Home health aides
demonstrate at a rally
sponsored by 1199
S.E.I.U. on the first
day of a three-day strike
to demand fair pay and
health benefits, June 7,
2004, in New York.

The concept of workers’ rights is fundamental to American freedom, but it has changed over time. The industrial revolution in the 19th century led workers to organize collectively against what they saw as “wage slavery.” By the end of the 19th century, workers had formed many unions, which attempted to challenge the power of business and government. With claims of protecting property or fearing violence and destruction of property, employers hired strike breakers and governors called in the National Guard to defeat strikes. In 1892, pitched gun battles took place between striking workers and Pinkerton security agents at the Carnegie Steel mill in Homestead, PA.

Unions didn’t find sustained success until the Great Depression, when an emboldened labor movement organized millions of workers in industries across the nation. President Franklin D. Roosevelt endorsed the right of workers to organize when he signed Senator Robert F. Wagner’s National Labor Relations Act in 1935, creating a compact between workers and employers.

The labor movement became much more diverse in the second half of the 20th century as more women and minorities entered its ranks. But labor’s power gradually diminished as manufacturing moved off shore and many blue collar industries disappeared. President Ronald Reagan’s firing of striking air traffic controllers in 1981 initiated an increasingly hostile environment to unionism. In the early 21st century, progress in workers’ freedom to organize and have a say in controlling the workplace remains uncertain.

The Sheet Metal Workers’ float in the 1959 Labor Day Parade, featuring large medallions for the Union Label campaign.

Dolores Huerta, a co-founder of the United Farm Workers, rallies farm workers on March 2, 1969. She has dedicated her life to organizing and empowering workers.

Dennis Rivera was president of Local 1199, S.E.I.U., a union that grew in the 1950s and 1960s as part of the civil rights movement. He is currently chairman of S.E.I.U. Healthcare.