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How has the American government treated unions?

Unions have been a very successful force in winning things for their members. Wages have gone up, hours have gone down and conditions have improved. This was not and easy road however. As we know management strongly opposed unions. What many people do not know, however, is that the government strongly opposed unions for many years as well.

The government positions on unions can basically be broken into three time periods:

1. Anti Union - 1830's - 1932 - During this time the government sided with factory workers as it embraced the Laissez Faire/Rugged Individualist mentality.

  • Courts granted injunctions (court order stopping a certain activity) based upon the Sherman Antitrust Act to stop union activity. The Sherman Act declared any "conspiracy in restraint of trade" to be illegal and the courts felt that unions were such a conspiracy.
  • President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to break up the great Railroad strike. 26 strikers were killed.
  • President Teddy Roosevelt sent in federal troops to break up the Great Anthracite (coal) strike.
  • In 1914 the Clayton Anti Trust Act made unions legal but courts continued to grant injunctions and favor management.

2. Pro Union - 1932 - 1945 - During the time the government passed laws that supported union activity. The Depression changed the way people looked at government help and the way we viewed governments responsibility as a whole. The notion of rugged individualism died as did the laissez faire economic philosophy.

  • The National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) gave unions allot of bargaining power. It also created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB had the power to mediate in negotiations and assist unions in gaining fair negotiations.
  • The Wages and Hours Act was passed creating a 40 hour work day and a minimum wage.
  • The Social Security Act was passed providing for government run pensions for all workers.

3. Seeking a Balance -1945 - Present - Since the end of WWII the government has tried to find a fair balance between unions and management. The goal has been to keep a level playing field. Often the government (even the President himself) has acted as a mediator.

  • In 1947 Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act limiting the actions of Unions and balancing the trend begun by the Wagner Act.

4. Today - Many feel the government has begun to swing the pendulum in favor of management again, what will the future hold...no one knows.


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