Before the rise of union power in the United States, labor relations were mostly directed by common law principles which made the working relationship "one of voluntary exchange contract between a willing employer and a willing employee."
But the common law concept of the employer/employee relationship began to lose force in the early twentieth century with the advance of the progressive movement. The arrival of World War I particularly spurred pro-union activity into action, with various pieces of legislation, such as the Clayton Act (1914) and President Woodrow Wilson's creation of the War Labor Board in 1917, whose purpose was to resolve "labor disputes without stopping production of things essential to the conduct of the war." The Board recognized the right of labor to union organization and collective bargaining.
Following the end of the war, the Board was dissolved (although Roosevelt re-established it in 1942), but rising incidence of labor-management disputes led to the passage of the Railway Labor Act (1926) in order to further collective bargaining rights as a way to reduce strikes and lockouts.
The rise of unemployment during the Great Depression put unions and workers’ rights front and center on the political stage. In 1932, the Norris-LaGuardia Act was enacted, allowing “Congress [to] declare … the policy of the United States to be that workers were free to join unions and bargain collectively.” The following year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt further advanced the state of labor unions by signing the National Industrial Recovery Act. In a short time, however, part of this act was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, which spurred calls for stronger measures to further union organization in the United States.
In response, Senator Robert F. Wagner began to advance legislation that would “provide … that employees, if they desire to do so, shall be free to organize for their mutual protection or benefit.” The result was the National Labor Relations Act, or the Wagner Act. The purpose of the Act was “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.” Specifically, the Act defined the following as "unfair labor practices" for an employer:
- "to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights", i.e. 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 or protection";
- "to dominate or interfere with the formation or administration of any labor organization or contribute financial or other support to it";
- "by discrimination in regard to hire or tenure of employment or any term or condition of employment to encourage or discourage membership in any labor organization";
- "to discharge or otherwise discriminate against an employee because he has filed charges or given testimony under this Act";
- "to refuse to bargain collectively with the representatives of his employees."
The Act also created a politically appointed board, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), to adjudicate labor disputes and enforce:
- majority elections for union representation;
- eligibility to vote in those elections;
- NLRB-approved union members' exclusive hold on bargaining power on behalf of all employees in a unit;
- employers' duty to bargain;
- union pay rates for all employees regardless of union membership.
President Roosevelt greeted the Act with much enthusiasm, declaring that it would “serve as an important step toward the achievement of just and peaceful labor relations in industry.” Against the expectations of some, this piece of New Deal legislation was not overturned by the Supreme Court, but was rather explicitly declared constitutional by the Supreme Court in National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp (1937) With the legality of the Wagner Act established, union membership began a rapid ascent.
Following World War II, increased labor strife, union violence, and corruption led to claims that the Wagner Act required amending. The Labor Management Relations Act, otherwise known as the Taft-Hartley Act, sought to accomplish this purpose by establishing “orderly and peaceful procedures for preventing the interference by either [employees or employers] with the legitimate rights of the other, ... to define and proscribe practices on the part of labor and management which affect commerce and are inimical to the general welfare, and to protect the rights of the public in connection with labor disputes affecting commerce.” The Act, however, met with decided opposition by President Harry Truman, who argued it “would reverse the basic direction of our national labor policy” and “would substantially increase strikes.” Truman vetoed the bill but was promptly overridden by Congress, allowing the bill to become law.
The Wagner Act was further amended in 1959 by the Landrum-Griffin Act. This Act recognized that some union tactics were getting out of hand, and as such, sought to “eliminate or prevent improper practices on the part of labor organizations, employers, labor relations consultants, and their officers and representatives which distort and defeat the policies of the Labor Management Relations Act.”
Meanwhile, in the years following the enactment of the Wagner Act, the National Labor Relations Board has become a forceful, albeit controversial, arbitrator of labor-management disputes. In fact, many of its cases went before the Supreme Court, some prominent examples being NLRB v. Babcock & Wilcox Co. (1956), NLRB v. Gissel Packing Co., Inc. (1969), First Nat'l Maintenance Corp. v. NLRB (1981), and Lechmere, Inc. v. NLRB (1992). Recently, the NLRB involved itself in another high profile dispute by filing a complaint against the Boeing airplane company for allegedly retaliating against union workers at its Washington facility by deciding to build a new plant in South Carolina, a right-to-work state.
In recent years, union membership in the private sector has been rapidly falling. Despite this fact, progressives continue to declare the immense need for organized labor, condemning libertarian and conservative attacks on unionization. At the same time, conservatives and libertarians argue that employers and employees should be free to make their own labor agreements without government, such as the NLRB, being an automatic third party to negotiations.
In light of their prominence in labor relations and union efforts, this topic explores the history of the Wagner Act and the National Labor Relations Board and examines how both have shaped American labor policy.