National Labor Relations Act

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The National Labor Relations Act or Wagner Act (after its sponsor, Senator Robert F. Wagner) (Pub.L. 74-198, 49 Stat. 449, codified as amended at 29 U.S.C. § 151–169), is a 1935 United States federal law that limits the means with which employers may react to workers in the private sector who create labor unions, engage in collective bargaining, and take part in strikes and other forms of concerted activity in support of their demands. The Act does not apply to workers who are covered by the Railway Labor Act, agricultural employees, domestic employees, supervisors, federal, state or local government workers, independent contractors and some close relatives of individual employers.



It was in a context of severe economic troubles that the Wagner Act came into effect. After a decade of prosperity, during the Great Depression of the 1930s the nation faced an increasingly high unemployment rate and a rapidly declining standard of living[1]. It established a federal agency, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), with the power to investigate and decide on charges of unfair labor practices and to conduct elections in which workers would have the opportunity to decide whether they wanted to be represented by a union. The board also looked into matters such as improving personnel by better training and the development of standard procedures in different work fields [2]. The NLRB was given more extensive powers than the much weaker organization of the same name established under the National Industrial Recovery Act, which the United States Supreme Court had declared unconstitutional[3]. Federal interventions to regulate relations between labor and capital were opposed by many who subscribed to a “laissez faire” attitude towards economic order [4]. Workers’ efforts to organize in the 1920s were significantly limited by antitrust laws[5]. The Wagner Act marked a significant change in government policy towards labor organizations in a context of economic depression. This change in mentality can be seen in Senate address on May 8, 1937, in which Roosevelt stipulated: “The right to bargain collectively is at the bottom of social justice for the worker, as well as the sensible conduct of business affairs. The denial or observance of this right means the difference between despotism and democracy.”[6].

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