National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)

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The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is a governmental agency that was founded in July 1935 for the purpose of enforcing the National Labor Relations Act, also called the Wagner Act after its main architect, Senator Robert F. Wagner, a progressive Democratic from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's home state of New York. The National Labor Relations Act was supposed to give teeth to workers' collective bargaining rights, and during the "Second" New Deal the NLRB was successful in safeguarding workers' rights to select their bargaining representatives and in ensuring the compliance of management with the law. The NLRB also facilitated the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which could compete with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) for the votes of minorities, many of whom had been used by management in mass production industries—such as steel, automobiles, mining, and rubber—as strikebreakers.

The economic hardship and suffering that characterized the Great Depression had impelled workers during the "First" New Deal to unionize and to oppose the labor practices that management had utilized for decades—practices that included court injunctions, "yellow dog" contracts, blacklists, strikebreakers, company unions, and other coercive measures to limit the bargaining effectiveness of unions. Thus, the Roosevelt administration adopted pro-union policies through one of its key agencies, the National Recovery Administration (NRA). During the NRA's two years of existence, it engendered the unionization of labor, and numerous, sometimes violent, strikes took place in the country from 1933 to 1935 as a consequence. In response, Roosevelt created the National Labor Board, headed by Senator Wagner. Although the Board enjoyed some initial success, it eventually collapsed because of the stubborn resistance of business leaders to independent unions.

Although business was able to receive insulation from antitrust laws, section 7(a) of the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act, which had created the NRA, affirmed the right of unions to "organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing." The NRA's minimum wages and maximum hours codes, however, were jettisoned by the Supreme Court in the 1935 Schechter case, which found the National Industrial Recovery Act unconstitutional, primarily because it attempted to regulate interstate commerce and because of its broad delegation of legislative power. In 1937 a divided Supreme Court, in a broad interpretation of interstate commerce, upheld the constitutionality of the National Labor Relations Act by a five to four margin in NLRB v. Jones and Laughlin Steel.

Despite the NLRB's successful role in promulgating pro-union policies during the late 1930s, its policies created a conservative backlash against labor after 1945. Following a major victory in 1946, Republicans passed the Taft-Hartley Act over President Harry Truman's veto. The Taft-Hartley Act effectively compromised the union movement. Furthermore, by 1986 the NLRB was dominated by President Ronald Reagan's pro-management appointees, with the net effect of eviscerating federal support for the collective bargaining power of unions.



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Bernstein, Irving. Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933–1941. 1969.

Fraser, Steve, and Gary Gerstle. The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930–1980. 1989.

Leuchtenberg, William E. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932–1940. 1963.

Vernon J. Williams, Jr.

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National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)

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National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)