Labor Legislation in The United States (History and Foreign Labor Legislation)


The term labor legislation covers a broad group of laws embodying governmental policies on the economic and social status of workers.

In most industrial countries labor legislation began during the early stages of the factory system as an attempt to regulate child labor. These first laws were little more than an expression of policy against the exploitation of very young children. The comprehensive body of laws now in effect includes not only corrective and protective measures, but also legislation establishing certain basic rights of labor.

The first step was the enactment of laws to protect women and children from excessive hours and to safeguard all workers against hazardous working conditions. These laws achieved results only as they were gradually reinforced by factory inspection with poliçe powers.

The next step was the recognition of labor’s right to promote its own safety and welfare tlırough mutual association. The resulting laws, in many nonCommunist countries, include measures guaranteeing labor’s right to organize, to strike, and to bargain collectively, and in some cases extend the help of the government in promoting industrial peace and fair treatment through mediation, conciliation, and arbitration. Other types of legislation to protect workers may include insurance against occupational injuries and diseases, unemployment insurance, minimum wages and overtime after a certain basic number of working hours, and regulation of private employment agencies.

Labor Legislation




Labor legislation existed in colonial times and in the early days of the republic. In direct contrast to its purpose today, it was then directed to restrict and control workers. For example, colonial statutes prohibited the payment of wages beyond a specified maximum instead of providing a floor for wages. And the early laws branded as conspiracy the organization of workers for promoting and protecting their own interests. But the maximum wage laws could not operate effectively in a new country, where labor was desperately needed, and the doctrine of conspiracy proved foreign to the North American concept of the dignity of labor. So labor legislation became legislation for labor, not against it. As in other countries, early efforts in behalf of labor sought first to control working hours and age limits of children employed in textile milis.


Under the United States system of government, powers not specifically granted to the federal government by the Constitution are reserved to the states. Hence the individual states enacted practically all of the early labor legislation, with the result that there was a great variation in laws from state to state.

Federal labor legislation is based on the power of Congress to control interstate commerce specifically granted by the Constitution. Most of the early federal labor laws dealt with railroads and their employees without extending into other industries. Gradually, a broadening concept of interstate commerce led to the enactment of more farreaching federal legislation.

The years since 1932 witnessed a great advance in the field of labor and social legislation. In the brief period of its operation, the National industrial Recovery Act of 1933 brought, for the first time on a national scale, a shorter work week, minimum wages, and a substantial improvement in minimum age standards and in occupational health and safety measures. This law, and the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act), which followed in 1935, established government recognition of labor’s right to organize and bargain collectively with employers. Labor legislation has been influenced by the national conferences on labor legislation called by the secretary of the United States Department of Labor annually from 1933 through 1955. These conferences composed of representatives of state labor departments, organized labor, and other organizations named by the governors of the various states, have recommended improved labor standards in practically all fields of labor law.

The latest trend in American labor legislation is to provide nonoccupational sickness insurance and protection against discrimination in employment on the basis of race, religion, or ancestry.

Child Labor

Every state now has a childlabor law, but these laws are not equally effective. In general, they set a minimum age of 14 or 16 for employment, with a growing trend toward the establishment of a 16year minimum age in factories and in all occupations during school hours. They generally fix a higher minimum age (usually 18) for employment in hazardous occupations; require employers to obtain employment or age certificates for each young worker whom they hire under 16 or under 18; limit maximum hours of work, usually to an 8hour day and a 40hour or 48hour week; and prohibit night work for 11 or 12 hours a night for children under 16 and for 8 night hours for those who are 16 and 17.

Closely connected with childlabor laws are schoolattendance laws. The laws of the states, the territories, and the District of Columbia require children generally to go to school at least to the age of 16; attendance to 17 or 18 years of age is required by 8 of these laws. However, most of these laws have exemptions permitting children under 16 to leave school for certain reasons, such as upon completion of a specified grade or because of poverty or distance of residence from school. Most states require attendance for the full term, usually 9 or 10 months.

The federal government controls employment of children mainly through the childlabor provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938), which sets minimum ages for the employment of minors in interstate or foreign commerce or in the production of goods for shipment in such commerce. Two other federal acts also contain child-labor provisions, the Walsh-Healey Public Contracts Act (1936), which sets minimum ages for work under government contracts, and the Sugar Act of 1948, under which certain standards are established for the work of children in cultivating and harvesting sugar beets or sugarcane.


