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The Wagner Act, also known as the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (29 U.S.C.A. § 151 et seq.), is the most important piece of labor legislation enacted in U.S. history. It made the federal government the arbiter of employer-employee relations through the creation of the national labor relations board (NLRB) and recognized for the first time the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively with their employers. The act overturned decades of court decisions that asserted that labor unions violated an employee's liberty of contract.
Senator robert f. wagner, a Democrat from New York, introduced the legislation in 1935, when the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression. President franklin d. roosevelt initially opposed the legislation out of fear that labor organizing might interfere with economic recovery, but gave his support when passage became inevitable.
Congress based its right to pass national labor-management legislation on the U.S. Con stitution's Commerce Clause. The act states that unequal bargaining power between employees and employers leads to economic instability, whereas the refusal of employers to recognize the right to bargain collectively leads to strikes. Because these disturbances impede the flow of interstate commerce, Congress may take steps to continue the free flow of commerce by encouraging Collective Bargaining and unionizing.
The Wagner Act established the rights of employees to organize, join, or aid labor unions and to participate in collective bargaining through their representatives. The act also authorized unions to take "concerted action" for these purposes. This meant that workers could lawfully strike and take other peaceful action as a way of placing pressure on an employer. This provision was coupled with another that prohibited employers from engaging in unfair labor practices that interfere with the union rights of employees. Unfair labor practices include prohibiting employees from joining unions, firing employees because of their union membership, or establishing a company-dominated union. In addition to requiring employers to bargain col lectively with the union duly selected by the employees, the act set up procedures for establishing appropriate bargaining units (homoge neous groups of employees) where employees can elect a bargaining agent (a representative for labor negotiations) by a secret ballot.
The act also created the NLRB, a federal Administrative Agency, to administer and enforce its unfair labor practice and representation provisions. The NLRB hears cases involving unfair labor practices and makes decisions that the federal courts of appeals may review.At the time of its enactment, some observers doubted that the Wagner Act would be found constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court had struck down numerous New Deal statutes on the basis that business and labor laws were matters that should be left to the marketplace or to state legislatures. In nlrb v. jones & laughlin steel corp., 301 U.S. 1, 57 S. Ct. 615, 81 L. Ed. 893 (1937), however, the Court reversed course and held that the Wagner Act was constitutional.
The Wagner Act was one of the most dramatic legislative measures of the New Deal. Not only did the legislation indicate that the federal government was prepared to move against employers to enforce the rights of labor to unionize and to bargain collectively, but it imposed no reciprocal obligations on unions.
The law was amended by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, also known as the Labor Management Relations Act (29 U.S.C.A. § 141 et seq.), which balanced some of the advantages given to unions under the Wagner Act by imposing corresponding duties upon unions to deal fairly with management. The act was further modified by the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959 (29 U.S.C.A. § 401 et seq.), which sought to end abuses of power by union officials in handling union funds and internal affairs.
Hardin, Patrick, et al., eds. 2002. The Developing Labor Law: The Board, the Courts, and the National Labor Relations Act. 4th ed. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of National Affairs.
National Labor Relations Board. 1997. Basic Guide to the National Labor Relations Act. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: GPO. (Also available online at <www.nlrb.gov/nlrb/shared_files/brochures/basicguide.asp>; accessed February 24, 2004.)