Norris-Laguardia Act (1932)

views updated May 08 2018

Norris-Laguardia Act (1932)

Neil N. Bernstein

When it adopted the Norris-LaGuardia Act (47 Stat. 70), Congress liberated organized labor from the crippling restraints of federal court injunctions. Prior to the act's passage, a federal judge, persuaded that a potential or actual strike, picketing, or boycott might violate the law, would issue an injunction to halt a union's activities. Although the injunctions remained in effect for only a few days, they would break the momentum of the employees, thereby terminating the activity permanently. Moreover, an employer could frequently secure an injunction without notice to the union, with no proof other than questionable affidavits, and with language barring many forms of employee conduct which were probably lawful.

To end these abuses, the Norris-LaGuardia Act:

  1. Declared any "yellow dog" contract (under which an employee promised not to become a member of any labor organization) to be unenforceable in any court of the United States.
  2. Deprived federal courts of jurisdiction to issue injunctions against peaceful striking, assembling, patrolling, or publicizing facts in connection with a labor dispute.
  3. Defined "labor dispute" as broadly as possible to encompass any controversy concerning the terms and conditions of employment or representation.
  4. Provided that in any dispute where an injunction might be issued (when harm to person or property is threatened), the federal courts must comply with stringent procedural safeguards, including a prior hearing under oath in open court with cross examination.


Enactment of the statute occurred only after a long, bitter struggle. A group of five lawyers and economists, led by Professor Felix Frankfurter of Harvard Law School originally drafted a bill in 1928 but the document they produced would not become law until 1932. The draft bill was reported to the Senate Judiciary Committee, with a recommendation that it be reported favorably to the Senate. The Committee, however, took no action on the proposal and it died upon the adjournment of the Seventieth Congress. Reintroduced in the Seventy-first Congress in 1930, the bill was the subject of extensive hearings before a judiciary subcommittee. This time, the Judiciary Committee did report the bill to the full Senate, but with a recommendation that it not be enacted. The Senate took no action, and the bill again died when Congress adjourned.

In the meantime national sentiment shifted to the side of the legislation, occasioned by the economic depression and the plight of working men. Both political parties had adopted planks in their national platforms calling for legislation to eliminate the abuses of injunctions in labor disputes. In the Seventy-second Congress, the Senate Judiciary Committee finally reported the bill favorably to the full Senate. The legislation had little opposition in Congress itself, passing the Senate 75 to 5 and the House of Representatives by a vote of 363 to 13.

President Herbert Hoover signed the bill on March 23, 1932, and simultaneously released a letter from the attorney general indicating that while some questioned the bill's constitutionality, he nevertheless recommended that the president sign it so the objections "can be set at rest by judicial decision." The courts, however, have never questioned the constitutionality of the legislation.


Congress enacted the Norris-LaGuardia Act before the New Deal era and intended the act to remove the federal government from any involvement in relations between unions and employers in the private economy. Basically, it left the parties free to carry on their struggles using all the economic weapons at their disposal, with no holds barred. The legislation removed judicial obstructions impeding the efforts of unions to organize, strike, picket, and boycott, but did not commit the government in any way to intervene on the side of the unions.

The reign of Norris-LaGuardia as the labor policy of the federal government was short-lived. In 1935 Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act, which established a new national policy in favor of collective bargaining and union organizing. The statute protected union organizing tactics and deprived employers of the economic weapons they had utilized against unions, such as firing union organizers and adherents. Government policy changed again in 1947 with the enactment of the Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act. Taft-Hartley regulated the economic activities of unions for the first time and prohibited the use of secondary boycotts and lengthy organizational picketing.

Congress, nevertheless, never repealed the Norris-LaGuardia Act and it has retained a significant role in U.S. labor law. The most important impact of Norris-LaGuardia was its antitrust exemption for organized labor. Prior to 1932 many federal courts regarded unions as "conspiracies in restraint of trade" and were willing not only to enjoin their activities, but also to grant substantial damages at the behest of their target employers. Congress originally sought to remove unions from antitrust scrutiny through a special exemption in the 1914 Clayton Act, but the Supreme Court limited the exemption to disputes between employers and their direct employees. The Norris-LaGuardia Act by its explicit language only barred injunctions and said nothing about private treble damages suits or criminal prosecutions. In a later decision, United States v. Hutcheson (1941), the Supreme Court's Justice Frankfurter (who was one of the drafters of Norris-LaGuardia before he became a Supreme Court Justice) held that Norris-LaGuardia should be read broadly to provide a total antitrust exemption for labor unions, "so long as a union acts in its self-interest and does not combine with non-labor groups."


