Prior to 1935, American workers had the right to become trade union members and to withhold their labor during industrial disputes, but employers also had the right to fire workers because they had enrolled in unions or had taken part in strikes. During economic hard times it was more difficult for an employee to find other work than it was for an employer to hire another employee. Thus, workers were hesitant to join trade unions, and by 1933 just 10 percent of America's workforce was unionized.
In 1933, Senator Robert F. Wagner (NY-D) submitted a bill before Congress that would help prohibit unfair labor practices by employers. With the backing of Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, Wagner's measure became the National Labor Relations Act (NRLA), informally known as the Wagner Act.
The measure, which snagged President Franklin D. Roosevelt's endorsement at the last minute,* significantly expanded the government's powers to intervene in labor relations. It has been called the law that has most affected the relationship between the federal government and private enterprise.
Congress enacted the NLRA on July 5, 1935. It was welcomed at the time and for numerous years later as the Magna Carta of American labor. Before the law, employers had liberty to spy upon, question, punish, blacklist, and fire union members. In the 1930s workers began to organize in large numbers. A great wave of work stoppages in 1933 and 1934 included citywide general strikes and factory occupations by workers. Hostile skirmishes erupted between workers bent on organizing unions, and the police and hired security squads backing the interests of factory owners who hated unionizing. Some historians maintain that Congress enacted the NLRA primarily to help stave off even more serious Â potentially revolutionary Â labor unrest.
Arriving at a time when organized labor had nearly lost faith in Roosevelt, the Wagner Act required employers to acknowledge labor unions that were favored by a majority of their work forces.
The heart of the act is in Section 7:
Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid and protection.
On the other hand, part of Section 8 prohibits unfair union labor practices, which includes, for example, failure to provide fair representation to all parties of the bargaining unit.
The National Labor Relations Board
To give teeth to the new right to collective bargaining, the act established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB is charged with several responsibilities:
It endeavors to preclude or remedy inequitable labor practices committed by either employees or unions. It can issue "cease and desist" orders against unethical practices, including pressuring employees, bias against union members, and refusal to meet at the bargaining table with employees.
When requested, it conducts elections to determine the employee representatives for collective bargaining.
The NLRB also can request that the federal courts sanction board rulings.
The president appoints the five board members and their general counsel, with the consent of the senate. Each board member serves a five-year term. The general counsel has a four-year term.
Passage of the NLRA energized union formation. Successful unionizing efforts quickly followed in the automotive, electrical, manufacturing, rubber and steel industries. Union rolls reached 35 percent of the work force by 1945.
For their part, employers and other organized labor opponents endeavored to rein in the NLRA. In 1947, they succeeded with passage of the Taft-Hartly Act, which appended stipulations to the NLRA that said unions could be indicted, restrained by injunction, and sued for such practices as secondary boycotts and mass picketing.
In 1959, Congress imposed further union restrictions with the Landrum-Griffin Act, the last significant revision of the NLRA.
*"It ought to be on the record that the President did not take part in developing the National Labor Relations Act and, in fact, was hardly consulted about it. It was not a part of the President's program. It did not particularly appeal to him when it was described to him. All the credit for it belongs to Wagner." - Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins, The Roosevelt I Knew (1946).