Norris-La Guardia Act Strengthens Labor Organizations Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By curbing the use of injunctions in labor disputes, extending unions’ exemption from antitrust laws, and prohibiting yellow-dog contracts, the Norris-La Guardia Act made it easier for labor unions to organize and operate.

Summary of Event

The Norris-La Guardia Act of 1932 was passed in order to free labor unions from antiunion actions involving three related elements: the Sherman Antitrust Act, Sherman Antitrust Act (1890) the injunction, and the “yellow-dog contract.” As industry developed rapidly in the United States in the late nineteenth century, widespread efforts were undertaken to organize labor unions and to engage employers in collective bargaining. Collective bargaining rights Many employers resisted these efforts. One instrument for such resistance was the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which outlawed “every contract . . . or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce.” Union actions such as strikes and boycotts could be penalized through employer lawsuits for triple damages, as in the Danbury Hatters case (Loewe v. Lawlor) of 1908. Antiunion employers often were able to obtain court injunctions against union actions. An injunction is a court order primarily intended to forbid someone from taking actions that could cause severe injury to another. Courts had wide latitude in issuing injunctions. Violating an injunction could bring the offender under severe penalties for contempt of court, again with wide discretion for the court. [kw]Norris-La Guardia Act Strengthens Labor Organizations (Mar. 23, 1932)[Norris La Guardia Act Strengthens Labor Organizations (Mar. 23, 1932)] [kw]La Guardia Act Strengthens Labor Organizations, Norris- (Mar. 23, 1932) [kw]Act Strengthens Labor Organizations, Norris-La Guardia (Mar. 23, 1932) [kw]Labor Organizations, Norris-La Guardia Act Strengthens (Mar. 23, 1932) Norris-La Guardia Act (1932)[Norris Laguardia Act] Labor law;protection from antiunion actions Labor unions;legislation [g]United States;Mar. 23, 1932: Norris-La Guardia Act Strengthens Labor Organizations[08020] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 23, 1932: Norris-La Guardia Act Strengthens Labor Organizations[08020] [c]Business and labor;Mar. 23, 1932: Norris-La Guardia Act Strengthens Labor Organizations[08020] Norris, George W. La Guardia, Fiorello Henry Brandeis, Louis D. Lewis, John L.

Another antiunion instrument was the so-called yellow-dog contract, Contracts;yellow-dog[yellow dog] Yellow-dog contracts[Yellow dog contracts] whereby a worker was required, as a condition of employment, to agree explicitly not to join a union and to renounce any current union membership. Efforts by legislatures to outlaw such contracts had been overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court. A company whose workers had signed such contracts could seek an injunction against any union organizer who might try to persuade workers to breach their contracts.

The Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 Clayton Antitrust Act (1914) ostensibly established the principle that the existence and operation of labor unions were not illegal under the Sherman Act. Further, the law forbade the federal courts to issue injunctions against a long list of union activities, vaguely worded but clearly referring to strikes and boycotts. Union jubilation that the Clayton Act would expand labor’s scope of organized activity was short-lived. In 1917, the Supreme Court held in the Hitchman Coal and Coke Company v. Mitchell Hitchman Coal and Coke Company v. Mitchell (1917) case that issuing an injunction was an appropriate remedy against a union organizer trying to persuade workers to breach their yellow-dog contracts. Even more striking was the Duplex Printing Press Company v. Deering case of 1921. Duplex Printing Press Company v. Deering (1921) The Duplex Company had attempted to obtain court action against a system of union boycotts intended to force it to become unionized. Federal district and appeals courts refused to uphold the Duplex claim, but the Supreme Court overruled them in 1921. The decision held that the union’s actions could be in violation of the Sherman Act and did not constitute a “labor dispute” protected by the specific terms of the Clayton Act. Furthermore, issuing an injunction was appropriate to prevent harm to the employer. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Louis D. Brandeis pointed out that the majority opinion appeared to deny the intent of the Clayton Act.

