Labor unions formed in the 19th century as a response to wage and time exploitation of workers and dangerous working conditions. Although many people take the 40-hour workweek for granted, this standard was won through union efforts. Many people think unions are no longer necessary, but recent discoveries of wage theft among low-wage workers indicate that many of the issues that triggered union formation in the 19th century are still valid issues.
Equalization of Power
Labor unions equalize power between labor and ownership. According to David Edward O'Connor and Christopher C. Faille in their book "Basic Economic Principles: A Guide for Students," labor unions increase the power of labor to be more on par with management through collective bargaining and strikes. Without this equalization of power, in some cases ownership and management may exploit the power inequality by lowering wages, increasing work hours, or forcing workers to work in unsafe conditions.
Collective bargaining is, according to "Basic Economic Principles: A Guide for Students," the main source of labor's increase in power through unionization. By speaking as one, labor has the ability to slow or stop production if a fair contract is not negotiated.
According to Howard Zinn in "A People's History of the United States," pre-union wages were incredibly low, often too low to pay for basic food and shelter for workers and their families. Unionization often led, and leads, to wages that are adequate and more fair.
Unions were, and often still are, instrumental in workplace safety issues. According to "A People's History of the United States," the Pemberton Mill collapsed in the winter of 1860, killing 88 people. Similar situations were one of the issues leading to the unionization of mill workers and the reduction of many workplace dangers.
Enforcement of Labor Laws
Unionization prevents employers, especially employers of low-wage workers, from ignoring labor and payment laws, a common occurrence in 2009, according to a study cited in a Sept. 1, 2009 article in the New York Times. According to this article, 68 percent of low-wage workers had experienced at least one wage related violation of employment law in the previous week, and one in five workers reported trying to form a union to force labor law compliance. Forty-three percent of low-wage workers trying to form a union reported illegal retaliation, such as firing or suspension as a result of unionization efforts.