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Essentially, labor unions are associations of workers who are banded together for the purpose of improving their employment conditions and protecting themselves and their coworkers from economic and legal exploitation. Members of labor unions engage in collective bargaining with their employers, as well as general political activism. Labor unions are almost as old as America itself. Although primitive unions of carpenters and other tradespeople made an appearance in various cities in colonial America, the first national labor unions gained strength in the 1820s. During this time, workers banded together to reduce the working day from a grueling 12 hours to a more manageable 10 hours. In 1866, the Nation Labor Union persuaded Congress to cut the workday down to today’s eight hour standard.
Labor Day, a holiday observed on the first Monday in September, is a creation of the organized labor movement. The day is intended to honor the achievements of American workers and the contributions they have made to the prosperity and strength of the United States. The first Labor Day celebration was organized by members of the Central Labor Union and held on 5 September 1882. Labor unions are legally recognized as representatives of workers in many industries in the United StatesLarger unions also typically engage in lobbying activities and electioneering at the state and federal level. Most unions in America are aligned with one of two larger umbrella organizations: the AFL-CIO created in 1955, and the Change to Win Federation which split from the AFL-CIO in 2005.
Both advocate policies and legislation on behalf of workers in the United States and Canada, and take an active role in politics. The AFL-CIO is especially concerned with global trade issues. Although much smaller compared to their peak membership in the 1950s, American unions remain a prominent political factor, both through mobilization of their own memberships and through coalitions with like-minded activist organizations around issues such as immigrant rights, trade policy, health care, and living wage campaigns.
To fight alleged employer anti-union programs, unions are currently advocating new “card check” federal legislation that would require employers to bargain with a union if more than 50% of workers signed forms, or “cards,” stating they wish to be represented by that union. The current procedure involves waiting 45 to 90 days for a federally supervised secret-ballot employee referendum on the subject.