FROM: Congressional Digest, June-July 1993

The present Federal law regulating labor-management relations is largely a product of the New Deal era of the 1930s. While Congress has acted to raise the Federal minimum wage and has considered labor law reform affecting both private and public employees, no major new labor laws have been passed over the past several decades.

Early Labor Laws

[*] The Clayton Act

In response to pressure to clarify labor's position under antitrust laws, Congress, in 1914, enacted the Clayton Act, which included several major provisions protective of organized labor.

The Act stated that "the labor of a human being is not commodity or article of commerce," and provided further that nothing contained in the Federal antitrust laws:

  • Shall be construed to forbid the existence and operation of labor... organizations... nor shall such organizations, or the members thereof, be held or construed to be illegal combinations or conspiracies in restraint of trade under the anti-trust laws.

(*) Railway Labor Act

In 1926, the Railway Labor Act (RLA) was passed, requiring employers to bargain collectively and prohibiting discrimination against unions. It applied originally to interstate railroads and their related undertakings. In 1936, it was amended to include airlines engaged in interstate commerce.

(*) Davis-Bacon Act

In 1931, Congress passed the Davis-Bacon Act, requiring that contracts for construction entered into by the Federal Government specify the minimum wages to be paid to persons employed under those contracts.

(*) Norris-LaGuardia Act

The Norris-LaGuardia Act, passed in 1932, during the last year of the Hoover Administration, was the first in a series of laws passed by Congress in the 1930s which gave Federal sanction to the right of labor unions to organize and strike, and to use other forms of economic leverage in dealings with management.

The law specifically prohibited Federal courts from enforcing so-called "yellow dog" contracts or agreements (under which workers promised not to join a union or promised to discontinue membership in one).

In addition, it barred Federal courts from issuing restraining orders or injunctions against activities by labor unions and individuals, including the following:

  • (*) joining or organizing a union, or assembling for union purposes;
  • (*) striking or refusing to work, or advising others to strike or organize;
  • (*) Publicizing acts of a Labor dispute; and
  • (*) providing lawful legal aid to persons participating in a labor dispute;

New Deal Era Reforms

(*) National Industry Recovery Act

In 1933, Congress passed the National Industry Recovery Act (NRA) at the request of newly inaugurated President Franklin Roosevelt. The Act sought to provide codes of "fair competition" and to fix wages and hours in industries subscribing to such codes.

Title I of the Act, providing that all codes of fair competition approved under the Act should guarantee the right of employees to collective bargaining without interference or coercion of employees, was held unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1935.

(*) The Wagner Act

By far the most important labor legislation of the 1930s was the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935, more popularly known as the Wagner Act, after its sponsor, Sen. Robert F. Wagner (NY-D). This law included a reenactment of the previously invalidated labor sections of the NRA as well as a number of additions.

The NLRA was applicable to all firms and employees in activities affecting interstate commerce with the exception of agricultural laborers, government employees, and those persons subject to the Railway Labor Act. It guaranteed covered workers the right to organize and join labor movements, to choose representatives and bargain collectively, and to strike.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), originally consisting of three members appointed by the President, was established by the Act as an independent Federal agency. The NLRB was given the power to determine whether a union should be certified to represent particular groups of employees, using such methods as it deemed suitable to reach such a determination, including the holding of a representation election among workers concerned.

Employers were forbidden by the Act from engaging in any of the five categories of unfair labor practices. Violation of this prohibition could result in the filing of a complaint with the NLRB by a union or employees. After an investigation, the NLRB could order the cessation of such practices, reinstatement of a person fired for union activities, the provision of back pay, restoration of seniority, benefits, etc. An NLRB order issued in response to an unfair labor practice complaint was made enforceable by the Federal courts.

Among those unfair labor practices forbidden by the Act were:

  1. Dominating or otherwise interfering with the formation of a labor union, including the provision of any financial or other support.
  2. Interfering with or restraining employees engaged in the exercise of their rights to organize and bargain collectively.
  3. Imposing any special conditions of employment which tended either to encourage or discourage union membership. The law stated, however, that this provision should be construed to prohibit union contracts requiring union membership as a condition of employment in a company -- a provision which, in effect, permitted the closed and union shops. (In the former, only pre-existing members of the union could be hired, in the latter. new employees were required to join the union.)
  4. Discharging or discriminating against an employee because he had given testimony or filed charges under the Act.
  5. Refusing to bargain collectively with unions representing a company's employees.

