labor law

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labor law,

legislation dealing with human beings in their capacity as workers or wage earners. The Industrial Revolution, by introducing the machine and factory production, greatly expanded the class of workers dependent on wages as their source of income. The terms of the labor contract, working conditions, and the relations between workers and employers early became matters of public concern.

Early Labor Law

In England, Parliament was averse to legislating on subjects relating to workers because of the prevailing policy of laissez-fairelaissez-faire
[Fr.,=leave alone], in economics and politics, doctrine that an economic system functions best when there is no interference by government. It is based on the belief that the natural economic order tends, when undisturbed by artificial stimulus or regulation, to
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. The earliest factory law (1802) dealt with the health, safety, and morals of children employed in textile mills, and subsequent laws regulated their hours and working conditions. An act of 1833 provided for inspection to enforce the law. Young mine workers were first protected in 1842, women in 1844. Although labor unions were legalized in 1825, agreements among their members to seek better hours and wages were punishable as conspiracy under the common law until they were legalized in 1871 and 1906.

In colonial America, labor laws limited a worker's ability to raise his wages and legalized such forced labor systems as slavery and indentured servitude. Regulations were nonetheless passed limiting a master's control over servants and slaves and in the 19th cent. labor legislation was passed to improve working conditions. Federal employees were granted a 10-hr day in 1840, but the Supreme Court did not recognize the legality of state legislation that limited the work day to 8 hrs until 1908. Slavery ended with the Civil War and the legal basis for peonage and indentured servitude disappeared by 1910.

As in Great Britain, labor organizing in the United States was discouraged by the common law doctrine that unions represented a conspiracy against the public good. The Massachusetts supreme court abolished the doctrine in 1842, but in the 19th and early 20th cent. courts often prohibited unions for going on strike and generally granted prosecutors wide authority to indict union leaders for violence or property damage that occurred during a strike. Sedition laws passed in World War I were used to crush such unions as the Industrial Workers of the WorldIndustrial Workers of the World
(IWW), revolutionary industrial union organized in Chicago in 1905 by delegates from the Western Federation of Mines, which formed the nucleus of the IWW, and 42 other labor organizations.
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U.S. Labor Law since the Early Twentieth Century

By the early 20th cent. many states had passed laws regulating child labor, minimum wages, and working conditions. Maryland was the first state to pass (1902) workers' compensation for employees injured on the job. The forerunner of the Dept. of Labor had been created in 1884 as a agency in the Dept. of the Interior, and in 1913 it was elevated to cabinet status with the mandate to "foster, promote, and develop the welfare of wage earners." Congress exempted (1916) unions from the antitrust laws, and the use of injunctions in labor disputes, begun in 1877, was outlawed by Congress in 1932, although the use of injunctions was reestablished by law (1947).

Popular unrest and massive poverty during the Great Depression led to a series of landmark labor laws. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (the Wagner Act) established the right of workers to organize and required employers to accept collective bargaining as a ruling principle in industry. The Social Security Act of 1935 created the basis for federal unemployment insurance. The Fair Labor Standards Act, or Wages and Hours Act (1938), provided for minimum wages and overtime payments for workers in interstate commerce, thus setting standards for many basic industries.

Strong antilabor sentiment after World War II, resulted in the Taft-Hartley Labor ActTaft-Hartley Labor Act,
1947, passed by the U.S. Congress, officially known as the Labor-Management Relations Act. Sponsored by Senator Robert Alphonso Taft and Representative Fred Allan Hartley, the act qualified or amended much of the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act of
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, which was passed over the veto of President Truman in 1947. It made secondary boycott and closed shops illegal and gave the President the power to secure an injunction to postpone for 80 days any strike that might affect the national security. Under the act, officers of unions were required to file affidavits that they were not members of the Communist party. Later the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service was established as an independent agency. Congressional investigations of labor-management corruption led to the passage of the Landrum-Griffin ActLandrum-Griffin Act,
1959, passed by the U.S. Congress, officially known as the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act. It resulted from hearings of the Senate committee on improper activities in the fields of labor and management, which uncovered evidence of collusion
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 in 1959. It guaranteed freedom of speech and of assembly for union members, and it provided for the regular election of union officers by secret ballot and for periodic and detailed financial reports by unions.