Wages and Hours

Although the National industrial Recovery Act was declared unconstitutional in 1935, strong sentiment remained for federal regulation of wages and hours. In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (or Federal Wage and Hour Law), applying to workers engaged in interstate or foreign commerce or in the production of goods for such commerce. This act, as amended effective March 1, 1956, provides for a minimum wage of $1.00 an hour and time and one half for hours worked in excess of 40 a week.

The Federal Public Contracts Act (1936), generally known as the WalshHealey Act, requires that employers holding government contracts in excess of $10,000 must pay the prevailing minimum wage as determined by the secretary of labor, must pay time and one half after 8 hours a day or 40 hours a week, and may not employ boys under 16 and girls under 18. Another federal act, the DavisBacon Act (1931), requires payment of prevailing wage rates to laborers and mechanics on contracts in excess of $2,000 for construction, alteration, or repair of public buildings or public works.

Both federal and state laws regulate wages and hours of personş employed on public works.

Practically all the states have enacted legislation limiting the hours of labor and regulating the working conditions of women and children. (“Working conditions” includes sanitary and rest facilities, meal and rest periods, and standards of employment in occupations especially hazardous for women and children.) all but five states have some regulation of the daily hours of work of women and almost all of these also have weekly limitations. Maximum hours range from an 8hour day in specified industries in many states to a 10hour day allowed by a few states in one or more industries. In most instances, these laws do not permit overtime, except in cases of emergency. Some states place some limitations on night work for women and almost every state places restrictions on night work for minors, at least those under 16.

Under state laws regulation of hours for men has been limited, for the most part, to hazardous industries. Some of the states have laws requiring one day of rest in seven, and these usually apply to men as well as women.

Thirtyone states, the two territories, and the District of Columbia had minimum wage laws in 1958. Twelve of these laws (those of Connecticut, Idaho, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, wyoming, Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico) applied regardless of sex. Most of the laws provide for tripartite boards to issue wage orders by industry; a few also set a statutory minimum wage rate; and a few others set statutory minimum wage rates and have no wage board.

All but two of the states (Delaware and Florida) had some legislation covering the payment of wages. Wage payment laws set certain requirements as to frequency of payment, medium of payment, payment to workers separated from the payroll, statements to workers, and other records. About one third of the laws included a provision authorizing the state labor department to take assignments of wage claims for the collection of wages for the employee. Under these laws, millions of dollars in wages due have been collected for employees. Few of the state laws give complete protection to workers by covering all these important subjects adequately. Some states have wide coverage of workers, but limit the scope of the laws. Agricultural and domestic workers usually are not covered by wage payment laws.

Labor Relations

Unlike other social legislation, which was first enacted by the states, laborrelations legislation had its beginning by action of the federal government. The principle of collective bargaining underlies all recent federal legislation on labor relations. The National industrial Recovery Act of 1933 (held unconstitutional in 1935) recognized the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own selection. Enacted in 1935, the National Labor Relations Act continued and reinforced this policy by provisions designed to guarantee these rights in fact as well as in theory. To this end it prohibited certain employer practices which hinder the organization of labor, established election machinery to settle controversies concerning the representation of employees, and created the National Labor Relations Board, of three members, to execute these provisions.

In 1947 this act was amended and reenacted as the Labor Management Relations Act, commonly called the TaftHartley Act. As reenacted, it continues to guarantee the right of collective bargaining, it retains the list of unfair labor practices of employers, and it adds unfair labor practices of employees. It also makes certain changes in the administrative provisions by enlarging the board from three to five members and by giving final authority to the general counsel, instead of the board, for investigation and prosecution of unfair labor charges.

For many years the issuance of injunctions by various federal courts impeded labor’s efforts to organize and bargain collectively and limited its right to strike. In 1932, Congress passed the NorrisLa Guardia Act, which defines and limits the powers of the federal court to issue injunctions in labor disputes. Under this act a federal court may issue a temporary or permanent injunction in cases involving or emerging from a labor dispute only after hearing the testimony of witnesses in open court with opportunity for crossexamination. Such hearings are held only after personal notice to all known persons involved. The court must also find, among other facts, that irreparable property damage will follow if the injunction is not issued and that greater injury will result to the complainant from denying the injunction than to the defendant from granting it.

