National Labor Relations Board Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

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 American Federation of LaborAmerican Federation of Labor (AFL), and most were identified by the craft or occupation of the individual worker–carpenters, electricians, and so forth. A few unions, notably the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), were industrial unions, ready to organize all workers in a given industry, whatever their particular job. Unions were strong in some sectors, such as the building trades and the railroads. Union power was severely limited by the likelihood that a strike (union-instigated work stoppage) would be met by a court injunction to forbid it and perhaps assess financial damages on the union. Both the Clayton Act of 1914 and the Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932 attempted to limit the scope of injunctions in labor disputes, but with only limited success.National Labor Relations Board

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 National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA) of 1933. Section 7a of the act asserted that workers had a right to organize and bargain collectively without interference or reprisal by employers. Aggressive actions to extend union membership provoked much labor disturbance in 1933 and 1934. In June, 1934, Congress authorized the president to appoint a board to handle disputes relating to Section 7a of the NRA. This led to the creation of the first National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in July, 1934.

The Right to Organize

The NRA was held to be unconstitutional in May, 1935. The labor provisions were quickly reenacted in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act. The law provided for a new National Labor Relations Board of three persons with no direct connections with either unions or management. The NLRB was empowered to restrain employers from specific unfair labor practices, including coercing or otherwise interfering with workers’ organizing and bargaining activities; dominating or financing a labor organization; discriminating against union members and organizers or against persons filing grievances; or refusing to bargain collectively in good faith with an accredited labor organization.

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, Unionsso the early days of NLRB were very turbulent. Some leaders of organized labor, notably John L. Lewis and Sidney Hillman, saw the opportunity to use the protection of the new law to extend unionization to the unorganized–particularly in mass-production industries. Conservative craft union leaders in the AFL did not share this commitment. As a result, a group of industrial unions calling themselves the Congress of Industrial OrganizationsCommittee for Industrial Organization (CIO; later the Congress of Industrial Organizations) formed within the AFL and ultimately (1938) broke away.

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 Sit-down strike of 1936-1937sit-down strike against General Motors from the end of 1936 into 1937. Workers occupied company facilities for a six-week period. In February, 1937, GM agreed to accept the United Automobile Workers as the sole bargaining agent for its members. Ford Motor Company maintained an antiunion stance until 1941–company thugs seriously injured several organizers in a violent encounter at the River Rouge plant in May, 1937. In April, 1941, worker protests against discharge of union members culminated in an NLRB election supporting the union, and Henry Ford agreed to terms in June, 1941.

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.

World War II

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 Taft-Hartley Act of 1947[Taft Hartley Act of 1947]Taft-Hartley Act. The law altered the NLRB mandate, prohibiting unfair practices by unions. These included the closed shop, under which an employer could hire only people who were already union members; indeed, state governments were authorized to go further if they chose, outlawing making union membership a condition of employment. This provision produced so-called Right-to-work laws[right to work laws]right-to-work laws, which had been adopted in nineteen states by 1963. Unions were forbidden to coerce or restrain workers or employers in relation to union organization and bargaining. They were forbidden to pressure an employer to discriminate against a worker or to charge excessive union initiation fees. “Featherbedding”–pressuring an employer to pay for work not performed–was outlawed, as were secondary boycotts: These involved union pressure on one firm to cease doing business with another firm that is the union’s actual target. Unions seeking help from the NLRB were required to submit financial statements, and their leadership was obliged to sign noncommunist affidavits. This provision was repealed in 1959.

The Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959

Workers cast ballots at the National Labor Relations Board election for union representation at the River Rouge Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan.

(Library of Congress)

A series of congressional investigations during the 1950’s highlighted corruption and criminality in labor unions. The Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959 tightened restrictions on picketing and outlawed “hot-cargo” actions, whereby unions (notably the International Brotherhood of Teamsters) would refuse to handle goods of a firm that unions were targeting. Internal affairs of unions were regulated: Financial reports were required, restrictions were imposed on the use of dues, and union officeholding was restricted for felons and communists.

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.

Further Reading
  • 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.

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