The U.S. steel industry was a direct target during the of the labor movement in the United States during the latter part of 19th century. The movement culminated in the National Labor Relations Act, enacted in the 1930s. This occurred at a juncture in history at which large industrial companies, like steel manufacturing enterprises, and their factories dominated the labor scene.
Labor unions of the 21st century are in the midst of reevaluating their role in society. The predominate industrial structure that resulted in the primary U.S. labor laws that remain on the books today no longer exists. The changes in the workplace have been drastic and have resulted in labor unions reaching the juncture at which they are reevaluating the way they operate.
The 21st century reexamination of the U.S. economy, the workplace, and the labor force does not have industrial enterprises like steel companies in the scope. Although not the primary focus of this reevaluation by labor unions, industries like steel will be impacted by decisions made by labor unions and others.
Existing Labor Laws are a Poor Fit for the 21st Century U.S. Economy
The foundational laws involving workers in the U.S. were crafted and enacted in a time period in which a large percentage of workers labored in large factories owner by mammoth corporations. The steel industry is a prime example of one that employed large numbers of Americans in huge manufacturing plants. A large swath of U.S. labor laws were developed with these employment settings in mind.
The manner in which a majority of Americans work today is starkly different from what existed at the end of the 19th century and through much of the 20th century. Yes, large manufacturing plants do exist, including steel mills. But, they exist in smaller numbers and employ a far smaller percentage of U.S. workers than historically was the case.
In the 21st century, mammoth corporations still exist. Indeed, the huge Walmart conglomerate is the largest private employer in the United States. The key difference is that companies like Walmart do not engage large numbers of workers in a smaller number of huge factories. Rather, industries that employ the largest number of workers today have employees at thousands of locations, rather than dozens or perhaps hundreds.
Another change is that existing U.S. labor laws really own protect traditional workers, individuals who clearly are employees of a business. In today’s world, the rise of the independent contractor and other schemes have reduced the number of worker who truly meet the definition of employees and are subject to labor law protections.
As a result, the old form structure of labor unions is outdated and has not been able to effectively advocate for workers in the manner of years gone by. Many, if not nearly all labor unions, have started the laborious process of reexamining their structure and how they conduct their own business on behalf of workers. As noted, the primary target is not industrial enterprises, like the steel industry. Rather, the main focus is the cadre of employees in industries like retail and food service. Nonetheless, the actions of labor unions, and any legislation that might flow from a recognition by lawmakers that the economy and job market has changed markedly since the 1930s, may result in laws that will impact the steel industry and other industrial enterprise.
Automation, Retail, Fast Food, and the Steel Industry
One area in which labor union activity, and perhaps even some changes in existing laws, may involve the ever increasing move towards more automation. “Replacing” workers with automated equipment has been occurring in industrial settings like the steel and automobile industries for years. However, the move towards automation has taken on something a new fervor in retail and food service industries since the turn of the 21st century.
Thus far, regulation of the transition from a human to automated work environment has been minimal, at least on the federal level. There really is no structured scheme to protect workers in the event that a more significant move towards automation occurs in a particular industry.
Labor unions are becoming more focused on this and similar types of issues. The key issue as to how automation issues, and other matters of concern and increasing focus of labor unions, plays out depends on which political party controls the U.S. Congress after the 2018 and 2020 elections. Right now, no major legislative shifts that would have a broad impact on multiple industries, including steel, is anticipated with the current leadership in Congress. However, if the next two elections result in a shift of party control in one, or both, Houses of Congress, alterations in labor laws could be forthcoming.
Jessica Kane is a professional blogger who writes for Federal Steel Supply, Inc., a leading steel tubing suppliers of carbon, alloy and stainless steel pipe, tubes, fittings and flanges.