“How come workers don’t join unions?” the young man asked.
“More than 60% of workers do want unions, but today it takes lots of courage to make that happen,” the old man replied.
“Why?” persisted the youth who was in the throes of entering a union apprenticeship program.
“Let me tell you about the Wagner Act.”
In the historic year of 1935 when the first Social Security Act was enacted, the Wagner Act – or National Labor Relations Act — may have had a more immediate impact on getting the nation out of the depths of its economic woes. Signed into law on July 5, 1935, labor called it the workers’ Magna Carta.
The law proclaimed two basic principles: first, that working people had the right to combine and organize unions in the workplace, and, secondly, that once they had established such a union the employer was obligated to bargain in good faith with the union.
Prior to the passage of the Wagner Act, workers found their efforts to organize often stifled by the courts leaving employers free to fire workers for any reason at all. Mass production workers rarely formed lasting unions until the enactment of the Wagner Act. With the passage of the law, workers realized the U.S. government was available to protect them in their quest for a union that would improve their wages and help provide for a safer and more just workplace. Encouraged, union organizing exploded and one by one the nation’s massive industries in autos, steel and mining became organized. It was a trend that would continue so that by 1954 more than one out of three workers in the U.S. was in a union.
Today, union membership stands at about one out of every ten workers in the U.S. That means that 90% of workers have few protections against being arbitrarily fired, unfairly paid or forced to work on uncertain schedules. They are at the mercy of their employers, plain and simple. The result has been devastating to working people, causing wages to stagnate for more than three decades.
Today, then the question is: what happened to the promise of the Wagner Act?
Today it is hardly more than a toothless tiger. It was weakened by successive antiunion laws, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 and the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959. Its rulings on what constitutes an “unfair labor practice” on the part of employers have been weakened either through a succession of pro-business NLRB Board members or through rulings by Federal Courts.
The truth is that organizing under the current rules of the NLRB has become almost impossible. Today, it would be dishonest for a union organizer to tell a bunch of workers that their jobs won’t be in jeopardy just because they sought a union in their workplace. He or she must tell these workers that if they were fired because of their organizing activities it might be difficult to prove under current interpretations their firing was for union activity, and, that if they were to win the case, such relief might be two years in the offing. What worker can live with two years of unemployment?
If a group of workers were able to form a union, the employer is often able to use all sorts of stalling tactics to make it nearly impossible to eventually reach a contract. The prolonged process causes workers to become disillusioned with the union.
If the NLRB has lost its purpose to protect working people, what’s the answer?
Perhaps the answer lies in looking at why the law first came into being. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, employers had little regard for their workers, summarily cutting wages, indiscriminately firing workers in favor of replacement workers. The workers rebelled in many plants with walkouts, rallies and sitdown strikes.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, pushed by his reformist advisers, prolabor leaders in Congress and even some enlightened businessmen, agreed that stability was needed to reduce the disruptions in the workplace. Furthermore, Roosevelt was convinced that something had to be done to put money in the coveralls of workers.
FDR balked at first to the inclusion of the collective bargaining clause in the Wagner Act (as well as its short-lived preceding law, the National Industrial Recovery Act). It was for Senator Robert Wagner
of New York (key sponsor of the law) to convince the President and others that the provision was necessary.
On May 15, 1935, Wagner gave a powerful address to Congress:
“[It] is responsive to the ominous industrial disturbances of last summer, when blood ran freely in the streets and martial law was in the offing, [and] appeals to the conscience and intelligence of all those who know the history and are imbued with its high ideals.”
Are we not in the same position today? From 1930 to 1935, workers had few protections and jobs were dear; yet, they rallied in solidarity to strike, to march and to campaign for a better future. Today workers have few protections from the once promising Wagner Act and jobs are hard to come by. It’s time now to create strategies that will enable workers to again march in solidarity and bring about reforms in the workplace. Ken Germanson