Basic United States Labor Laws, History and Now

Basic United States Labor Laws, History and Now


United States Labor Laws are a body of laws, administrative rulings and standards, which provide legal guidance to the trade unions, employees, employers and organizations. Historically, the Industrial Revolution initiated the growth of commerce and mass employment; hence, it became necessary to develop a body of laws and standards that governed the work place. The ratification of labor laws was also hugely influenced by the labor movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. Labor laws ensure that all the parties involved in a contract or an agreement are treated equitably.


The New Deal Era of the 1930s has largely influenced the present labor laws (Iqbal, 2005). They reformed the labor sector, such that there have been very few major new laws required after it. The Acts that were implemented during this era include; the National industry Recovery Act which aimed at ensuring that industry workers’ wages were worth the amount of work done and the number of hours worked. It also gave employees the right to collective bargaining. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 was also a product of this era; it gave employees the right to form and join labor unions, engage in collective bargaining and to strike.

This Act is important even to date because it ensures that the employees have a right to be heard in matters pertaining to their employment. It states that any worker has the right to form a union apart from managers and security guards. It also gives employees the right to strike and hold demonstrations in protest of organizational malpractices and injustices. In addition to this, it gives workers the right to join a union. The management should not reprimand employees or threaten them for engaging in union activities. They are prohibited from spying or questioning employees on union activity.

Another law that has remained the same in history and even now is the ‘at-will employment’ standard. It states that both the employer and the employee have a right to end the employment contract at any time without stating the reason. This law’s ambiguity may facilitate discrimination in the work place, where someone is fired due to his or her race, color or disability. Therefore, there have been amendments to this law, which provide that an employer or employee can end the employment relationship at any time and for any reason, as long as it is a legal reason.

There was also a Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which states that employees must put in at least two hours of work in a day, and that certain employees working more than 40 hours a week should be given overtime pay. These laws are put in place to ensure that all parties in the employment relationship are accorded their rights and benefit mutually from the relationship. The Fair labor Standards Act was amended in 1950 to state that employees should work a maximum of 40 hours a week (Gold, 1998).

The rights of women in the workplace have also been revised over the years. In 1920, women were given a right to vote through the 19th Constitutional Amendment. To date, this law is viewed as instrumental in the promotion of gender equality in the workplace. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 forbade wage discrimination based on gender, women had a right to earn the same wages as men in the same positions. Women’s rights as an equal sex are therefore recognized more in the workplace now than they were in the earlier years.

The Fair Employment Act of 1941 was the first law to declare discrimination in the work place illegal. Before the implementation of this law, it was usual practice for managers to hire individuals based on their race, gender, age or religion. The law has drastically changed the hiring practices of organizations, such that even today, employers are required to maintain transparency and non-discrimination while hiring and in the course of the organization’s operations. It is still an important labor law. This was followed the 1964 Title VII of  the Civil Rights Act, Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the medical leave Act of 1993.

The employee has a right to claim overtime payment for any work done beyond the 40 hours stipulated by this Act. Some jobs will obviously require one to work more than the stipulated 40 hours, it all depends on the type of work, the remuneration and the conditions under which the employee works. This act also declares it illegal to employ a person under the age of 16. It was therefore designed to put an end to child labor. In addition to this, employees of this age are entitled to a certain minimum wage, therefore making it illegal for the employer to under-pay the young employee. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was created to implement the anti-discrimination laws (Twomey, 2010).

In 1967, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act was passed; it stipulates that employees should not be discriminated due to their age, especially employees who are 40 years old and over. The younger generation is sometimes favored because they are assumed less expensive in respect to wages and are more energetic. This makes people over 40 less marketable and more likely to remain unemployed in case of job loss. It aims to ensure that employees are hired based on their ability as opposed to their age. Thus helps to solve the problem where older people feel that they are discriminated against in the work place due to their age, and sometimes are not hired for positions they are well qualified for.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act stipulate that the working conditions should be not contain safety and health hazards, all employees should work in a safe environment. To this effect, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are charged with implementing the Act, through regular workplace inspections. The minimum wage for people working in particularly hazardous jobs is set higher than that of people working in non-hazardous jobs; this is to provide compensation for the occupational risks involved.

The history of labor malpractices began in the early 17th century when African slaves were shipped to America to work as laborers in the English colonies. The conditions were so deplorable that in 1676, there was a massive rebellion of servants and slaves that is referred to as Bacon’s Rebellion. Slavery was later abolished in 1865, through the 13th Amendment to the constitution by the then President Abraham Lincoln. At that time, striking was prohibited, and one could easily lose their job for engaging in a strike.

Before the Industrial Revolution, it was common practice for children to work alongside their parents in their jobs, therefore child labor was not frowned upon. The Industrial Revolution brought with it the emphasis on formal schooling. Therefore, society began to consider it wrong for children to be working instead of going to school with their peers. Child labor persisted, with many children working in factories, mines, hotels and some even running their own small businesses in order to earn a living for themselves and their families. The organizations that used child labor made significant cuts in costs because of using child labor; therefore, they were not willing to adhere to the laws banning child labor. In the worst cases of child labor, children were used in the military and prostituted for money (Robertson, 2000).

It became increasingly important to create well-defined labor laws as employees were severely oppressed by their employers and the regulations of the organizations they worked for. For instance, many employers required the employee’s whole family to work for them for many hours a week, and minimal pay. Employers especially took advantage of vulnerable and minority groups such as immigrants, children and poor people.

The Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932 aimed to protect the rights of the employees; until then workers were prohibited from striking or protesting. Strikes would be quickly quelled with legal injunction ordered by the courts on behalf of the employer. Failure to obey the court injunction would lead the workers to be arrested for contempt of court. The Act gives employers the right to form unions and prohibits courts from issuing injunctions to suppress strikes or any such activity. The act gives the court the right to issue a Temporary Restraining Order, on condition that it gives parties, the employees and employer, a right to present their case in court and get a fair hearing.

Sexual harassment is now also prohibited by law under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects workers from discrimination based on their gender, age and race. The prohibition of sexual harassment is one of the newer labor laws; prior to these protests of sexual harassment were usually ignored and it was quite common for employers to make sexual overtones, remarks and even demands, without facing any consequences. Employees and employers now have a right to report any cases of sexual harassment in the workplace. Society has also played a major part in the amendment and implementation of new laws; there were numerous protests about workplace sexual harassment before it was made illegal. Thereby, acceptance or rejection of certain behavior and actions in the workplace is reflected in the labor laws (Atleson, 1983).


This paper therefore illustrates that current labor laws largely build on the labor laws that have been formulated and implemented over the last 100 years. For instance, the minimum wage stipulated in the Fair Labor Standards act has over the years been appraised and amended because the cost of living has gone up die to factors such as increased inflation. Therefore, the minimum wage must also be increased in order to meet the current financial demands. As society becomes more aware of their rights and the injustices in the workplace, it calls for the revision of current laws and the formulation of new laws and acts in some cases. Therefore, the creation and enhancement of labor laws is a perpetual process.


Atleson, J. B. (1983). Values and assumptions in American labor law. Amherst, MA : University of Massachusetts Press.

Gold, M. E. (1998). An introduction to labor law. New York, NY: ILR Press.

Iqbal, A. B. (2005). Indo-US economic relations : then and now Hyderabad, India : ICFAI University Press.

Robertson, B. D. (2000). Capital, labor, and state : the battle for American labor markets from the Civil War to the New Deal. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Twomey, D. P. (2010). Labor & employment law : text & cases. Mason, OH: South-Western Cengage Learning.






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