A strong antiunion trend persisted in Supreme Court Supreme Court, U.S.;antiunion trend decisions during the 1920’s. In 1921, the Court upheld use of an injunction against picketing when there were elements of intimidation and when “outsiders” to the direct dispute were involved, in American Steel Foundries v. Tri-City Central Trades Council. American Steel Foundries v. Tri-City Central Trades Council (1921) Also in 1921, the Court held unconstitutional an Arizona statute establishing the right to peaceful picketing in Truax v. Corrigan. Truax v. Corrigan (1921) The case of Bedford Cut Stone Company v. Journeymen Stone Cutters’ Association (1927) Bedford Cut Stone Company v. Journeymen Stone Cutters’ Association (1927) involved concerted refusal by union stonecutters to work on the products of a nonunion firm. The Court held that this action could be considered a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act and that an injunction was an appropriate form of relief. In a vigorous dissent, Justice Brandeis pointed out the lack of parallel between the union activities and the business monopoly actions against which the antitrust laws were directed.

The prosperous condition of the U.S. economy in the 1920’s did not produce much union militancy; in fact, union membership showed a declining trend. After 1929, however, the economy headed into severe depression. As workers faced wage reductions, layoffs, or reduced hours, many perceived an increased need for the protection of union members and collective bargaining. Workers brought increasing political pressure to overrule the antiunion legal doctrines. In the U.S. Congress, their cause was taken up by Senator George W. Norris, a Republican progressive from Nebraska. With the aid of a panel of distinguished labor law experts, including Felix Frankfurter of Harvard Law School, Norris drafted a bill to achieve the intent of the Clayton Act. Congressman Fiorello Henry La Guardia of New York, also a progressive, introduced the bill into the House of Representatives. As the worsening depression created a sense of panic among many legislators who became eager to show concern for workers, the Norris-La Guardia Act passed both houses of Congress by overwhelming margins and became law on March 23, 1932.

Sections 3 and 4 of the law stated that contracts whereby workers agreed not to join a union were not to be enforced and could not be the basis for injunctions. Section 4 directed federal courts not to issue injunctions against concerted refusals to work (that is, strikes), joining or remaining in a union, giving financial or other aid to a union or strike, publicizing a labor dispute by picketing or other methods, or assembling peaceably to organize or promote a labor dispute. Further, such actions were not to be held to constitute violations of the antitrust laws. Section 13 gave a broad definition of a labor dispute, allowing disputes to involve persons other than an employer and his or her workers, thus broadening the range of union activities protected by the law. Section 6 provided that no union officer or member could be held liable for financial damages for the separate and independent actions of other union members or officers.


The Norris-La Guardia Act removed obstacles to the formation of unions and to unions’ activities, particularly organizing, striking, and boycotting. The law did not commit the government directly to the promotion of unions, but such promotion was soon forthcoming. After the election of 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal swept aside the Republican administration and many Republican members of Congress, including La Guardia. One of the first acts of the New Deal was passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act National Industrial Recovery Act (1933) (NIRA) of 1933. Its section 7a guaranteed workers the right to form and join unions of their own choosing and obliged employers to bargain with those unions. Similar provisions were contained in the Railway Labor Act of 1934. When the NIRA was held unconstitutional in 1935, Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act National Labor Relations Act (1935) (Wagner Act) of 1935, which affirmed a “right” to unionize and created the National Labor Relations Board National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to make this right effective. Whereas the Norris-La Guardia Act merely protected union activities from damage suits and injunctions, the Wagner Act Wagner Act (1935) protected unions from a long list of “unfair” labor practices. These included employer interference with union organizing activities or union operations, discrimination against union members, and refusal to bargain collectively “in good faith” with certified unions. The NLRB was authorized to conduct elections to determine if a group of workers should be represented by a union.

As a consequence of this legislation, much of the focus in labor relations shifted away from the private lawsuits with which the Norris-La Guardia Act was concerned. Union organizers undertook vigorous campaigns for new members, sparked by the Congress of Industrial Organizations Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) under the leadership of John L. Lewis. Union membership, which had fallen below three million in 1933, passed ten million in 1941. Organizing efforts continued to meet with strong opposition, and employers still tried to enlist the courts to assist them, without much success. In 1938, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Norris-La Guardia Act in the case of Lauf v. E. G. Shinner and Company. Lauf v. E. G. Shinner and Company (1938) The Court affirmed the legality of union picketing activities directed against a nonunion employer. In the case of Apex Hosiery Company v. Leader, Apex Hosiery Company v. Leader (1940) the Supreme Court in 1940 refused to consider a union sit-down strike to be a violation of the antitrust laws. The case arose from a violent incident in 1937 when union members broke into the company’s plant and physically took possession of it. The Court noted that the union’s actions were clearly unlawful but argued that the appropriate remedies lay in channels other than the antitrust laws. In the case of United States v. Hutcheson (1941), United States v. Hutcheson (1941) the Supreme Court again refused to permit antitrust prosecution to be brought against union officials. The carpenters’ union that was the target of the lawsuit was trying to use a boycott to induce Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company to reverse a decision that certain work should be performed by machinists. It was a no-win situation for the company, because it could be similarly attacked by the machinists if it reversed its decision. The Supreme Court simply affirmed that the union actions should not be viewed as a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.

