How Labor Laws Have Changed the American Workplace


For most of America’s early history, workers’ rights were an insignificant part of the job. Employees worked ten hours a day, six days a week, in environments filled with dangerous materials and procedures. Today, we take many benefits for granted–overtime pay, workers compensation, pension plans, child labor restrictions. These are a few practices that have dramatically improved the quality and satisfaction of the working experience.  

As the founder of Koppekin Consulting Inc., I’ve spent 45+ years negotiating dozens of labor disputes and employee matters. While I provide my services to companies of unionized workforces, or forces looking to unionize, I’ve spent my career developing trust with unions. These relationships allow me to help craft better deals for all parties involved.  

Labor laws have been critical to achieving the health and wellness that all employees deserve.  Here are a few of the most notable changes that union leadership has brought to the American workplace during the last 100 years.

Fair Earnings

Prior to the last half of the century, employees faced an inconsistency in pay that made it difficult to support themselves or their families. Today, union works continue to fight for higher pay and equality in earnings between low-skilled and high-skilled workers. Fair wages are one of the foundational efforts from the labor union and has provided an equitable structure for all companies to follow. The ability to earn a fair wage is a hallmark of America’s success. It continues to distinguish the country as a progressive leader in social and economic areas. Equal wages guarantees that employees can depend on a consistent salary.

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Child Labor

Before the turn of the century, children made up 20% of the American workplace. Beginning at age 5, children participated in meaningful occupations, often working 10-12 hours a day, six days a week. These occupations exposed children to harmful chemicals and dangerous procedures. Because children worked to support their family, there was little time left for education, making the cycle difficult to break. In 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set restrictions on the amount and type of work children could do.

Developing labor laws for children was a significant development in the educational and social sectors of the United States. Today, it’s illegal to employ children who are under the age of 14.  Children who are more educated have a much higher ability to increase their lifetime wage earnings. In addition, the law protects minors from work-related illnesses and deaths that were commonplace prior to the restrictions.

Child working on farm

The 8-Hour Day

In 1817, Welsh socialist, Robert Owens was a key figure in the fight for work-life balance. His slogan: “Eight hours’ labour, eight hours’ recreation, eight hours’ rest” soon became an international movement. In the past, it was common for workers to spend 10-16 hours a day, six days a week at their job. Owens, like many social reformers, saw the physical and emotional effects brought on by the demanding schedule. At the time, many of the workers who suffered the most were children.

Over the course of the century, Owen’s slogan was adopted by many countries in an attempt to reduce the number of hours an employee could work. In 19th-century America, individual unions worked tirelessly to reduce the daily hours an employee could work, however, it wouldn’t be until World War II, when adults, struggling to find work, pushed children out of the workplace in order to take over their positions. In 1938, The Fair Labor Standards Act instituted the “8-hour day” or “40-hour workweek”.  Additionally, the statute issued restrictions on wages, child labor laws, and overtime pay.

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The history of labor standards provides an important reminder of the work that unions have accomplished in the past 100 years. By prioritizing work-life balance, decreasing child labor, and providing equal pay, unions have guaranteed that employees experience a healthier, safer, and more enjoyable work atmosphere.