In the 1960s increased social activism once again produced a series of landmark labor bills. The Work Hours Act of 1962 provided time-and-a-half pay for work over an 8-hour day or a 40-hour week; the Civil Rights Act (1964) prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, sex, or religion, and was extended to include gay and transgender workers by a Supreme Court decision in 2020; the Age Discrimination Act in Employment (1967) protected older workers from discrimination; and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970) created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and gave OSHA the power to establish workplace safety rules, inspect workplaces for safety violations, and fine companies that violated safety rules. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 created a federal agency to insure many pension plans and established regulations to protect them from mismanagement.

In the 1980s the pendulum swung back again, producing laws and legal decisions that limited labor and the power of labor unions. Cutbacks in federal agencies reduced federal enforcement of many work safety rules; officials appointed by the Reagan and Bush administrations attempted to reduce labor regulations, arguing that they made U.S. industry less competitive in the world market. In 1990 the Supreme Court made it harder for companies to replace union workers with nonunion workers and restricted the ability of a company to use bankruptcy laws to avoid paying pensions, two management tactics that were widely used in the 1980s. By the late 1990s union membership had increased, but the number of union members in the private sector and the percentage of union workers compared to nonunion workers had fallen.


See C. Tomlins, The State and the Unions: Labor Relations, Law and the Organized Labor Movement, 1880–1960 (1985); F. Snyder, Labor, Law and Crime (1987); B. Taylor, Labor Relations Law (1987); Michael Gold, An Introduction to Labor Law (1989); W. Forbath, Law and the Shaping of the American Labor Movement (1991).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Labor Law


in socialist states, the branch of law concerned with the labor relationships of industrial and office employees, as well as with relationships closely associated with labor relationships, such as social insurance, labor protection, labor disputes, and trade union rights.

Soviet labor law contains provisions for the initiation and cessation of labor relationships of industrial and office employees; it also sets working conditions, including the length of the workday and the method of payment, and establishes rules and regulations pertaining to labor and the system of labor incentives. In addition to setting forth procedures for dealing with unsatisfactory job performance, labor law fixes the rights of trade unions in the area of labor safety and participation in management. The labor relationships of kolkhoz members are stipulated in kolkhoz law.

In the USSR, labor law is today based mainly on the Principles of Labor Law of the USSR and the Union Republics (1970) and on republic codes of labor laws reflecting these principles.

Soviet labor law is both general, describing basic principles, collective agreements, and the legal status of trade unions, and specific, dealing with work norms, contracts of employment, working hours, and wages.

The norms stipulated in labor law contribute to a rise in labor productivity and in the efficiency of public production; they also guarantee that favorable working conditions are provided and that employee labor rights are safeguarded. The socioeconomic basis of Soviet labor law is formed by the planned economy, the absence of exploitation, and the socialist ownership of the means of production.

The basic principles of labor law include the universality of labor, the right to work and freedom from unemployment, the obligation to observe socialist labor discipline, state support for the aged and infirm, and labor participation in the management of enterprises. Discrimination in employment on the basis of sex or ethnic background is expressly forbidden.

In bourgeois states, labor law emerged as a separate branch of law in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The basis of bourgeois labor law is the so-called freedom of contract in the hiring of labor. Owing, however, to the economic inequality of the contracting parties, labor law confirms the forced character of labor under capitalism. Since bourgeois labor law today covers so many aspects of labor, including union contracts, individual contracts of employment, wages, working time, the right to strike, and the activity of labor unions, it plays no small part in the legal superstructure of the bourgeois state. Labor law is used by the dominant class to suppress the workers’ movement, increase the exploitation of workers, and propagate a reformist ideology seeking to integrate labor unions into the political system of state-monopoly capitalism.


Sovetskoe trudovoe pravo. Moscow, 1972.
Trudovoepravo i nauchno-tekhnicheskii progress. Moscow, 1974.
Kiselev, I. Ia. Sovremennyi kapitalizm i trudovoe zakonodatel’stvo. Moscow, 1971.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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