National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) (1935)

Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (popularly known as the Wagner Act) in 1935 to “protect the rights of employees and employers, to encourage collective bargaining, and to curtail certain private sector labor and management practices, which can harm the general welfare of workers, businesses and the U.S. economy” [1]. It made permanent the federal protection of the right of workers to unionize that had first been signaled in the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins was the primary New Dealer behind the legislation, which was carried by Senator Robert Wagner of New York, a key ally of the administration [2].

President Roosevelt signed the Act on July 5th, 1935, stating: “This Act defines … the right of self-organization of employees in industry for the purpose of collective bargaining, and provides methods by which the Government can safeguard that legal right…A better relationship between labor and management is the high purpose of this Act…it should serve as an important step toward the achievement of just and peaceful labor relations in industry” [3].

Roosevelt had good reason to use the words “peaceful relations.” For decades, disagreements between management and workers had flared up into violent confrontations between strikers, private security forces, police officers, the National Guard, and Army. These frequently resulted in injuries, deaths, property loss, and economic damage, as in such notorious cases as the Great Railway Strike of 1877, Homestead Steel Strike of 1894, New Straitsville, Ohio, coal strike of 1884, and the Ludlow Massacre of 1914 [4]. The 1920s had been relatively calm following major defeats of the labor movement during and after World War I, but in the early 1930s a major wave of strikes occurred across the country. Workers rose up in desperation against wage cuts and job losses, to be sure, but conditions had changed: the rise of new mass production industries, a weakening of business power, and a sense of empowerment of workers by federal recognition of labor rights [5].

The National Labor Relations Act was strongly opposed by Republicans and big business [6], and challenged in court, but it was ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1937 [7]. The major effect of the act was to make possible a large increase in union membership in the 1930s and 40s, allowing union membership in the United States to reach unprecedented heights – 35% of workers unionized by 1960 [8]. In addition, the number of violent altercations between labor and management declined dramatically [9].

The provisions of the National Labor Relations Act were to be administered & enforced by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). J. Warren Pressman was the first chair of the board after passage of the act, serving from 1935 to 1940 [10]. The NLRB still operates today [11]. But labor rights were curbed sharply with the passing of the New Deal, by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1946, and were weakened again under the Reagan Administration in the 1980s [12]. In recent decades, union membership has dropped dramatically, along with wages, benefits, workplace protections, and the strength of the middle-class [13].

Sources: (1) “National Labor Relations Act,” National Labor Relations Board, http://www.nlrb.gov/resources/national-labor-relations-act, accessed August 11, 2015. (2) Kirstin Downey, The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, New York: Nan Talese (Doubleday), 2009. (3) “Statement on Signing the National Labor Relations Act,” American Presidency Project, University of California – Santa Barbara, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=14893, accessed August 11, 2015. (4) Philip Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States. New York: International Publishers, 1947. (5) Nelson Lichtenstein, The State of the Union: A Century of American Labor. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002. Bruce Nelson, Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930s. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990. (6) See, e.g., “Wagner Act,” Encyclopedia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Wagner-Act, accessed August 11, 2015. (7) See “NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp.,” Oyez, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1901-1939/1936/1936_419, accessed August 11, 2015. (8) Kim Moody, An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism. London: Verso, 1989. (9) Michael Wachter, “The Striking Success of the National Labor Relations Act,” p. 433. In Cynthia Estlund and Michael Wachter (Eds.), Research Handbook on the Economics of Labor and Employment Law, Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2012. (10) See, e.g., Gilbert J. Gall, Pursuing Justice: Lee Pressman, the New Deal, and the CIO, New York: State University of New York Press, 1999, p. 97. (11) “What We Do,” National Labor Relations Board, http://www.nlrb.gov/what-we-do, accessed August 11, 2015. (12) Lichtenstein, note 5; Moody, note 8; Steven Greenhouse, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2008. (13) See, e.g., “The Shrinking Middle Class, Mapped State by State,” The Pew Charitable Trusts, March 19, 2015, http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2015/3/19/the-shrinking-middle-class-mapped-state-by-state, accessed August 11, 2015.