Last updated: February 17, 2019
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Labor Lessons

So many changes took place from the simple requirements of the start-up industries in the 1800’s to the growing industrialization towards the early 1900’s. The economic boom and the shift of employment relations and engagements were not expected by most of the employers and the workers. Priority, attention, and focus were given more to the development of the industries as this brought a new promise of profits, power, and political control.

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Capitalists waged their assets in business ventures which were totally new and risky. Logically, they were expected to be prudent in the way they managed their finances as they dealt with their business partners and most especially with their lowly workers.

Government, on the other hand, saw a glimpse of new hope in the new business ventures of the capitalists. Therefore, it was but natural for the government, at that time, to protect the interests of these capitalists who were willing to invest financially thereby uplifting the country’s economy. In so doing, government was the ally of the capitalists in ensuring that their interests were protected.

Workers, on the other hand, were not prepared for the shift of employer-employee relations. They came from work experiences where they knew each other in the workplace and where they worked side-by-side with the employers or owners of the businesses. When new businesses were opened, the entry of migrant workers brought about changes in the workplace relations and workplace standards. With diverging cultures and traditions, with communication barriers, and with the complexity of their competencies at work, the rise of the conflict at shop floor was inevitable.

The three important stakeholders of the age of industrialization – capitalists, government, and labor – saw the emerging conflict. However, no real concern was undertaken to focus on the problem and resolve the same.

Thus, workers’ wages were not compensating to the amount of work that workers were required to give in the 9-hour shifts, working conditions were not improved, health and sanitation was a problem, safety of workers at work was not of primary importance, and improving the worker’s way of life which include a decent family home were not at all given any attention. Consequently, when workers felt that they could not rely on their employers for attention and care nor from the government for support, then they turned to each other to gain strength amidst the frailties that they experienced at work. As historian Howard Zinn shows,

“……many of our country’s greatest battles — the fights for a fair wage, an eight-hour workday, child-labor laws, health and safety standards, universal suffrage, women’s rights, racial equality — were carried out at the grassroots level, against bloody resistance.” (Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. 1492-Present).

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Hence, the start of unionism among industry workers emerged. At first, the unionization was limited to skilled workers such as the Craft Unions. Its success was more on the birth of a unified force that opened the eyes of other workers that such an advocacy was worth working for at that time. Its failure was on the fact that the craft union only included skilled workers. It was the birth of class unions thereby excluding those low-leveled migrant workers who were mostly unskilled. The failure of the craft union was also the birth of the industrial unions whose membership was more widespread as it included the semi-skilled among different industries.

The rise of skyscrapers brought along with it the need for new skills and competencies among workers. Human hands were still the primary needs in the completion of such huge projects; however, the skill and competencies required to accomplish the work within established and agreed KPI’s needed some upgrading. But equipping of these workers was not seen as the order of the day. From various books and sources it seemed that workers were just engaged and deployed at work. Training and coaching of these workers were unheard of then.

Thus, the unionization of these workers was the next best step that happened during the age of industrialization. Actually, it was an event that logically followed the order of things. It was unfortunate, though, that much resistance was given to this organization; so much so that the clash was even labeled by historians as the war between labor and capital. Indeed, it was as both represented opposing interests at that time. As written in the book of Grace Palladino, the need for new strategies in handling these things in order to get better results should be the next focus in the present times.

The Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO is an achievement among construction workers which lay down the foundations of their membership in that organization as it protects their individual rights as workers. Its mission statement aptly summarizes what the BCTD stands for, thus –

The Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO, (BCTD) provides essential coordination and support to the work of its affiliated national and international unions in order that, through inter-trade solidarity, organized construction workers achieve a powerful voice in government, in bargaining, and in their communities.  For nearly a century, the BCTD has secured the trade jurisdiction and autonomy of its affiliates as the respected arbiter of trade issues and through that work has contributed to the continuity of employment and economic security of organized construction workers in the United States and Canada. (BCTD Mission Statement, Constitution and By-laws).

This gives the workers security and leverage in ensuring that employers or contractors abide by the standards set by the organization. Hence, safety, wage standards, and security of employment are always put forth in the front line to the advantage of the workers. Workers look up to an arbitration council to address grievances. On the other hand, employers and contractors are also assured that hiring of these workers is within standard norms and stability of work and constancy of productivity are not compromised.

“In today’s challenging environment, new strategies and approaches are more important than ever if construction workers are to be justly rewarded for their difficult and dangerous labor.” (Mark Erlich, New England Regional Council of Carpenters, author of With Our Hands and Labor at the Ballot Box).
Nothing is permanent but change. With the ever-increasing need for more skills at work, especially with the advancement of automation and technologies, new work situations arise which need quick resolutions so as not to hamper work productivity. Thus, in the United States, there is a paradigm shift from the adversarial nature of employer-employee relationship to one of cooperative and collaborative work. Both parties realized that unless they see the same big picture, attainment of their goals would just remain a dream. With the rise of competition in almost all fields in industry, more and more cooperation between employer and employee is needed.

“IMPACT – the Ironworker Management Progressive Action Cooperative Trust – held its first annual Labor-Management Conference in January 2008. A key focus of the meeting was the union’s “Key Performance Indicators” (KPIs) – those goals and objectives that form the foundation for the Ironworkers’ strategic plan for re-capturing market share all across the nation. General Treasurer Walter Wise delivered a report on how the KPIs were being implemented and how they were being used to measure progress for the overall strategic objectives.” (News & Public Policy Library: News from Affiliates. BCTD. February 14, 2008).

Programs are also being advanced by the BCTD to sustain the protection of workers’ rights and ensure their safety at work. An example is the Center to Protect Workers’ Rights.

“The Center to Protect Workers’ Rights (CPWR) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization created by the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO. Since the inception of research initiatives in 1990, the Center to Protect Workers’ Rights has become an international leader in applied research, training, and service to the construction industry. (BCTD Special Programs).

The ideal of creating a completely peaceful workplace environment may continue to be a dream. But with the different initiatives that the government, legislators, non-governmental organizations, and the enlightened and new-breed of employers, this dream of industrial peace in all sectors of the industry is a dream not far away. What is important is that awareness has been made and stakeholders are conscious of their rights as well as the rights of others. Impingement into others’ rights is not the order of the day, in this age of globalization and stiff competition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

1)         Illinois Employee Classification Act

2)         Building Trades National Drug & Alcohol Program

3)         Palladino, Grace. Skilled Hands, Strong Spirits: A Century of Building Trades History. An ILR Pressbook. Cornell University Press. Ithaca and London. 2005

 

4)                  Sundstrom, W. A. Strikebreaking and Racial Exclusion by American Labor Unions: Bargaining Approach. Department of Economics, Santa Clara University.

 

5)                  Schneirov, Richard. Labor and Urban Politics. University of Illinois Press. 1998

 

6)                  Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. 1492-Present.

 

7)                  Smith, Page. The Rise of Industrial America: A People’s History of the Post Reconstruction Era. Volume 6.

 

8)                  Employment Rights Act of 1996.

 

9)                  Belitz, H. The Penguine Guide to Employee Rights.2nd Edition. Penguin Paperback.

 

10)              Rose, E. Employment Relations. Financial times. Prentice Hall. 2001.