Workers Rights Won by Unions, From the 8-Hour Workday to Overtime Pay

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As with the minimum wage, federal child labor laws were catalyzed by the Great Depression, though in prior decades there had been an especially strong push by women and labor unions for legislative bodies to pass legislation protecting children. The FLSA eventually set very specific limits on how many hours children could work outside of school, though agricultural work is still done under an entirely different set of rules, which has generated controversy.

4. Paid vacation and holidays

In the wake of the Great Depression, unions started to push for paid time off, which they negotiated with employers. This effort set a standard for two-weeks paid vacation that extended to many non-union workers as well. In the 1970s, however, as unions lost popularity and influence, the European Union and other countries started to outpace the United States in requiring paid time off for workers.

In 2019, the Center for Economic and Policy Research released a study that found an estimated one in four US workers has no paid time off or paid vacation days whatsoever. The United States is alone among the 38 member countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in lacking a national vacation policy or mandated paid holidays.

Join a union, though, and your chances of getting paid vacation increase profoundly. A 2009 book from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found that, after 25 years, unionized employees get nearly 27% more vacation weeks than their non-unionized counterparts. According to the Department of Labor, these benefits are especially helpful for women, particularly women of color; those who belong to unions have greater access to paid time off and paid vacation.

5. Sick leave

As with holidays and paid time off, union workers are more likely to have sick leave than non-union workers. According to the EPI, an estimated 86% of union workers have access to paid sick leave, while only 72% of non-union workers enjoy that benefit.

Coming out of the pandemic, paid sick leave has become a hot topic of discussion among employees and employers. Why is paid sick leave so beneficial? It reduces the spread of illness, with some research estimating that guaranteed paid sick leave would decrease flu rates by at least 5%. In addition, the reduced stress can help a person get better faster.

6. Worker health care

If you’re part of a union, you probably enjoy better health care coverage than workers who aren’t unionized. As of 2019, two-thirds of non-union workers had health care compared with 94% of union workers, according to EPI. Why is this? There’s a long tradition of unions advocating for health care benefits, stretching back to the industrial revolution. As unions gained in popularity, they made efforts to ensure that their workers would continue to get paid despite sickness or injury. Although some union leaders initially opposed state health care because they believed it would decrease dependence on unions, they later fought for Social Security, in 1935, and Medicare, in 1965, and they continue to advocate for better health care for their workers today.

7. Antidiscrimination protections

Unions and women workers were at the helm of the Equal Pay Act, signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, prohibiting sex-based wage discrimination for women doing the same job as men.

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