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National Labor Relations Board (1933 – Present )
Introduction: The National Labor Relations Board is proud of its history of enforcing the National Labor Relations Act. Starting in the Great Depression and continuing through World War II and the economic growth and challenges that followed, the NLRB has worked to guarantee the rights of employees to bargain collectively, if they choose to do so.
Pre-Wagner Act Labor Relations
The struggle of workers in 18th and 19th Century America to improve their working conditions led to the beginnings of a national labor policy. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the labor movement had grown to 3 million members. President Woodrow Wilson took steps to promote labor peace by creating a tri-partite War Labor Board in 1918. Although the War Labor Board did not have enforcement powers, labor and management agreed to refrain from strikes or lockouts as a result of its mediating efforts. The War Labor Board recognized the “right to organize in trade unions and to bargain collectively through chosen representatives.”
The Labor-Management truce during World War I evaporated after the armistice in 1918. The following year, unions lost major strikes in the steel, coal, and rail industries. Union membership dropped from more than five million members in 1920 to three million members in 1933—just 300,000 more than in 1914. Hostility between labor and management ran high in the 1920s. It was during this period that the use of the labor injunction to stop strikes reached its peak. Passage of the Railway Labor Act in 1926, stressing the importance of collective bargaining to minimize strikes and lockouts on railways, was a breakthrough in paving the way for a national labor policy.
In the depths of the Great Depression, during the last year of the Hoover Administration in 1932, Congress passed the Norris-LaGuardia Act, which curbed the power of the courts to issue injunctions or restraining orders against strikes, absent violence or fraud. Congress declared the policy of the United States to be that workers were free to join unions and bargain collectively.
The NLB and “The Old NLRB”
The renewed interest in organizing, together with the refusal of many employers to recognize the unions their employees wanted, triggered strikes in support of the organizing drives. By August 1933, the situation had become so severe that President Franklin Roosevelt created a National Labor Board (NLB) to bring about compliance with Section 7(a) and to mediate labor disputes.
He made Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York its chairman. Three industry representatives were selected for the NLB by the National Recovery Administration’s Industry Advisory Board, and three labor members were picked by the NRA’s Labor Advisory Board. In early 1934, President Roosevelt authorized the NLB to conduct union representation elections and handle violations of the NIRA codes.
The NLB, however, lacked any real power. The authority of the National Recovery Administration, which administered the Act, was limited to withdrawing an employer’s privilege of displaying the Blue Eagle, emblematic of NLRA participation. By June 1934, when the NLB’s authority expired, only four employers had been deprived of the Blue Eagle for violations of Section 7(a). Despite its problems in achieving voluntary compliance with Section 7(a), the NLB managed to settle 1,019 strikes, avert 498 others, and settle 1,800 other types of labor disputes.
Frustrated by the NLB’s failure to achieve voluntary compliance with Section 7(a), Senator Wagner introduced a bill in February 1934 to set up a permanent tripartite agency that would mediate labor disputes. The new board would be empowered to conduct representation elections and to prevent “unfair labor practices” by issuing cease-and-desist orders. The bill encouraged collective bargaining and prohibited employers from interfering with the right of employees to organize.
Faced with mounting labor disputes, Congress in 1934 passed joint Public Resolution No. 44, authorizing the President to establish a new board as part of the NIRA. The board, called the National Labor Relations Board, would later be known as the “Old NLRB.” Unlike the tripartite NLB, this “Old NLRB” was composed of three public members.
The “Old NLRB” was powerless to enforce Section 7(a), just as the NLB had been, but it was able to achieve compliance from many cooperative employers in the public spirit of the era, which looked to the NIRA to restore the economy to better times. Its decisions also provided a foundation for an emerging national labor policy of collective bargaining.
The voluntary codes of the NIRA collapsed in May 1935, when the Supreme Court ruled that the NIRA was unconstitutional.
The 1935 passage of the Wagner Act
In the fall of 1934, Senator Wagner began revising his labor disputes bill, determined to build on the experience of the two earlier NIRA boards and to find a solution to the enforcement problem that had plagued them. In February 1935, Wagner introduced the National Labor Relations Act in the Senate. The Wagner Bill proposed to create a new independent agency—the National Labor Relations Board, made up of three members appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate-to enforce employee rights rather than to mediate disputes. It gave employees the right, under Section 7, to form and join unions, and it obligated employers to bargain collectively with unions selected by a majority of the employees in an appropriate bargaining unit. The measure endorsed the principles of exclusive representation and majority rule, provided for enforcement of the Board’s rulings, and covered most workers in industries whose operations affected interstate commerce.
Wagner’s Bill passed the Senate in May 1935, cleared the House in June, and was signed into law by President Roosevelt on July 5, 1935. A new national labor policy was born.
Enforcement of the Wagner Act
Constitutionality determined, the Board’s problems were far from over. The budding agency was besieged not only by employers, but by labor unions as well. As Chairman Madden observed, “Employers almost universally did not welcome the Act”; many of them charged the Board with pro-labor bias. While management’s reaction to labor’s “Magna Carta” was not surprising, the American Federation of Labor’s (AFL) hostility to the Act and the Board was unanticipated.
Despite the hostility to the new law, the Board’s caseload rose 1,000 percent after the Jones and Laughlin decision, prompting Congress to appropriate additional operating funds, and the expansion of Board staff.
In this period, the Board was confronted with problems arising from the deep split within the labor movement as to whether the AFL should organize and represent industrial workers in the largely unorganized mass production industries. Since the 1890s, the AFL had focused on craftsmen, largely ignoring industrial workers.
The tensions between the craft and industrial unions erupted at an AFL convention in 1935. The industrial union leaders–including representatives of the United Mine Workers, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, Ladies’ Garment Workers, and International Typographical Union—clashed openly with craftsmen leaders. In 1936 the industrial unions formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) for the avowed purpose of organizing industrial workers “to bring them under the banner of the AFL.”
The AFL perceived the industrial unions’ conduct as dual unionism and demanded that the committee disband. The committee refused, and in August 1936, the AFL suspended most of the CIO unions involved. The CIO reorganized itself into a permanent organization and changed its name to the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
The problem of industrial versus craft unionism which the AFL and CIO leadership could not resolve came to rest on the doorstep of the NLRB, then only five months old. The AFL charged that the Board was pro-CIO. The CIO joined the fray from time to time to protest decisions favorable to the AFL.
The criticisms of the Board by management and labor came to a head in 1939 during a year-long series of hearings conducted by Representative Howard A. Smith that culminated in December 1940. A leader of the conservative bloc of the Democratic party, Smith charged the NLRB with a pro-union bias. He also claimed the agency was dominated by left-wingers and had been infiltrated by Communists.
Source: National Labor Relations Board History: https://www.nlrb.gov/who-we-are/our-history. (Accessed November 4, 2015)