Wagner Act

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act, placed positive federal authority behind labor organizing and collective bargaining.

Summary of Event

Passage of the National Labor Relations Act on July 5, 1935, signaled the beginning of a national labor policy, a prolabor reform policy that the first administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, then preoccupied with the nation’s economic recovery, initially had not anticipated and about which it was ill informed. Also known as the Wagner Act—for its principal author, Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York—the new law was one of the most significant pieces of labor legislation ever enacted in the United States. Moreover, unlike the Norris-La Guardia Act of 1932, which was prolabor in spirit and removed unions and their organizers from the danger of court injunctions, the Wagner Act actively placed that authority of the federal government behind economic coercions, such as strikes, believed to be essential to a vigorous and expansive labor movement. The Wagner Act also instantly provoked heated controversy both in the ranks of organized labor and in the boardrooms of many employers. [kw]Wagner Act (July 5, 1935)
[kw]Act, Wagner (July 5, 1935)
Wagner Act (1935)
National Labor Relations Act (1935)
Labor unions;legislation
Labor law;collective bargaining rights
Collective bargaining rights
[g]United States;July 5, 1935: Wagner Act[08940]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July 5, 1935: Wagner Act[08940]
[c]Business and labor;July 5, 1935: Wagner Act[08940]
[c]Economics;July 5, 1935: Wagner Act[08940]
Wagner, Robert F.
Roosevelt, Franklin D.
Green, William
Lewis, John L.
Hughes, Charles Evans

The novel presumption of the Wagner Act was that the profound labor unrest from 1933 into early 1935—much of it attended by bitter strikes, violence, critical disruptions of interstate commerce (a factor vital to federal jurisdiction), and in some quarters fears of civil war—was largely attributable to employers’ general refusal to recognize organized labor’s conviction that collective bargaining was a prerequisite of union survival. The ability to organize unions that could bargain more equally with employers in regard to individual workers’ wages, hours, and working conditions was perceived not only as a necessity but as a right. Accordingly, the act carried into public law an explicit acknowledgment that employers, especially the nation’s giant corporations, enjoyed disproportionate shares of bargaining power relative to those of their employees. These imbalances were perceived to be large enough to allow employers to slash employment and wages almost at will, drastically reducing much of the nation’s purchasing power and thus contributing directly to the unprecedented and persisting Depression of the 1930’s. The act represented, therefore, the federal government’s mandate to redress the imbalance of power.

Such were the assumptions and rationales confirmed in the act’s introductory section and mortised into its substantive portions, most notably in section 7. It was this section that guaranteed workers the right to self-organization, or the forming, joining, or assisting of union organizations, as well as the right to bargain collectively through their chosen union representatives and to collaborate in their efforts to achieve collective bargaining.

The Wagner Act provided more than guarantees to labor. It further recognized the intense antiunion hostilities of corporate employers in the partially or entirely unorganized mass-production industries and consequently specified and prohibited practices that were deemed unfair to labor. Employers were prevented, for example, from interfering with, restraining, or coercing workers trying to exercise the rights extended to them by section 7. Similarly, employers could no longer with impunity interfere with the formation of unions or dominate their operations, nor could they contribute to unions’ support. Hiring or tenure policies could neither encourage nor discourage workers’ union membership. Workers involved in lawful strikes against employers’ unfair practices, moreover, had to be reinstated when reapplying for their jobs, even when employers had replaced them, and workers who struck for higher wages or other improvements in working conditions could claim reinstatement if they had not been replaced. The Wagner Act thus sought to end employers’ blacklists, “yellow-dog contracts” (under which potential employees had to renounce union membership as a condition of employment), lockouts, dual unionism, the corporate hiring of private armies or armed thugs, spying, and various other antilabor tactics.

The new quasi-legislative, quasi-judicial National Labor Relations Board National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) charged with administration of the Wagner Act was resurrected from the Supreme Court’s devastation of Roosevelt’s early New Deal legislation. The NLRB was created under the aegis of the National Industrial Recovery Act National Industrial Recovery Act (1933) of 1933 (NIRA), itself designed to hasten economic recovery through the formulation of industrial labor codes. The NIRA was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court’s decision in the famed Schechter case two years later. The old NLRB, established specifically to ensure collective bargaining under the NIRA’s section 7a, was abolished as well.

