Under Roosevelt’s leadership, union membership and the size of the American economy grew hand-in-hand.
“It is now beyond partisan controversy that it is a fundamental individual right of a worker to associate himself with other workers and to bargain collectively with his employer.” FDR –Address at San Diego Exposition, October 2, 1935
Just over three quarters of a century ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed one of the most important — though frequently overlooked — pieces of the reform legislation to come out of the New Deal: the National Labor Relations Act. More often referred to as the Wagner Act, after its champion, Senator Robert Wagner of New York, this landmark bill established the National Labor Relations Board, an independent, quasi-judicial government agency that played a critical role in the remarkable expansion of union membership that took place during the Roosevelt era.
Prior to the passage of the Wagner Act, and thanks in part to the anti-union climate of the 1920s, union membership in the United States had declined precipitously. At the onset of the Great Depression, for example, membership in the American Federation of Labor had fallen from a high of five million in 1919 to less than 3 million in 1933. Seeking to expand workers rights as part of his administration’s efforts to launch the New Deal, FDR created a weaker NLRB as part of the 1934 National Recovery Administration. But the 1934 agency proved largely ineffective and in 1935 FDR endorsed Senator Wagner’s efforts to make the NLRB permanent and more powerful. The new law declared a whole series of coercive management practices to be illegal, and gave private sector workers the right to form unions and to engage in collective bargaining. It also gave the NLRB the right to determine bargaining unit jurisdictions, oversee union elections and certify the results as legally binding. The law also insisted that management had a duty to bargain with a properly certified union, though of course it did not compel the union to agree with the union demands.
As with many other pieces of New Deal legislation, the establishment of the NLRB was bitterly attacked by employers as a measure that would ruin the US economy. But such fear mongering proved completely unfounded. Over the next ten years both union membership and the size of the US economy would grow hand in hand, so that by 1945 the ranks of unionized worker had reached a record 35 percent of the non-agricultural workforce, while wages had increased by 65 percent, unemployment had fallen to less than one percent, and the US economy exploded to meet the demands of the Second World War.
Moreover, the labor legislation of the New Deal helped form the basis of a long period of post-war prosperity that vastly expanded the size and wealth of the American middle class. Yet sadly, the right of American workers to form unions and engage in collective bargaining — and hence protect their job security and wages — is once again under attack. The recent attempt by conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives to challenge the NLRB authority to act through the introduction of such bills as the Protecting Jobs from Government Interference Act is but one example of this ongoing attempt to weaken the NLRB’s authority and with it the power of unions to fight against unfair labor practices. In 1935, in the wake of the Wagner Bill, FDR asserted that the “fundamental…right of a worker to associate himself with other workers and to bargain collectively with his employer” was “now beyond partisan controversy.” Based on the recent activities of this Congress, and the strong anti-union movement among conservatives in states like Wisconsin and New Jersey it would appear that he was sadly mistaken.
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.