As modified by the TaftHartley Act, temporary or permanent injunctions may be issued by federal courts under certain circumstances without regard to these conditions.


Under the TaftHartley Act, a Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service was established (1947), independent of the Department of Labor, to assist labor and management in reaching peaceful settlcmcnts of labor disputes. Generally, the service attempts to mediate and conciliate, if the dispute threatens a substantial interruption of interstate commerce. When a dispute will have only a minor effect upon interstate commerce and a state or local agency is available, the federal service usually does not offer its mediatory and conciliatory facilities.

The service may intervene in labor disputes at the request of one or more of the parties to the dispute or on its own motion. The Labor Management Relations Act (1947) requires employers and unions who wish to modify or terminate collective bargaining agreements to serve notice on each other 60 days before the effective date of such changes. It also requires such parties, if the dispute is not settled within 30 days, to file notice with the federal service and any state mediatory or conciliatory agency which has jurisdiction.

It is the policy of the service to promote collective bargaining and to encourage the pafties to settle industrial disputes by themselves. The service exists to assist parties who have reached a deadlock in bargaining relations to settle their differences and to reach their own agreements. It has no coercive or compulsory powers.

The Railway Labor Act, passed in 1926 and later amended, governs the labor relations of railroads and airlines with their employees. The act makes it the mutual duty of carriers and employees to make and maintain agreements, guarantees and provides the exercise of labor’s collective bargaining rights, and prescribes methods for settlement of various types of disputes. The act applies to all railroads, express companies, and sleeping car companies engaged in interstate commerce and their subsidiaries, as well as to airlines engaged in interstate and foreign commerce and transportation of mail.

Several states have passed acts similar to the federal Wagner, TaftHartley, or NorrisLa Guardia acts.

Twelve states and two territories had industrial relations acts in 1957. The first five of these were passed in 1937 and were modeled on the Wagner Act (1935). Amendments to some of these and later acts passed in some other states contained provisions designed to control the practices not only of employers, but also of labor organizations. On the other hand, the original trend was followed by Rlıode Island in 1941 and Connecticut in 1945. Thus state labor relations acts in force in 1957 fell into two classifications. Those of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island were modeled on the original YVagner Act; those of the second group, Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, wisconsin, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, contained unionrestrictive clauses similar to those incorporated in the TaftHartley Act of 1947.

In addition to labor relations acts, other state laws affecting labor relations are found in most of the states. About half of them have “little NorrisLa Guardia” acts. Other acts provide mediation and voluntary arbitration for adjustment of labor disputes. In some states permanent boards are created for this purpose, while in others adjustment is conducted by the officer or agency charged with the general administration of labor laws.

Other state laws include several unionrestrictive provisions, such as regulation or prohibition of picketing, boycotting, and blacklisting; regulation of industrial relations in public Utilities; supervision of certain union aiîairs.

Socalled “righttowork” acts prohibiting union security agreements were in effect, in 1958, in 19 states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana (affecting agricultural laborers only), Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Virginia. The Louisiana act, applying to agricultural laborers and workers engaged in the processing of certain agricultural products, was passed in 1956, when a general riglıttowork act, enacted in the state two years earlier, was repealed. The Indiana act was passed in 1957; the Utah law in 1955; those of Mississippi and South Carolina in 1954; and most of the others in 1947. The laws state that no one shall be denied the right to work because of membership or nonmembership in a labor union. That is, union membership or nonmembership cannot be a condition of obtaining or continuing in employment.

Social Security

To assure workers an income during their old age, as well as to provide benefits for the unemployed and to care for workers’ widows and orphans, Congress in 1935 enacted the Federal Social Security Act. Amendments since that time have considerably liberallzed the law and have increased the benefits. The act provides not only an allfederal system of oldage and survivors’ insurance, but also a federalstate plan of public assistance with monthly cash payments to certain needy persons: older persons, dependent children, the blind, and (since 1956) persons who are permanently and totally disabled.

Under the impetus of the Social Security Act, every state has adopted an unemployment insurance law. These laws follow a general pattern, although many provisions differ considerably from state to state. In every state, regular unemployment benefits are paid to unemployed workers who quallfy under the state law.