The tenacity of the chairman of the old NLRB, Senator Wagner of New York, proved the main force behind the NLRB’s re-creation. A German American immigrant, Wagner had carved out a brilliant career as a labor reformer, partly during Roosevelt’s incumbency as governor, in New York State’s roiling politics. Wagner brought the character and experience requisite to the launching of the new NLRB to a New Deal administration less uncaring than ignorant about the labor world and more concerned, at least before 1935, with engineering recovery through business.

Formation of the NLRB embodied a dawning comprehension of the complexities of the American economy. That comprehension was based on perceptions of the growing inseparability of intrastate and interstate commerce, and it therefore incorporated Wagner’s and the administration’s elastic definition of what constituted interstate commerce. This implicit loose construction afforded the NLRB’s three directors their jurisdiction in overseeing and enforcing workers’ rights to collective bargaining and prohibiting employers’ unfair labor practices. These were the battlegrounds, as it transpired, on which the effectiveness and the constitutionality of the act were to be tested.


Passage of the Wagner Act coincided with the massive unemployment of the Great Depression. Union membership, which in 1920 included 12 percent of the labor force, had eroded steadily thereafter, so seriously that by the advent of the Roosevelt administration in 1933, unions could count only two million members, or 6.6 percent of the labor force. Several factors accounted for this decline. The conservative, employer-dominated governments and economy of the 1920’s were characterized in spirit and deed by effective antilabor campaigns, sometimes masked as patriotic suppression of communism. Changes in the complexion of the industrial world also contributed. Shifting structural and technological patterns in basic industries such as railroads, steel, and coal mining, along with the spread of mass-production enterprises in the automotive, appliances, chemical, tire and rubber, oil, trucking, longshoring, meatpacking, and textile industries, led to a greater concentration of unskilled and largely nonunion workers. In addition, with 40 percent of American children completing high school by 1930, the educational level of the workforce was undergoing dramatic alteration, bringing with it predominantly urban visions of democracy and fresh perceptions of individual rights.

The traditional craft unionism that distinguished the American Federation of Labor American Federation of Labor (AFL), a federation of skilled workers’ unions, seemed increasingly ill suited to the needs of the largely unskilled workers of the 1930’s. In previous decades, unskilled workers had been all but precluded from joining the AFL crafts because of the nature of their occupations. AFL president William Green eventually did sanction inclusion of several industrial unions, which rapidly became the fastest growing in the AFL, but he did not aggressively recruit them. The outlook of the unskilled workers’ leaders differed from that of the AFL. In opposition to the AFL’s perception of government’s role in the economy—basically an eschewal of any role at all—the leaders of the unskilled, in general, were far more enthusiastic than their skilled brethren in calls for governmental intervention on labor’s behalf.

These were just a few of the critical differences dividing labor’s house by the mid-1930’s. Almost simultaneously with enactment of the Wagner Act, they grew more serious because of the emergence of the Congress of Industrial Organizations Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), dedicated to the recruitment of unskilled labor as well as to vigorous political activism. Subsequent antipathies between the CIO’s leaders—among them the fiery United Mine Workers’ chief, John L. Lewis—and the AFL’s old guard, from whose camp the industrial unionists of the CIO had departed, left the labor movement as a whole without clear direction or coherent policy.

Beginning almost instantly upon its enactment and continuing through the next decade, the Wagner Act successfully promoted its major objective of relatively free collective bargaining. The proof lay in the rise of union membership. The three million unionists of 1933 swelled to more than fifteen million by 1946, more than 22 percent of the labor force. The vast majority of the labor force was composed of unskilled or semiskilled industrial workers, previously shunned by the AFL. More revealing than these overall figures, however, were union gains in manufacturing industries. Barely one-fifth of manufacturing workers were bargaining collectively in 1935, but more than two-thirds were doing so in 1946. The AFL claimed nine million members by the end of this expansion. The CIO’s count came to an impressive six million members.

Behind these statistics of rising union membership lay thousands of decisions rendered by the NLRB. During the ten years following the reestablishment of the NLRB, fifty thousand union representation elections were held under its auspices and judgments were rendered on more than forty-five thousand union complaints about practices unfair to labor.

Once unions were lawfully established, labor-management disputes no longer fell under the jurisdiction of the NLRB. The Wagner Act and NLRB nevertheless contributed significantly to removing violence from, and substituting democratic procedures for, the selection of workers’ union representation and thus their right to collective bargaining.

