Workplace Rights

What are Americans’ rights in the workplace?

The struggle to define and assert workplace rights has sometimes conflicted with the ideals of a free marketplace, and the rights of employees and employers have often clashed.

  • Unions, strikes, and the reactions against them
  • Debates about women and children in the workplace
  • The Federal Government’s role in providing economic security and rights in the workplace

Chapter one

The Rise of Industrial America
The Rise of Industrial America 1790–1900
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In the late 19th century, the American economy transformed from a predominately agricultural to an industrial one, with increasing numbers of wage workers laboring in factories, mines, and on railroads. Workers organized and struck for higher wages, safer conditions, and shorter hours. Employers responded with lockouts, the hiring of replacement of workers, and legal action. Violence was common.

The Depression of 1893 1893–1897

In May 1893, a financial panic caused by the overbuilding of the railroads bankrupted many banks, factories, and railroads. The result was the 19th century’s most severe economic depression. An estimated 3 million Americans were thrown out of work. In an era with no social safety net, many workers faced homelessness and even starvation.

The Progressive Era 1900–1920

Reformers in the early 20th century campaigned for legislation to improve the lives of workers. The measures included protective legislation for women, a ban on child labor, the creation of the Federal Department of Labor, and laws setting work hours and conditions.

Chapter two

Progressive Era and the 1920s
Progressive Era and the 1920s 1900–1929
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In the early 20th century, workers, businesses, and government all tried to adapt to an economy that was becoming increasingly urban and industrial. The Progressive Era saw an upsurge of labor unrest, as well as proposals and laws to alleviate the worst abuses of industrial capitalism. Additional proposals were put forward during the 1920s, but fewer were enacted.

The Great Depression 1929–1941

In the United States, the worldwide economic catastrophe known as the Great Depression hit bottom in 1933, with unemployment rising to 25 percent and industrial investment down to near zero. The economy continued to struggle during the 1930s until World War II defense spending brought economic recovery.

Chapter three

Great Depression and World War II
Great Depression and World War II 1930–1945
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The Great Depression was a time of poverty and unemployment, but World War II expanded economic opportunities, especially for women and African Americans. Depression and war both brought clashes between business and labor that resulted in new Federal Government regulations and laws, and an upsurge in union membership.

The New Deal 1933–1941

The New Deal was President Franklin Roosevelt’s program to promote economic recovery, regulate the economy, and cushion the effects of the Great Depression. New Deal legislation tried to stabilize wages and prices, and support industrial workers’ efforts to unionize. It also created Federal programs for unemployment relief and old-age security.

World War II 1941–1945

Defense production during World War II helped pull the U.S. economy out of the Great Depression and provided jobs and higher wages. Wartime saw labor shortages, strikes, and increased government regulation—conditions that fostered unionization. The war also brought women and African Americans, sometimes temporarily, into jobs that had been closed to them.

Chapter four

Post-war 1945–1960
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After World War II, the United States experienced a dramatic economic expansion. Workers’ incomes rose, and prosperity became more widespread. The growth of organized labor peaked, but after a wave of postwar strikes, new laws and a hostile political environment made organizing employees more difficult, especially after the mid-1950s.

Civil Rights Revolutions 1960–1989

As a result of the civil rights movement, Congress passed laws prohibiting discrimination in employment and promoting workplace health and safety, and full employment. By the end of the 1970s, increasing enthusiasm for free markets led to reduced regulation. Organized labor steadily declined as a percentage of the workforce.

Chapter five

Rights Revolution
Rights Revolution 1961–1989
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The African American civil rights movement brought about anti-discriminatory legal protections for blacks and inspired movements for civil rights among other groups. In the workplace, activism brought protections for individuals and increased government regulation. These directions expanded until the later 1970s with the renewed enthusiasm for free market solutions and deregulation.

What about contemporary Issues?

Most of the records in "Records of Rights" were created before 1980 because the National Archives generally receives permanent records when they are 30 years old or older. Prior to that, they are maintained by the federal agency that created them.