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The history of workers’ rights in the United States is long and grueling. It deals with unionization, social reform, equal rights, and other fights that are still going on today. While thousands of people helped shape the labor laws and practices the U.S. now has in place, a few key players come to mind in particular. As an employer, business owner, or employee, you have the following Union leaders and other people to thank for your current rights and opportunities. Labor would look much different today were it not for their contributions.
Eugene “Gene” Debs helped found the American Railway Union in 1894. In 1877, at the age of just 22, Gene gave a speech at an annual Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen convention with the goal of defending the union from allegations that it encouraged lawlessness. Later known as the “Apostle of Industrial Unionism,” Gene inspired millions to push for the emancipation of the working class. He also helped found the Socialist Party of America in 1901 and ran for President of the U.S. on the Socialist Party five times. Gene helped with the nationwide adoption of more progressive economic reforms.
Born in 1879 as “Joel Hägglund,” Joe Hill is famous for writing popular labor songs such as The Preacher and the Slave and Casey Jones—A Union Scab. His songs appeared in the “Little Red Song Book” of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), of which Hill was a part. In 1911, Hill joined an army of wandering radicals who tried to overthrow the Mexican dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz in order to emancipate the working class. Hill ultimately became a martyr who was more famous in death than life after his execution for a murder conviction. Today’s workers have Hill to thank for his role in worker rallies, picket lines, and in writing labor songs.
A U.S. district attorney once referred to Mary Harris “Mother” Jones as “the most dangerous woman in America.” Known for her aggressive oratory and passionate fight for workers’ rights, Mother Jones was the organizer for the Mine Workers in the early 1900s. She inspired men and women alike to fight for workers’ rights through her fiery speeches and willingness to break the rules to get results. She welcomed African-American workers and encouraged women and children to join strikes – two actions that were unique in that time period. Her efforts on behalf of miners’ rights helped to create child labor laws and other important labor statutes.
William Green served as the President of the American Federation of Labor from 1924 to 1952. Green fought for worker wage and benefit protections, industrial unionism, and labor-management cooperation. He continued the AFL’s mission of achieving social reform unionism, started initially by AFL’s first and longest-running president, Samuel Gompers. Under Green’s rule, the AFL shifted to a more cooperative strategy, supporting legislation that would benefit all workers. Green was crucial in the passing of a 1932 act that limited the use of injunctions in labor disputes and eliminated employment contracts that forbade workers to join unions.
In 1955, Nelson Cruikshank became the first director of the AFL-CIO Department of Social Security. Cruikshank’s most notable achievements deal with Social Security and health insurance reform, namely for vulnerable people such as the elderly and disabled. Congress passed the Social Security Disability Insurance amendment in 1956 largely because of Cruikshank’s lobbying efforts. This law gave SS benefits to disabled persons for the first time in America. He also acted as the chief creator of the federal Medicare program, which passed in 1965.
César Chávez was an American farmer who created a campaign for better working conditions for grape pickers in California. In 1962, he led a grape boycott and pickers’ strike that led to two of the largest grape growers in Delano agreeing to better workplace conditions. Chávez created a farm worker union (the National Farm Workers Association), fought for minimum wage for farm workers, encouraged the passing of a farm labor law for migrant workers, and achieved many other victories that shaped the rights farm workers have today.