The NLRA included no provisions defining or prohibiting as unfair any labor practices by unions. The Act served to spur the growth of U.S. unionism -- from 3,584,000 union members in 1935 to 10,201,000 by 1941, the eve of World War II. The 1941 figure represented more than 2? percent of the nonagricultural workforce in the U.S.

(*) Anti-Strikebreaker Law

The Byrnes Act of 1936, named for Sen. James Byrnes (SC-D) and amended in 1938, made it a felony to transport any person in interstate commerce who was employed for the purpose of using a force of threats against non-violent picketing in a labor dispute or against organizing or bargaining efforts.

(*) Walsh-Healy Act

Passed in 1936, the Walsh-Healy Act stated that workers must be paid not less than the "prevailing minimum wage" normally paid in a locality; restricted regular working hours to eight hours a day and 40 hours a week, with time-and-a-half pay for additional hours; prohibited the employment of convicts and children under 18; and established sanitation and safety standards.

(*) Fair Labor Standards Act

Known as the wage-hour law, this 1938 Act established minimum wages and maximum hours for all workers engaged in covered "interstate commerce."

Post World War II Laws

(*) Taft-Hartley Act

It was not until two years after the close of World War II that the first major modification of the National Labor Relations Act was enacted. In 1947, the Labor-Management Relations Act -- also known as the Taft-Hartley Act, after its two sponsors, Sen. Robert A. Taft (OH-R) and Rep. Fred A. Hartley, Jr. (NJ-R) -- was passed by Congress, Vetoed by President Truman (on the basis that it was anti- Labor), and then reapproved over his veto. This comprehensive measure:

  • (*) established procedures for delaying or averting so-called "national emergency" strikes;
  • (*) excluded supervisory employees from coverage of the Wagner Act;
  • (*) prohibited the "closed shop" altogether;
  • (*) banned closed-shop union hiring halls that discriminated against non-union members.

Taft-Hartley retained the Wagner Act's basic guarantees of workers' rights to join unions, bargain collectively, and strike [Gee, thanks!--HB], and retained the same list of unfair labor practices forbidden to employers. The Act also added a list of unfair labor practices forbidden to unions. These included:

  • (*) restraint or coercion of workers exercising their rights to bargain through representatives of their choosing;
  • (*) coercion of an employer in his choice of persons to represent him in discussions with unions;
  • (*) refusal of unions to bargain collectively;
  • (*) barring a worker from employment because he had been denied union membership for any reason except non-payment of dues;
  • (*) striking to force an employer or self-employed person to join a union;
  • (*) secondary boycotts;
  • (*) various types of strikes or boycotts involving inter union conflict or jurisdictional agreements;
  • (*) Levying of excessive union initiation fees;
  • (*) certain forms of "featherbedding" (payment for work not actually performed).

The Taft-Hartley Act included a number of other provisions. These included:

  • (*) authorization of suits against unions for violations of their economic contracts;
  • (*) authorization of damage suits for economic losses caused by secondary boycotts and certain strikes;
  • (*) relaxation of the Norris-LaGuardia Act to permit injunctions against specified categories of unfair labor practice;
  • (*) establishment of a 60-day no-strike and no-lockout notice period for any party seeking to cancel an existing collective bargaining agreement;
  • (*) a requirement that unions desiring status under the law and recourse to NLRB protection file specified financial reports and documents with the U.S. Department of Labor;
  • (*) the abolition of the U.S. Conciliation Service and the establishment of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service;
  • (*) a prohibition against corporate or union contributions or expenditures with respect to elections to any Federal office;
  • (*) a reorganization of the NLRB and a limitation on its power;
  • (*) a prohibition on strikes against the government;
  • (*) the banning of various types of employer payments to union officials.

(*) Landrum-Grifln Act

The Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, also known as the Landrum-Griffin Act, made major additions to the Taft-Hartley Act, including:

  • (*) definition of additional unfair labor practices;
  • (*) a ban on organizational or recognition picketing;
  • (*) provisions allowing State labor relations agencies and courts to assume jurisdiction over labor disputes the NLRB declined to consider at the same time prohibiting the NLRB from broadening the categories of cases it would not handle.


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