Anniversary of the National Labor Relations Act

By Duane Campbell

In celebration  of  July 4 Independence Day, we post this history of the National Labor Relations Act- an act that created much of our present union collective bargaining processes.

On Bloody Thursday, July 5, 1934, police attacked striking Longshoremen in San Francisco, killing 2, wounding 32 more.

President Roosevelt  faced pressure from striking workers,  socialist groups, unemployed workers, emerging unions, African-American workers, southern tenant farmers, veterans and others.  This pressure created the political climate for the passage of the NLRA. 

On July 5, 1935 President Franklin Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act ( The Wagner Act) establishing rules for the organization of labor unions  in the U.S.:

After the National Industrial Recovery Act was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, organized labor was again looking for relief from employers who had been free to spy on, interrogate, discipline, discharge, and blacklist union members. In the 1930s, workers had begun to organize militantly, and in 1933 and 1934, a great wave of strikes occurred across the nation in the form of citywide general strikes and factory takeovers. Violent confrontations occurred between workers trying to form unions and the police and private security forces defending the interests of anti-union employers.

In a Congress sympathetic to labor unions, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was passed in July of 1935. The broad intention of the act, commonly known as the Wagner Act after Senator Robert R. Wagner of New York, was to guarantee employees “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid and protection.” The NLRA applied to all employers involved in interstate commerce except airlines, railroads, agriculture, and government.

In order to enforce and maintain those rights, the act included provision for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to arbitrate deadlocked labor-management disputes, guarantee democratic union elections, and penalize unfair labor practices by employers. To this day, the board of five members, appointed by the President, is assisted by 33 regional directors. The NLRB further determines proper bargaining units, conducts elections for union representation, and investigates charges of unfair labor practices by employers. Unfair practices, by law, include such things as interference, coercion, or restraint in labor’s self-organizing rights; interference with the formation of labor unions; encouragement or discouragement of union membership; and the refusal to bargain collectively with a duly chosen employee representatives.

The constitutionality of the NLRA was upheld by the United States Supreme Court in National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. in 1937. The act contributed to a dramatic surge in union membership and made labor a force to be reckoned with both politically and economically. Women benefited from this shift to unionization as well. By the end of the 1930s, 800,000 women belonged to unions, a threefold increase from 1929. The provisions of the NLRA were later expanded under the Taft-Hartley Labor Act of 1957 and the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959.

- From "Our Documents"


Duane Campbell is a professor emeritus of bilingual multicultural education at California State University Sacramento, a union activist, and chair of Sacramento DSA.

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