National Labor Relations Act

Although people in the United States had the right to be members of trade unions and to withdraw their labour during industrial disputes, employers also had the right to dismiss employees because they had joined unions or had gone on strike. During the economic depression it was easier for an employer to find another employee than it was for an employee to find another job. People therefore became reluctant to join trade unions and by 1933 only 10% of America's workforce were members.

In 1933, Robert F. Wagner, chairman of the National Recovery Administration, introduced a bill to Congress to help protect trade unionists from their employers. With the support of Frances Perkins, the US Secretary of Labor, Wagner's proposals became the National Labor Relations Act. It established a three man National Labor Relations Board empowered to administer the regulation of labour relations in industries engaged in or affecting interstate commerce.

Daniel Fitzpatrick, St Louis Post (1936)
Daniel Fitzpatrick, St Louis Post (1936)

The National Labor Relations Act also established the rights of workers to join trade unions and to bargain collectively with their employers through representatives of their own choosing. Workers were now protected from their employers and as a result union membership grew rapidly.

Frances Perkins explained in her book, The Roosevelt I Knew (1946): "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. The proposed bill, it must be remembered, was remedial. Certain unfair practices which employers had used against workers to prevent unionization and to cripple their economic strength had been uncovered by Wagner. The bill sought to correct these specific, known abuses, and did not attempt to draw up a comprehensive code of ethical behaviour in labor relations. Such a comprehensive code, however, was needed. Roosevelt supported my suggestion that labor leaders who wanted to distinguish themselves should draw up such a code and let us take a look at it."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Bob Stinson was interviewed by Studs Terkel in Hard Times (1970)

I started working at Fisher Body in 1917 and retired in 1962. Until 1933, no unions, no rules: you were at the mercy of your foreman. I could go to work at seven o'clock in the morning, and at seven fifteen the boss would come around and say: you could come back at three o'clock. If he preferred somebody else over you, that person would be called back earlier, though you were there longer. It was lousy. Degraded. You might call yourself a man if you were on the street, but as soon as you went through the door and punched your card, you was nothing more than a robot.

(2) Robert F. Wagner, speech in the Senate (31st March, 1937)

The uprising of the common people has come, as always, only because of a breakdown in the ability of the law and

our economic system to protect their rights. The sitdown has been provoked by the long-standing and ruthless tactics of a few great corporations who have hamstrung the National Labor Relations Board by invoking court actions, which they have a perfect legal right to do; who have openly banded together to defy this law of Congress quite independently of any court action, which they have neither the legal nor the moral right to do; and who have systematically used spies and discharges and violence and terrorism to shatter the workers' liberties as decided by Congress, which they have neither the legal nor the moral right to do. The organized and calculated and cold-blooded sitdown against Federal law has come not from the common people, but from a few great vested interests. Make men free, and they will be able to negotiate without fighting.

(3) Frances Perkins was secretary for labor in Franklin D. Roosevelt's first cabinet. She wrote about this period in her book, The Roosevelt I Knew (1946)

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.

The proposed bill, it must be remembered, was remedial. Certain unfair practices which employers had used against workers to prevent unionization and to cripple their economic strength had been uncovered by Wagner. The bill sought to correct these specific, known abuses, and did not attempt to draw up a comprehensive code of ethical behaviour in labor relations. Such a comprehensive code, however, was needed. Roosevelt supported my suggestion that labor leaders who wanted to distinguish themselves should draw up such a code and let us take a look at it.

(4) Rexford Tugwell was an assistant secretary in the Agricultural Department in 1933. He wrote about his experiences in The Democratic Roosevelt (1957)

Senator Wagner had been chairman of the National Labor Board during the first half of NRA. During that service he had seen how little could be accomplished without powers to enforce the principles that were supposed to be those of all New Dealers. Such intractable employer corporations as Weirton Steel, Budd Manufacturing, and Ford Motor were either refusing compliance or were making use of company unions to evade collective bargaining.

In February 1934, Senator Wagner induced Franklin to issue two executive orders authorizing the Board to hold elections for determining bargaining agents and to prevent violations to the Department of Justice for prosecution. But Wagner was convinced that more was necessary and on 1st March he introduced a Labor Disputes Bill.

Senator Wagner's bill enumerated several "unfair practices" to be prohibited, such as the sponsoring by employers of company unions, interfering with employees' choice of bargaining representatives, and refusal to bargain with elected agents. Under the bill a new labor board would be set up, fully equipped with staff to investigate and powers to enforce the provisions of the act.

Herbert Johnson, Saturday Evening Post (1935)
Herbert Johnson, Saturday Evening Post (1935)