Norris-LaGuardia was also significant as a limitation on injunctions against violations of no-strike provisions in collective bargaining agreements. Most collective bargaining agreements contained a pledge by the union not to strike for the life of the agreement but to submit all disputes to binding arbitration. Yet from time to time, employers refused to arbitrate a disagreement, or employees went on strike in spite of contract promises. In these cases, the courts were willing to grant injunctions on the theory that the policy in favor of arbitration was more important than Norris-LaGuardia.

In Buffalo Forge v. United Steelworkers (1976), however, the Supreme Court held that this exception to Norris-LaGuardia was a "narrow" one applied only when there was an underlying dispute that was arbitrable. In all other cases, even though the legality of the strike itself may be arbitrable, Norris-LaGuardia barred an injunction until an arbitrator had ruled that the strike was an actual contract violation.

Another important area of Norris-LaGuardia concerned labor disputes under the Railway Labor Act, which governs labor relations in the railroad and airline industries. Conflicts in those industries have been divided into "major disputes," which relate to the negotiation of new agreements or provisions, and "minor disputes," which concern the application or meaning of labor agreements. Under the Railway Labor Act, minor disputes must be resolved by mandatory arbitration, while major disputes were channeled through a lengthy negotiation process.

If a major dispute is not settled during the negotiation period, the employer is free to change the terms of the agreement unilaterally and the union is free to strike or picket. The courts have accommodated the seemingly conflicting provisions of the Railway Labor Act with Norris-LaGuardia by holding that the mandatory provisions for resolving minor disputes should prevail over Norris-LaGuardia and that injunctions may be issued against any party who fails to follow the prescribed procedures. So far as major disputes are concerned, however, once the parties have exhausted the steps of the negotiating procedures, Norris-LaGuardia bars the issuance of injunctive relief against economic pressure whether or not that pressure is allowable under the Railway Labor Act.

Norris-LaGuardia has been read in the broadest terms to permit unions and civil rights groups to use picketing and boycotts in controversies not normally categorized as "labor disputes." The case of New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery Company (1938) concerned picketing by an association of African Americans to induce companies to employ more African American clerks. The Supreme Court held that because the controversy was over employment, it was a "labor dispute" and federal courts could not prevent the picketing.

Similarly, in Marine Cooks & Stewards v. Panama S.S. Company (1960), the union picketed foreign ships in U.S. waters to protest the employment of foreign crew members. The Supreme Court ruled that this picketing also concerned employment and wages, was a "labor dispute" under the Norris-LaGuardia Act, and could not be enjoined. Finally, in Jacksonville Bulk Terminals v. International Longshoremens Association (1982), employers tried to enjoin union members who had refused to load or unload goods bound to or from the Soviet Union to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Supreme Court held that because the dispute between the parties concerned work stoppages and whether they violated a collective bargaining agreement, it was a "labor dispute" and could not be prohibited.

In conclusion, although the Norris-LaGuardia Act was originally passed to set a policy for the indefinite future, as events actually occurred that policy was abandoned by the federal government after a very short period of time. The statute has survived major policy reevaluations and has remained a vital component of present law.

See also: National Labor Relations Act; Taft-Hartley Act.


Berenson, Michael A. "Comment: Labor Injunctions Pending Arbitration," Tulane Law Review 63 (1989): 1681.

Frankfurter, Felix, and Nathan Greene. The Labor Injunction. New York: Macmillan, 1930.

Gorman, Robert A. Basic Text on Labor Law. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Company, 1976.

Gregory, Charles O. Labor and the Law. Revised, enlarged ed. New York: Norton, 1949.

Koretz, Robert F., ed. Statutory History of the United States: Labor Organization. New York: Chelsea House, 1970.

