Montana Viewpoint: Inhumane conditions led to creation of labor unions

Jim Elliott

“Any company that has a union probably deserves one.”

“We didn’t need a union. Millar took care of us.”

It seems almost a universal truth that we forget the reasons that caused great changes in society. The driving force behind the creation of labor unions was based on the simple concept that workers ought to be treated as human beings and not machines whose sole purpose was to enrich the company.

The two quotes above neatly summarize the reasons for having a labor union; to take care of employees when a company will not. The first is from a friend and union member of long standing, the second from a former worker at a lumber mill. The difference lies in an employer’s philosophy of the value of workers; whether they are an asset to be nurtured or a liability to be tolerated and distrusted.

There is a major benefit to a company that treats its employees respectfully and rewards them with good pay and benefits: loyalty. A loyal employee will go the extra mile for their employer, and they will stay with that employer as long as they can. Companies that treat their employees as necessary evils will not have loyal workers. Because they have no loyalty to the company, there will be shirking of duty, theft to make up for low wages, and high turnover necessitating expensive training of new employees.

As far as the economics of the thing are concerned, it is probably a wash. If you add up the low wage, the dollar amounts lost to theft, and the cost of training new hires of a company that treats employees poorly, it will equal if not exceed the cost of the higher salary and benefits paid by a company that values its employees. 

Labor unions did not spring out of a vacuum but as a result of horrendous working conditions. Life was cheap. High rates of injury and death were common in mining and railroading. Children as young as 8 years old worked 12-hour days, six days a week at dangerous jobs. Severe physical injury such as loss of limb or long-term health effects like lung impairment from breathing lint in cotton mills were commonplace. It was not until 1935 that it became illegal hire children under 14 after passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Maybe the demands of unionized workers seemed radical to employers in 1880, but today they are the norm. Such givens today as the eight-hour workday and the five-day week were won by organized labor through sacrifice, including bloodshed and murders committed by corporate militia. Workers’ rights were won by people who were less concerned with their personal benefit than they were for the benefit of all working people.

So on this week of Labor Day take some time to reflect on the good that labor unions have accomplished for working people everywhere, but more importantly reflect on the inhumane conditions that led to their creation in the first place. It’s important to put things in perspective.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at