On April 12, 1937, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes delivered the Supreme Court’s majority decision in National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. (1937) in essence proclaiming the Wagner Act constitutional. The act and the NLRB, along with “little Wagner Acts” in many states, were already engulfed in controversies. The NLRB was understaffed, underfunded, and ill prepared to cope with these disputes. With only a thousand employees, even with self-imposed restrictions on its business, it handled annually roughly seven thousand representational cases and fourteen thousand complaints on practices unfair to labor, which averaged a year and a half for resolution.

Operation of the NLRB fell under different interpretations. These differences arose from confusion among employers and unionists, complicated by their traditional animosities, and differences in interpretation of the act’s jurisdictions and responsibilities. There were notable lapses in the drafting of the law. It said nothing, for example, about employer (rather than employee) petitions for union elections. The act likewise had no provisions for handling the harassment of one union by another, a serious matter given the sometimes heated competition for union membership by the mutually hostile AFL and CIO. What constituted a “bargaining unit” when industries or plants were divided between craft and industrial workers was unresolved. There were problems regarding whether bargaining should be by area, company, or plant. These problems and many more were made more troublesome by immature union leadership and by inexperienced and resentful employers.

The heart of the Wagner Act’s difficulties lay in its legal promotion of union activity and its prolabor bias. Official and popular sentiments soon shifted toward seeking greater balance between labor and management. Those sentiments led to amendment of the National Labor Relations Act in 1947 by the Taft-Hartley Act. Wagner Act (1935)
National Labor Relations Act (1935)
Labor unions;legislation
Labor law;collective bargaining rights
Collective bargaining rights

Further Reading

  • 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.
  • Bernstein, Irving. The New Deal Collective Bargaining Policy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950. A history of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.
  • Boyer, Richard O., and Herbert M. Morais. Labor’s Untold Story. 3d ed. New York: United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America, 1975. Presents a history of labor’s struggles against industrial capitalists from the point of view of labor. Focuses on key events and major personalities from the 1850’s through the 1950’s and examines conflicts among workers themselves. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Eby, Herbert O. The Labor Relations Act in the Courts. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1943. Provides a review of court decisions affecting the rights and responsibilities of workers and employers in the years following the enactment of the Wagner Act. Includes an excellent citation index of legal cases concerning the act as well as the full text of the act and related rules and regulations.
  • Galbraith, John Kenneth. The New Industrial State. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967. Intelligent, insightful, and readable work discusses unions and related laws from the Wagner Act through the early 1960’s in chapters 23 and 24. Includes index.
  • Hardin, Patrick, and John E. Higgins, Jr., eds. The Developing Labor Law. 2 vols. 4th ed. Chicago: Bureau of National Affairs, 2002. Collection provides comprehensive coverage of rights under the National Labor Relations Act. Contributions are written by members of the American Bar Association’s Section on Labor and Employment Law.
  • Hughes, Jonathan, and Louis P. Cain. American Economic History. 6th ed. Boston: Addison-Wesley, 2002. Comprehensive volume on the economic history of the United States includes discussion of legislation concerning organized labor.
  • Mathews, Robert E., ed. Labor Relations and the Law. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. Collection contains several excellent articles on various legal and historical dimensions of the relationships between organized labor and employers. Includes index and sections of several labor laws, such as the Clayton, Norris-La Guardia, and Railway Labor Acts, in appendixes.
  • Millis, Harry A., and Emily Clark Brown. From the Wagner Act to Taft-Hartley: A Study of National Labor Policy and Labor Relations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950. Provides one of the best analyses available of the events leading to the passage of the Wagner Act of 1935 and the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Examines in detail the acts’ provisions, their implementation, and their effects on labor relations. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Northrup, Herbert R., and Gordon E. Bloom. Government and Labor: The Role of Government in Union-Management Relations. Homewood, Ill.: Richard D. Irwin, 1963. Discussion of the relations between labor and government emphasizes key questions raised by the Wagner Act and the NLRB in chapter 3. Includes notes, chapter bibliographies, and index.
  • Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Coming of the New Deal. Vol. 2 in The Age of Roosevelt. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958. Classic scholarly work includes extensive, detailed discussion of pertinent politics and personalities associated with the Wagner Act and the NLRB. Includes bibliographic notes and index.
  • Wilcox, Clair. Public Policies Toward Business. 3d ed. Homewood, Ill.: Richard D. Irwin, 1966. Offers clear, detailed, and authoritative discussion of the relations between government and business. Chapter 32 provides excellent context for the passage of the Wagner Act and establishment of the NLRB. Includes indexes of cases, names, and subjects.

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