Lawry, Matthew C. "Jacksonville Bulk Terminals: The Norris-LaGuardia Act and Politically Motivated Strikes." In Ohio State Law Journal 44 (1983): 821.

Norris, George W. Fighting Liberal. New York: Collier Books, 1961.

Vance, Catherine A. "Note: Secondary Picketing in Railway Labor Disputes." In Fordham Law Review 55 (1986): 203.

Norris-Laguardia Act of 1932

views updated May 18 2018


The Norris-LaGuardia Act outlawed yellow-dog contracts (pledges by workers not to join a labor union) and further restricted the use of court injunctions in labor disputes against strikes, picketing, and boycotts. Imposing strict procedural limitations on issuing injunctions against strike activity, the act pointed the direction towards a more even-handed relationship between the judiciary and the nation's labor relations systems. Although it had few enforcement powers, the act was one of the first federal labor laws supporting organized labor and it marked a significant victory in labor reform. Its passage fostered a trend toward more favorable government labor policies.

Industrialization of the late nineteenth century brought unsafe factory conditions, low wages, repetitious work over long hours, little job security, no benefits: these conditions led workers to favor unions. But the very legality of labor unions was in dispute for much of the nineteenth century. At the anti-union end of the spectrum, many nineteenth century judges considered unions to be in restraint of trade, because they called strikes. Later the courts began to recognize the validity of workers seeking shorter workdays and higher wages. But, injunctions requiring unions to refrain from certain activities (like picketing on company property or otherwise trying to persuade workers from entering company property during a strike) became a major weapon of employers beginning in the 1840s. Later antitrust laws added further legal authority to such orders by prohibiting organizations from restraining free market competition through cooperative relationships. During this period, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act was more often used against unions than against the companies.

In 1877 and again in 1894 the federal government used troops to end major strikes, actions that radicalized some in the labor movement. In 1905 the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was formed, espousing the goal of replacing the capitalist system with socialism. After some successful early strikes, however, it was smothered by government repression.

During the labor shortage of World War I, the Clayton Anti-Trust Act of 1914 Congress finally acted to exempt unions from antitrust laws. Employers turned to other means. Forcing employees to sign "yellowdog contracts" became a condition of employment. The contracts pledged employees to refrain from joining a union, or to renounce membership if they already belonged to one. Some state legislatures moved to prohibit these agreements but the Supreme Court ruled in 1915 that such state prohibitions unconstitutionally violated freedom to contract.

But, after the crash of the stock market in 1929 and the long stagnation in investment that characterized the 1930s, the high unemployment of the Great Depression made it difficult for workers to express their unified preference for union representation. By the third year of the Depression, however, workers with jobs began to push for unionization anyway. Labor solidarity was borne of desperation. The formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) with the specific purpose of "organizing the unorganized" unskilled and semi-skilled workers in basic industry, sparked an explosion in the size of the union movement. In spite of the high unemployment during the Great Depression, the union movement grew by more than 300 percent. In 1933 national union membership had fallen to less than three million. By 1941 it stood at over ten million.

The Norris-LaGuardia Act was part of this change in labor relations. Even before the New Deal began, Senator George William Norris from Nebraska and Congressman Fiorello H. LaGuardia from New York City, both progressive Republicans, introduced new labor reform legislation, the Norris-LaGuardia Act. With passage of the act, the groundwork was laid for an even more important labor bill, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, called the Wagner Act. The Wagner Act continued the mission of reforming labor relations. It set out to regulate the nation's labor relations. It granted unions fundamental rights and powers, including the right of collective bargaining, defined unfair labor practices, and established penalties for violating them. Passed in 1932, the Norris-LaGuardia Act marked a profound change in U.S. government oversight over labor relations. It was the most favorable legislation to date for a U.S. labor movement that had always had to fight for its very existence.

See also: Clayton Anti-Trust Act, Labor Unionism, Sherman Anti-Trust Act, Yellow Dog Contracts


Barkin, Solomon. Worker Militancy and Its Consequences: The Changing Climate of Western Industrial Relations. New York: Praeger, 1983.

Cox, Robert W. Production, Power, and World Order: Social Forces and the Making of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

Dubofsky, Melvyn, ed. Technological Change and Workers' Movements. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1985.

