedures like visible warnings and lockout/tagout systems are either directly enforced by OSHA or based upon their federal workplace safety guidelines.


1993 – Family Medical Leave Act

The Family Medical Leave Act sought to end workplace discriminations that made it nearly impossible for new parents, especially women, to rejoin the workforce after they had given birth or adopted a child.


The act established 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period for family or medical reasons. When the employee returns, they must be guaranteed the same position or an equivalent one in terms of pay and responsibilities.


Thank Unions for the Workplace Rights We Enjoy Today

Union lobbying helps get federal worker protection bills passed. Union representation ensures that workers stay informed of their rights and know what to do when they feel those rights have been violated. 


For example, consider that OSHA hires just 2,100 inspectors to oversee more than eight million worksites around the country. Without unions and union-adjacent agencies like state NLRBs, workplace violations would rarely be investigated and rarely noticed through routine inspections.


Fight for Your Workplace Rights After You’ve Been Injured

Sometimes, even with union representation and workers’ comp protections, you may still find yourself hurt and not sure where to turn to for compensation. Your medical bills and other expenses are piling up, and you may be lacking in income replacement.


If this is the case, then reach out to a New York personal injury lawyer at The Weinstein Group, PLLC. We have experience working with injured workers, including many that have union representation, so we know your rights and are prepared to fight for them to the fullest extent of the law.


Call 212.741.3800 or contact us online to schedule a free, no-obligation case review with a workplace injury attorney in New York.