“Just and Peaceful Labor Relations in Industry:” Robert F. Wagner and the National Labor Relations Act
This blog post was written by Kate Donovan, Public Services and Instruction Librarian, Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives.
Commonly referred to as the Wagner Act, after its sponsor New York State Senator Robert F. Wagner, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) passed the United States Senate on this day in May 1935. The Act, which formed a cornerstone of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and would profoundly shape American labor policy in the twentieth century, was designed to affirm workers’ rights to unionize and bargain collectively with their employers, and to establish a federal government agency, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), to protect and enforce employees’ rights.
In addition to certifying union elections, the newly formed National Labor Relations Board was empowered to arbitrate labor-management conflicts and to curb and penalize employers for unfair labor practices such as coercion, interference in union organizing, and refusal to bargain collectively with union representatives. Although the Wagner Act extended coverage to all workers whose industries affected interstate commerce, agricultural, domestic, airline, railroad, and governmental workers were excluded.
Like its predecessor, the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act and other New Deal programs, the constitutionality of the Wagner Act was contested; however in 1937, the Supreme Court upheld the Act in the National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. case, while at the same time broadening the reach of the legislation to include industrial and manufacturing work, such as that performed in mines, mills, and factories.
Despite its limitations, the Wagner Act nevertheless dramatically altered labor relations in the United States in the ensuing decades, serving, in President Roosevelt’s words, “as an important step toward the achievement of just and peaceful labor relations in industry.” Further, the Act led to a surge in union membership in the United State and increased political and economic clout for labor unions.
The Robert F. Wagner Archives (named in honor of Senator Wagner) was established in 1977 as a joint program of the New York City Central Labor Council and the Tamiment Library to document and preserve the history of the New York City movement. Today, the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives is an internationally-known repository for the study of trade unionism and progressive politics, with over 20,000 feet of archival collections, including records for over 200 labor unions.