The Wagner Act of 1935 (National Labor Relations Act)

Striking at Chevrolet Plant
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The Wagner Act of 1935, also known as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), guarantees the right of workers to organize and outlines the legal framework for labor unions and management relations. In addition to protecting workers, the act provides a framework for collective bargaining

The main purpose of the Wagner Act was to establish the rights of most workers to organize or join labor unions and to bargain collectively with their employers.

The act guarantees employees “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid and protection."

The legislation was designed to make it more likely that commercial interests could be conducted without disruptions from strikes, thus protecting businesses and the economy as well as workers. The NLRA covers all employers involved in interstate commerce except airlines, railroads, agriculture, and government.

The Wagner Act of 1935 (National Labor Relations Act)

The Wagner Act defines and prohibits five unfair labor practices (others have been added since 1935). These include:

  • Interfering with, restraining, or coercing employees in the exercise of their rights (including the freedom to join or organize labor organizations and to bargain collectively for wages or working conditions).
  • Controlling or interfering with the creation or administration of a labor organization.
  • Discriminating against employees to discourage or encourage support for a labor organization.
  • Discriminating against (i.e., firing) employees who file charges or give testimony under the Wagner Act.
  • Refusing to bargain collectively with representatives of employees.

The National Labor Relations Board

The Wagner Act also created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which oversees union-management relations.

The National Labor Relations Board designates the legal structure for the formation and decertification of unions and for conducting fair elections.

The Board investigates charges by workers, union representatives, and employers when their rights under the Wagner Act have been violated. 

It encourages parties to come to agreements without adjudication and facilitates settlements of disputes. 

The Board also conducts hearings and decides on cases that aren't settled through mediation. It oversees the enforcement of orders, including the trying of cases before the U.S. Court of Appeals when parties don’t abide by board decisions.

The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947

The Wagner Act was amended in 1947 by the Taft-Hartley Act, which provided some limitations to the influence of unions. Legislators at that time believed that the balance of power had shifted too far in favor of the unions.

The act provides workers with the right to refuse union membership and to decertify unions if they are unhappy with their representation in collective bargaining. The act also places requirements on unions, including that they honor existing contracts without striking, and that they avoid secondary boycotts or strikes against companies doing business with their employer. 

According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), unions were also prohibited from charging excessive dues or initiation fees, and from "featherbedding," or causing an employer to pay for work not performed.  The new law contained a "free speech clause," providing that the expression of views, arguments, or opinions shall not be evidence of an unfair labor practice absent the threat of reprisal or promise of benefit.

Several significant changes were made for representation elections. Supervisors were excluded from bargaining units, and the board had to give special treatment to professional employees, craftsmen, and plant guards in determining bargaining units.

Examples of Violations

The National Labor Relations Board provides the following examples of employer and union conduct that violate the law:

Examples of employer conduct that violate the law:

  • Threatening employees with loss of jobs or benefits if they join or vote for a union or engage in protected concerted activity.
  • Threatening to close the plant if employees select a union to represent them.
  • Questioning employees about their union sympathies or activities in circumstances that tend to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of their rights under the act.
  • Promising benefits to employees to discourage their union support.
  • Transferring, laying off, terminating, assigning employees more difficult work tasks, or otherwise punishing employees because they engaged in union or protected concerted activity.
  • Transferring, laying off, terminating, assigning employees more difficult work tasks, or otherwise punishing employees because they filed unfair labor practice charges or participated in an investigation conducted by NLRB.

Examples of labor organization conduct that violate the law:

  • Threats to employees that they will lose their jobs unless they support the union.
  • Seeking the suspension, discharge, or other punishment of an employee for not being a union member, even if the employee has paid or offered to pay a lawful initiation fee and periodic fees thereafter.
  • Refusing to process a grievance because an employee has criticized union officials or because an employee is not a member of the union in states where union security clauses are not permitted.
  • Fining employees who have validly resigned from the union for engaging in protected concerted activities following their resignation or for crossing an unlawful picket line.
  • Engaging in picket line misconduct, such as threatening, assaulting, or barring non-strikers from the employer's premises.
  • Striking over issues unrelated to employment terms and conditions or coercively enmeshing neutral activity into a labor dispute.

Article Sources

  1. Ourdocuments.gov. "National Labor Relations Act (1935)." Accessed June 4, 2020.

  2. National Labor Relations Board. "1947 Taft-Hartley Substantive Provisions." Accessed June 4, 2020.

  3. Roosevelt Institution. "Wagner Act." Accessed June 4, 2020.

  4. National Labor Relations Board. "About NLRB." Accessed June 4, 2020.

  5. National Labor Relations Board. "What We Do." Accessed June 4, 2020.

  6. National Labor Relations Board. "Featherbedding." Accessed June 4, 2020.

  7. National Labor Relations Board. "Employer/Union Rights and Obligations." Accessed June 4, 2020.