The great spread of unionization in the late 1930’s helps explain why hourly wage rates in manufacturing increased about 30 percent between 1935 and 1941 at a time when more than 10 percent of workers remained unemployed. Some economists noted that while union workers were benefiting, their gains were raising business costs and thus slowing the rise of job openings for the unemployed.

Union membership continued to increase during World War II, but developments led many observers to believe that unions held too much power. Strikes by coal miners led by Lewis during the war were particularly damaging to the image of unions. In November, 1946, Lewis provoked a confrontation with the government, which was then nominally operating the mines under wartime legislation. A federal court issued an injunction against a work stoppage by the union and then imposed heavy fines on Lewis and the union when they did not comply. In March, 1947, the Supreme Court upheld the injunction, ruling that the Norris-La Guardia Act did not apply when the government was in the role of employer. In 1945, the Supreme Court established that some labor union actions could be considered to violate the Sherman Antitrust Act, if the union acted in collusion with employers in a manner that promoted monopoly conditions in markets for business products.

The belief that unions had gained too much power ultimately led to adoption of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. Taft-Hartley Act (1947)[Taft Hartley Act] That act prohibited a long list of “unfair” practices by unions. By that time, many of the issues confronted by the Norris-La Guardia Act had faded from significance. Under the protection of the Wagner Act, unions had been organized and certified in most of the areas in which workers wanted them. Yellow-dog contracts had disappeared, and harassment of union organizers had diminished. A major consequence of the Norris-La Guardia Act was to shift the bulk of litigation involving labor union activities to state courts. Picketing and related activities associated with strikes and other labor disputes often primarily involved state laws, local ordinances, and local police. Private business firms largely lost the opportunity to bring civil lawsuits to halt or penalize nonviolent strikes and other labor union activities. Norris-La Guardia Act (1932)[Norris Laguardia Act] Labor law;protection from antiunion actions Labor unions;legislation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Babson, Steve. The Unfinished Struggle: Turning Points in American Labor, 1877-Present. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. Concise and comprehensive history of the American labor movement. Includes notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bernstein, Irving. The Lean Years: A History of the American Worker, 1920-1933. 1960. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1983. First volume of two-volume history; see below.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970. These two volumes provide an excellent detailed narrative of a colorful and dramatic period in labor history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Breen, W. J. Labor Market Politics and the Great War: The Department of Labor, the States, and the First U.S. Employment Service, 1907-1933. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1997. History of the federal government’s involvement in labor issues during the critical period from before World War I through the early years of the Great Depression. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Daugherty, Carroll R. Labor Problems in American Industry. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1941. Deals at length with all aspects of labor relations, including the Norris-La Guardia Act and many court cases subsequent to it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gregory, Charles O., and Harold A. Katz. Labor and the Law. 3d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979. Detailed, readable account of U.S. legislation and court actions relating to unions. Chapter 7 focuses on the Norris-La Guardia Act and related litigation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jacoby, Daniel. Laboring for Freedom: A New Look at the History of Labor in America. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1998. Examines opposed ideas concerning freedom as manifested in labor history in the United States. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lieberman, Elias. Unions Before the Bar. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950. Devotes a chapter apiece to twenty-six major court cases involving unions. Excellent background on the events. Summarizes litigation at all court levels.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Limpus, Lowell M., and Burr Leyson. This Man La Guardia. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1938. Provides a good review of La Guardia’s colorful career, including his tenure as mayor of New York City.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mason, Alpheus Thomas. Brandeis: A Free Man’s Life. New York: Viking Press, 1946. Detailed account of the life of the powerful liberal thinker and activist puts his Supreme Court role in a broad context. Includes discussion of his dissents in labor cases.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Norris, George W. Fighting Liberal: The Autobiography of George W. Norris. 1945. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992. Demonstrates the impressive array of liberal causes Norris supported. Chapter titled “Yellow Dog Contract” gives a narrative of the evolution of the Norris-La Guardia Act.

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Categories: History