Unions were once very necessary.
Doing some research on early 1900s working conditions for my next post.

When working people come together, they make things better for everyone. Joining together in unions enables workers to negotiate for higher wages and benefits and improve conditions in the workplace. There are millions of union members in America from all walks of life. These individuals know that by speaking up together, you can accomplish more than you could on your own.

-The American Federation of Labor

They are correct.

A typical workweek in the early 1900s was between 60 and 72 hours long. Only Sunday provided a break for working people. There was no paternity or maternity leave. There were no laws mandating that companies keep their equipment in safe, working order. There was no sick pay, no workers’ comp. If you lost a hand due to a machine malfunctioning – you were fucked.

The annual death rate for miners around the turn of the last century was 0.3% per year. If you assume that 5% of miners retired during any given year, then out of a cohort of 100,000 miners employed in 1900, you would see 2,325 deaths by 1910.

Employers were not incentivized to care about safety. Only half of workplace deaths resulted in any form of payment to the family – and – the average payment amount was only half a year’s wages. The most common payment for a workplace injury that prohibited your ability to continue working (amputation, blindness, severe burn, etc) - was a pink slip.

At the turn of the century, 31 percent of people worked in goods-producing industries, such as mining, manufacturing and construction. 38 percent were employed on farms. We can assume that some large portion of the farmers essentially worked for themselves as was common back then. The remaining portion would have been employed by larger farms that treated their workers no better than the owners of goods-producing businesses, and possibly even worse. The following excerpt describes conditions on large farms in the 1960s – which we can assume were better than conditions in earlier years:

"Child labor was rampant. Growers often failed to provide bathrooms for workers, and the housing growers provided – which the underpaid laborers were made to occupy, at exorbitant rates – frequently had no plumbing or cooking facilities. Overwork and a lack of safety posed major health risks. The average life expectancy of a farmworker in the 1960s was 49 years, a stark contrast to the national average life expectancy of 67 years."

With so much of the workforce spending 6 days a week in conditions that would be considered horrific today, we can infer that the problem was not a lack of awareness on the part of business owners, politicians, journalists or anyone else with power and a voice. The amount of people working in poor conditions was simply too large not to notice. The problem was that there was no incentive for those in power to change anything.
Joey Hirendernath's avatar
I know @investmenttalk will like this, he seems to be writing a lot about the Starbucks union recently.
Conor Mac's avatar
@joeyhirendernath Oh yes, love Ben's writing, and have been looking for more historical union content generally, because its interesting.
Oliver's avatar
I wish unions were stronger :(

Would love to see the rise of a 4 day working week but no drop in salary. With working from home now normalised hopefully a 3-day weekend will be the next evolution of work.
Benjamin Buchanan's avatar
@odysseus Part of my post looks at what the purpose of a union is. I actually think that Facebook/social media is a more effective tool for accomplishing most of what Unions initially set out to accomplish :) (compared to Unions today). I'm with you on the shorter work week, also think a universal basic income or something similar is inevitable -just a matter of time. Many of my friends already work those hours (or less) remotely, the world is changing fast - and headed in the right direction!
Oliver's avatar
@01core_ben the only point I’d add is that during employment disputes the union has an advocacy role for their members. So if a boss is being really shitty they can be apart of the HR process, same if the employer accuses the employee of something.

While social media can be a good crowdsource mechanism for what to do, they can’t be in those uncomfortable HR meetings like a union rep can.

I think the unions have a role to play but you’re right the working world has changed dramatically and to be effective unions also need to adapt.