The Bureau of Employment Security of the United States Department of Labor conducts the federal government’s responsibilities in connection with the unemployment insurance program and, in addition, the public employment service program. The United States Employment Service provides national leadership and coordination to a system of public employment offices operated by state and territorial agencies affiliated with the bureau. These 1,800 fulltime local offices and 2,700 parttime offices are the medium through which the public employment service system seeks to effect the best possible organization of the labor market; its principal function in accomplishing this is helping the worker to find suitable employment and the eraployer to obtain quaiified workers.

Service to Workers and Employers.—In addition to providing the basic placement facilities for the matching of workers and jobs, the public employment service provides counseling services to persons having employment problems and applies speciallzed techniques in finding work for young people, veterans, older workers, and the physically handicapped. The United States Employment Service also participates with the state employment services in the special activities involved in placing agricultural workers and in operating a system for clearing workers across state lines from areas of labor supply to areas of labor demand.

The Bureau of Veterans’ Reemployment Rights of the United States Department of Labor assists former members of the armed forces, national guardsmen and reservists who perform training, persons rejected for military service, and others, in the exercise of their statutory reemployment rights in private employment, as provided by federal law.

information to exservicemen, employer, labor, and veteran organizations, and others interested in the reemployment provisions of the various acts is provided by local offices of the state employment services. Local offices of the employment service refer exservicemen to the Volunteer Reemployment Committees located in their communities. Assistance to exservicemen and employers on reemployment problems is provided by the Volunteer Reemployment Rights Committees, which serve under the supervision of the bureau’s field representatives in resolving controversies with employers over reemployment righta by negotiation and voluntary settlement.

A separate federal law provides retirement annuities for aged and disabled railroad employees. Congress has also provided for a comprehensive system of unemployment insurance for employees of carriers engaged in interstate commerce, designed to meet the special needs of the railroad industry.

The social security system in the United States, unlike many European systems, makes no provision for workers unable to work because of sickness. Rhode Island, however, passed a Caslı Sickness Compensation Act in 1942. Three other states have followed the lead of Rhode Island in providing benefits of this type: Callfornia, New Jersey, and New York. The New York law is administered by the Workmen’s Compensation Board, the three others by the Unemployment insurance Administration.

Workmen’s Compensation

All states have workmen’s compensation laws. In addition, federal laws cover government employees, longshoremen and harbor workers, and employees of the District of Columbia. The main object of this legislation is payment of benefits to injured employees or to dependents of those killed in industry, regardless of who was at fault in the accident.

Although the results sought are much the same, there is great variety in the details of the several laws. Some apply only to employees engaged in hazardous employments; others apply only where employees are not less than a specified number. The amounts of benefits vary within a wide range. In some states employers are required to operate under the compensation act, while in others they may refuse to do so if they prefer to risk an injured worker’s suit for damages. In 30 states, and the District of Columbia, coverage is provided for all occupational diseases as well.

Occupational Health and Safety

Most of the states have laws to protect the health and safety of workers. In the 1950’s many states strengthened their safety laws or enacted new ones. This was influenced, no doubt, by the president’s conferences on industrial safety, held in Washington, D.C., from 1949. The object of these conferences, in which leaders of business, labor, and private safety organizations tlıroughout the nation participate is to reduce job accidents. State safety laws usually place the responsibility for providing reasonably safe work places on the employer and authorize the labor department of the state to enforce the safety regulations. Some of the laws establish standards in detail. The present tendency in legislation is to indicate standards and to grant large discretionary powers to the responsible administrative agency for achjeving those standards. In about 36 jurisdictions, the department of labor or another administrative agency is authorized to issue safety codes and the regulations to enforce them.

Private Employment Agencies

Another type of legislation, the purpose of which is to protect the worker, is the regulation of private employment agencies. Such laws were first enacted to eliminate various undesirable practices formerly prevalent in the placement of persons, such as misrepresentation of jobs or charging of exorbitant fees. In 1957, 42 states and the District of Columbia had laws regulating the operation of such agencies. While their provisions vary considerably, these acts usually require the agency to obtain an annual license, to post a bond, and to refrain from performing certain undesirable practices.

Industrial Homework

The control of industrial work in private homes is a further method of protecting workers against undesirable working conditions. Nine states and Puerto Rico in 1957 had laws under which industrial homework may ultimately be prohibited. Certain limited homework is permitted under these acts for persons who cannot leave their homes. Several states have some regulation of homework. and the Federal Fair Labor Standards and WalslıHealey acts contain provisions affecting this type of work. The WalshHealey Act prohibits such work in government contracts of more than $10,000. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, homework in certain industries is prohibited except under certain conditions, and all homeworkers must be paid the wages set by that act, with time and one half beyond 40 hours a week.


