Labor In the United States: A Contemporary Issue
Today, there are different issues surrounding the rights of workers in the United States. For example, labor unions have been greatly weakened, due to the changes in several rules, such as providing employers the right to not have employees on their property to protest issues. In addition, different laws have made it more difficult for labor unions to form and protect employees’ rights.
The various issues are being addressed in different ways, such as in the upcoming 2020 presidential election — where legislation such as the Raise the Wage Act, which would provide a gradual increase in the federal wage to $15 per hour, is being debated. Although the outcome of the elections remain to be seen, the rights and duties of both employers and employees should continue to be protected.
The Need to Protect Workers
In 1820, the Industrial Revolution began in the United States — a progression from manual farm labor to industrialized, specialized labor (such as in factories). During the Revolution, many new inventions were created, such as the steam-powered locomotive (the predecessor to modern-day trains) and the telegraphy system. However, with the rise of change also came great risks. For example, many factories had dangerous working conditions for their workers, such as machines lacking safety locks and screens to protect the workers (especially children). In addition, most factories were dark, with the only source of light being sunlight from windows, and the voluminous smoke often caused diseases among workers, especially lung diseases. Most workers worked from 12 to 16 hours everyday, for six days a week, leading to high rates of fatigue among the workers. The combination of these poor working conditions and dangers they presented to workers ultimately led to the rise of labor unions, organized groups of workers who organized strikes against their employers in an effort to improve the working conditions.
One significant strike was the Haymarket Riot of 1886, after which public opinion was divisive regarding whether labor unions were fair to have, and led to increased debate. In 1894, workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago went on strike, in order to protest the wage cuts. On June 26, 1894, the leader of the American Railroad Union, Eugene Debs, spearheaded the movement for boycotting cars from the Pullman Palace Car Company nationwide — leading to a shutdown on the railroads. Eventually, the strike was broken by federal troops — however, after the strike, Congress passed a law that made Labor Day an official holiday.
Fair Labor in the United States
With the establishment of Labor Day as an official holiday, workers enjoyed their extra time off of work. However, working conditions still remained grim. During this time, there was an increase in journalists who tried to expose the poor working conditions of the middle class and poor — known as muckrakers. One muckraker was Upton Sinclair, whose book The Jungle caused a public uproar about the diseased and contaminated meat in meat-packing factories and terrible hygiene policies. Nonetheless, effective change did not occur until 1911, when, in New York City, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught on fire and burned down, killing 145 workers, mainly young immigrant women. The tragedy brought to public view the dangerous conditions — in the factory, there was only one elevator that could hold 12 people, and only four trips were made before it burned down. In addition, there were no water sprinklers, and the exit doors at the bottom of the stairwells were locked. In response to this tragedy, both organized labor and reform-favoring politicians cooperated to pass the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law, and make similarly effective changes in the future.
Although the relationship between workers and employers remained tense throughout the 20th century in the United States, the concept of workers’ rights had already existed for some centuries earlier with the advent of Islam.
Working in Islam
In Islam, there are many guidelines on the relationship between employees and their employers, and the rights and duties of both. For example, in the Holy Quran, it is stated, “And worship God and associate naught with Him, and show kindness to parents, and to kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and to the neighbour that is a kinsman and the neighbour that is a stranger, and the companion by your side, and the wayfarer, and those whom your right hands possess. Surely, God loves not the proud and the boastful,” (4:37). This shows that one must treat their employees well, and not to impose dangerous or strenuous working conditions upon them. In addition, the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) has stated, “Pay the worker his wages before his sweat has dried.” This means that workers must be paid in a timely manner, and their wages are not to be withheld from them, as labor is given a high amount of respect in Islam.
Throughout the United States’ history, there have many clashes between employees and employers through labor unions, and there are still ongoing issues today. Yet, these issues are resolved when one looks at Islam’s teachings on fair treatment of employees and respect for the employer. In response to the clashes today, however, there is work being done by different organizations, such as the National Employment Law Project, in an effort to provide for better working conditions and pay for employees, and hopefully those efforts will continue to bear fruit and bring us closer to having a balanced relationship between employees and employers in the workplace.