Dunlop, John, and Walter Galenson, ed. Labor in the Twentieth Century. New York: Academic Press, 1978.

Goldfield, Michael. The Decline of Organized Labor in the United States. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Lorwin, Lewis L. The American Federation of Labor: History, Policies, and Prospects. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1933.

passed in 1932, the norris-laguardia act marked a profound change in u.s. government oversight over labor relations. it was the most favorable legislation to date for a u.s. labor movement that had always had to fight for its very existence.

Norris-LaGuardia Act

views updated May 23 2018


NORRIS-LAGUARDIA ACT. In 1932, Congress passed the Norris-LaGuardia Anti-Injunction Act in response to what many saw as the abuse of federal court injunctions in labor disputes. An injunction is a judicial order that either commands an individual to perform an act or forbids performing a particular act. As the United States became a more industrialized nation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it experienced increasing industrial strife, leading many employers to request federal courts to issue orders prohibiting the activities of strikers. For example, between 1880 and 1930, federal and state courts issued roughly 4,300 antistrike decrees.

The first antistrike decrees appeared during the 1877 railroad Strikes. When local and state officials expressed reluctance to arrest the strikers, employers turned to the federal courts. Court orders restraining the strikers could often be obtained without any union input into the decision. Although often issued only temporarily, the injunction often succeeded in breaking the strikers' momentum and effectively ended the strike. Federal courts based their authority to issue injunctions chiefly on the Interstate Commerce Act (1887) and the Sherman Anti-trust Act (1890). The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the use of such injunctions against striking labor unions in In re Debs (158 U.S. 564,1895).

Early in the twentieth century, federal court injunctions against labor activities began to fall into increasing disfavor. Labor unions began to lobby Congress for legislation that would abolish the courts' use of labor injunctions. In 1914 labor officials appeared to have achieved their goal when Congress passed the Clayton Act, whose labor provisions seemed to bar federal courts from enjoining peaceful picketing and certain other activities connected with strikes or boycotts. Nevertheless, lower federal courts construed the ambiguous language of the act's anti-injunction provisions in a limited fashion. In 1921 the Supreme Court announced in Duplex Printing Press Company v. Deering (254 U.S. 453) that the Clayton Act merely codified the existing common law of the injunction.

The Norris-LaGuardia Act, unlike the ambiguously drafted Clayton Act, ensured that procedural barriers and safeguards limited the use of labor injunctions. The act declared it to be the public policy of the United States that employees be allowed to organize and bargain collectively free of employer coercion. The act treated unions as entities with rights and interests of their own. It granted unions greater authority to engage in strikes and in most cases barred altogether the issuance of injunctions in labor disputes. The Senate report on the bill stated: "A man must work in order to live. If he can express no control over his conditions of employment, he is subject to involuntary servitude" (S.R. 163,72d Cong., 1st Sess., p. 9).

Beginning in the late 1930s, the federal courts affirmed and extended the Norris-LaGuardia Act's protection of strike and boycott activities to include immunity for labor leaders not only from injunctions but also from civil actions for damages. Nevertheless, the Norris-LaGuardia Act was not as effective as it could have been because it contained no means of enforcing its provisions for labor representation, except through the courts, which sometimes proved hostile to labor's interests.


Gorman, Robert A. Basic Text on Labor Law: Unionization and Collective Bargaining. St. Paul, Minn.: West, 1976.

Leslie, Douglas L. Labor Law in a Nutshell. St. Paul, Minn.: West, 2000.

Katherine M. Jones

See also Clayton Act, Labor Provisions ; Injunctions, Labor ; Labor Legislation and Administration .

Norris-Laguardia Act

views updated Jun 11 2018


The Norris-LaGuardia Act (29 U.S.C.A. § 101 et seq.) is one of the initial federal labor laws in favor of organized labor. It was enacted in 1932 to provide that contracts that limit an employee's right to join a labor union are unlawful. Such contracts are commonly known as yellow dog contracts. Initially the law was known as the anti-injunction act since its numerous restrictions had the effect of stopping any federal court from issuing an injunction to end a labor dispute. In one part of the act, for example, there is a provision that an injunction prohibiting a strike cannot be issued unless the local police are either unwilling or unable to prevent damage or violence.


Labor Law.