Discrimination in Employment

The most recent trend in labor legislation is the enactment of Fair Employment Practice acts. Between 1945 and 1958, 15 states passed such acts, designed to eliminate discriminatory employment practices with regard to race, creed, color, or ancestry. These acts forbid employers to discharge or discriminate against any person in compensation or other terms and conditions of employment because of race, creed, color, national origin, or ancestry. Labor organizations are prohibited from excluding from membership any person for these reasons, and employment agencies are also prohibited from practicing such discrimination. In some states employers and employment agencies are forbidden to print advertisements or to issue publications expressing any discriminatory preferences. Two other states (Indiana and Kansas) have laws against discrimination, but these provide for voluntary compliance only, emphasizing the elimination of such practices by educational measures.

Administrative Agencies

In nearly every state a department of labor, established by law, is vested with broad powers in deallng with labor problems. At first, the chief duty of labor departments was collection and distribution of statistical information relating to the various fields of labor and to industrial development. At the present time most of the labor departments are also required to enforce and administer important labor laws. The authority of labor departments and other agencies to issue regulations and codes, particularly with respect to such fields as safety and health, child labor, and the employment of women is a comparatively recent development. In some states the labor department administers all labor laws. In some states, however, the unemployment compensation act is administered by a separate agency, and in several states a special agency has been creafled for the purpose of administering the workmen’s compensation law.

The United States Department of Labor, an executive department of the federal government, administers the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Public Contracts Act, and other labor measures, and also extends its highly developed researeh and service facilities to labor, management, and other governmental agencies.



A large body of labor legislation has been developed abroad, particularly since the beginning of the 20th century. It deals for the most part with four main problems :

  1. Protection of workers against overwork and jobconnected accidents and diseases, with special legislation relating to the employment of women and children;
  2. Regulation of the flow of labor;
  3. Regulation of wages and the protection of workers and their families against economic distress;
  4. Regulation of labormanagement relations.

In all but the first of these categories, a comparison of practices followed in Communist and nonCommunist countries refleets the marked differences in their economic and political plıilosoplıies. The greatest differences within the group of nonCommunist nations appear in their legislative approach to labormanagement relations.

While considering the effectiveness of all types of labor laws, it is necessary to reallze that the degree of enforcement varies greatly according to each country’s stage of economic development, the effectiveness of its trade union organization, and, especially, the national tradition of law observance and the adequacy of stafîs for enforcement.

In many underdeveloped countries labor legislation has been enacted to serve as a goal, often being modeled on the conventions and recommendations of the International Labor Organization. The governments of these countries generally recognize that the sınailer enterprises will not willingly conform to these new standards, nor do the governments consider it wise to employ large numbers of enforcement officials for policing purposes. Thus the very small workshops and stores employing only a few paid workers are not covered by the laws, despite the fact that at least half of the persons gainfully employed in manufacturing and commerce in these countries are usually found in such small establishments. Though the laws may, in theory, apply to mediumsized establishments (employing about S to 20 workers), the governments’ linıited enforcement facilities are focused on the larger, more prosperous firms. Often the governments themselves have conditions of employment on construction projects which are below those required by law for private industry.

Laws promoting or restricting the rights of labor have often been the refleetion of economic conditions emphasized by certain labor problems. For example, during periods of acute labor shortages, when workers have been able to command high wages and to find alternative jobs at will, reaction has taken the form of legislation regulating wages and restricting the right to change jobs. Early examples of this occurred during successive periods of acute labor shortage in England, resulting from the Black Death, the freeing of serfs, and the development of urban centers. Recent laws of this type, as well as restrictions on the right to strike, were adopted as temporary measures in many countries during World War II and were supported by organized labor for patriotic purposes.

On the other hand, during the depression era of the 1930’s, the pitiable condition of the unemployed and the reduced earning power of those with jobs produced a spate of labor legislation proteeting workers’ earning power and inereasing their opportunity to bargain collectively. Hours of work were limited and various forms of social security were developed. In many countries legislation favorable to labor has also followed immediately upon the establishment of independence from colonial rule, when ideallsm and desire for social reform have overridden other considerations.

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