At the turn of the 20th century, child labor was common; working conditions were often abysmal; there were no enforced workplace health, safety or environmental requirements; no unemployment insurance; and no workers' compensation. Workers were attacked and killed for the sole reason that they wanted to form a union; there was no 40-hour week, minimum wage, job security, overtime pay or virtually any other limit on the exploitation of employees. America was split dramatically between the haves and have-nots. It was a harsh work world for many: nasty, brutish and, too often, short. Worker activism, new laws and court decisions changed all that during the past century.That last sentence is striking. There is no doubt that most Americans have seen dramatic improvements in living standards and workplace norms over the past century. But should we really give most of the credit to "worker activism, new laws and court decisions?" I don't think so.
I would give most credit to economic growth, which in turn is driven by technological progress, a market system, and a culture of entrepreneurship. As the economy grows, the demand for labor grows, and workers achieve better wages and working conditions.
Economic studies of unions, for example, find that unionized workers earn about 10 to 20 percent more by virtue of collective bargaining. By contrast, real wages and income per person over the past century have increased several hundred percent, thanks to advances in productivity.
Similarly, working conditions are poor in less developed countries today because productivity is low there. The key to improving lives in those nations is economic growth, not "worker activism, new laws and court decisions."