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Over the course of the last 150 years, the majority of laws in the United States to protect employees from unfair labor practices perpetrated by employers were enacted as a result of the labor movement and realization of workers’ rights. As the workers’ role in mass production became vital to the capitalist market economy during the Industrial Revolution that commenced in Europe and spread to the United States in the 1820s, protection of workers’ rights and government intervention (particularly the Federal government) to regulate employers to protect workers became a necessity to prevent exploitation of workers (including child laborers) in often dangerous working conditions. An outgrowth of this movement to protect employees and employees’ rights from dangerous conditions and unfair wages and hours was the protection of employees from discrimination by employers. More specifically, laws were enacted and enforced to prevent discrimination of targeted groups such as women and racial minorities and ensuring all employees are granted equal rights with respect to hiring, promotion, and termination decisions.

Laws specifically designed to protect workers commenced in earnest during the New Deal policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidential administration. New Deal policies, intended to ease the hardships caused by the depression, included laws to assist workers. The most prominent laws enacted by the Federal Government to protect workers during this period were the National Labor Relations Act of1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Provisions of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 were initially part of the National Industry Recovery Act of 1933. However, employers and leaders in the business community did not embrace the provisions of the act. Employers and business leaders felt that the National Recovery Act of 1933 gave the Federal government too much power to regulate the operations and administration of businesses and would ultimately stifle competition. A contentious court battle ensued after passage of the act and the United States Supreme Court declared the National Industry Recovery Act of 1933 invalid in the case of A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corporation v. United States (1935). Provisions of the National Recovery Act of 1933 that mandated that workers receive a minimum wage salary and rights to join unions were then incorporated into the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. The validity of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 was challenged before the Supreme Court in 1937 in National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Loughlin Steel Corporation (1937). The Supreme Court, however, upheld the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (also referred to as the Wagner Act) in a landmark decision that began an era of intervention by the Federal government to address unfair labor practices.

Labor laws pertaining specifically to discrimination have endeavored to protect workers from discrimination by their employer(s) based upon the employees race, gender, religion, national origin, age, marital status or physical disability. These laws were enacted as a derivative of both the greater labor movement and the “civil rights revolution” of the 1960s that sought to end discrimination in all social institutions, including the workplace. Labor discrimination may take several forms, but laws specifically prohibiting employment practices, such as discriminatory hiring, promotion, job assignment, termination, compensation and various types of harassment, were enacted by Federal law beginning in the early 1960s. There are also laws prohibiting retaliation against employees who initially lodge complaints. These laws are designed to protect employees. Some federal laws, however, do not always apply to state and local governments. In some late 1990s cases, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal laws place undue regulatory powers on state and local governments. In those instances, employees are protected by state and local laws but not federal laws.

Inside Discrimination