The National Labor Relations Board organized and monitored union-recognition elections and protected workers and unions against employers’ unfair practices. Later it also restricted abusive union practices.
Before 1935, organized labor in the United States was quite limited in scope. About 10 percent of the nonfarm labor force was unionized. Most unions were affiliated with the
As the Great Depression set in after 1929, working conditions worsened. The unemployment rate rose steadily, until by 1933, one-fourth of the labor force was unemployed. Employers insisted on cutting wage rates. One of the first “recovery” measures of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program was the
The NRA was held to be unconstitutional in May, 1935. The labor provisions were quickly reenacted in the
The NLRB was also authorized to conduct elections to determine whether a group of workers wanted to bargain through a particular union. J. Warren Madden, dean of the law school of the University of Pittsburgh, was appointed chair. Many business leaders were passionately opposed to unionization and to the principles of the National Labor Relations Act,
The CIO was able to add millions of workers to union rolls, particularly in the steel, automobile, and textile industries. The process was often not peaceable–most noteworthy was a
Once the constitutionality of the National Labor Relations Act was upheld in April, 1937, the NLRB became very busy. In its first five years, the board acted in nearly thirty thousand cases involving 6.4 million workers. It administered elections for 1.2 million workers, representing 3,379 bargaining units. About 80 percent of the votes favored unionization. Where employer violations were found, the NLRB often ordered workers to be reinstated with back pay or to receive pay adjustments.
A challenge for the NLRB in conducting elections was to determine the appropriate bargaining unit–whether the entire firm, or merely those workers practicing a traditional craft specialty covered by the AFL. For the most part, board members favored broader measures, thus giving an edge to the CIO. In many cases, the ballot offered the workers a choice between a CIO union, an AFL union, and no union.
Although the labor violence of the late 1930’s probably impeded economic recovery, the economy did expand. Unemployment declined, and wages increased. After the European war began in 1939, the American economy shifted increasingly to a war footing. Prosperity reduced business resistance to unionization and union demands. Between 1935 and 1939, union membership increased from 3.7 million to 9 million, representing 29 percent of nonfarm workers. The spread of industrial unions transformed the labor movement. Unions now welcomed unskilled workers, women, and racial minorities. Unions became a political force, aligned overwhelmingly with the Democratic Party.
The war strengthened union positions further. Business firms were often under pressure from government to avoid work interruptions. Defense contracts could be sweetened to cover generous labor settlements. Attention shifted away from the NLRB; representation questions and unfair labor practices were less frequent. The government had created in early 1942 the National War Labor Board, dealing with the major issues of pay and working conditions until its termination in 1945. By war’s end there were 15 million union members, representing 36 percent of nonfarm workers. When the war ended, they flexed their muscles, greeting the end of wage-price controls with large wage demands. A wave of strikes in the winter of 1945-1946 involved coal, steel, automobile, and rail workers, but there was no return to the labor violence of the mid-1930’s.
The NLRB required employers to bargain in good faith with unions. This involved deciding what topics were appropriate for collective bargaining. A landmark NLRB decision in 1948 rendered private pension benefits a bargainable issue. This contributed to a great increase in the extent of company-managed pension programs.
Public dislike for unions rose, as people blamed them for inflation and for work stoppages, helping bring passage in 1947 of the
Workers cast ballots at the National Labor Relations Board election for union representation at the River Rouge Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan.
A series of congressional investigations during the 1950’s highlighted corruption and criminality in labor unions. The
Union membership reached its peak in 1979, when there were 21 million members. However, as a percentage of the labor force, union membership had been gradually declining from a maximum of around one-third in 1954. After the 1960’s, there was a great expansion of union membership in government employment–but most of these workers were not under NLRB jurisdiction. By 2006, there were about 15 million union members, but only 7.4 million of these were in private employment, where they represented only 8 percent of workers.
As the tide of union organizing receded, the activities of the NLRB became less exciting. Representation elections, which numbered above eight thousand per year during the 1980’s, had fallen below four thousand per year by 1994. From the mid-1970’s, unions lost more elections than they won. The number of complaints to the NLRB against employers leveled off around three thousand per year.
Bernstein, Irving. Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970. Colorful, if somewhat biased, overview of the period that produced Section 7a, the Wagner Act, and the CIO. Freeman, Richard B. “Spurts in Union Growth: Defining Moments and Social Processes.” In The Defining Moment: The Great Depression and the American Economy in the Twentieth Century, edited by Michael Bordo, Claudia Golden, and Eugene White. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Very critical of the Wagner Act as a defining framework for modern labor relations; views the parallel system for state government employees as generally superior. Higgins, John E., Jr., et al., eds. The Developing Labor Law: The Board, the Courts, and the National Labor Relations Act. 5th ed. 2 vols. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of National Affairs, 2006. Comprehensive, scholarly coverage of the legal rights and duties of employees, employers, and unions. McCulloch, Frank W., and Tim Bornstein. The National Labor Relations Board. New York: Praeger, 1974. The first five chapters give an excellent historical overview; the remainder describes structure and operations. McCulloch was NLRB chair for nearly a decade. Taft, Philip. Organized Labor in American History. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. Encyclopedic history, with separate chapters on the NRA, the Wagner Act, and the Taft-Hartley Act, all in context.
U.S. Department of Commerce
U.S. Department of Labor
New Deal programs
Supreme Court and labor law