Labor Legislation & Unions Research Paper Starter

Labor Legislation & Unions

(Research Starters)

In 1935, the Labor movement gained significant force with the Passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRA protected the rights of the private sector to join unions and bargain collectively to improve their pay and working conditions and as a result, had a profound effect on American business. This article briefly reviews the history and substance of the NLRA, its effect on labor unions and the continued relevance of the traditional union in the twenty-first century.

Keywords Industry; Labor Union; National Labor Relations Act (NLRA); Unfair business Practice



Labor and Employment Law are often mentioned together, but while the two bodies of law are related, they deal with distinct issues, relationships, and rights under the law. Employment law typically concerns an individual employee's rights with respect to their rights in the workplace, including: protection from racial and other discrimination, certain working conditions, minimum wages, and workers' compensation insurance for injury, among others. Labor law is typically understood to govern the realm of management relations with organized labor. Labor law covers such subjects as the right of employees to unionize and bargain collectively and strike, regulates internal union operations, establishes dispute resolution mechanisms and defines unfair labor practices.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is the primary body of federal law that controls labor-management relations in private business. The NLRA was shaped by three major pieces of legislation, the Wagner Act in 1935, the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 and the Landrum-Griffin Act in 1959. The NLRA grants to employees the right to form labor organizations to bargain collectively with employers on the terms and conditions of employment and the right to otherwise make concerted efforts to support those rights.

Prior to the NLRA, employee efforts to organize for the purpose of demanding higher wages or more favorable working conditions were often met with harsh results. In the nineteenth century, employees that attempted to strike, picket or boycott faced criminal prosecution or civil injunction because such activities were viewed as conspiracies that restrained trade and inflicted irreparable damage on the employer. State civil courts often viewed strikes and picketing as inherently intimidating and ominous. And the labor goals of higher wages or closed shops were considered anti-social and unfairly restrictive on the freedom of others. Federal courts also prevented labor activities through the federal anti-trust laws that declared illegal conspiracies that restrained trade and allowed injunctions, criminal penalties and private treble damage awards.

At the end of the nineteenth century, sensitivity gradually developed for the concerns of laborers. The federal government passed the Clayton Act in 1914, which withdrew the power of the federal courts to regulate labor activities through the anti-trust law. The Railway Labor Act of 1926 provided for the peaceful resolution of labor disputes through mediation and protected employees from termination based on union membership. In 1932, the Norris-LaGuardia Act barred, in most cases, the issuance of injunctions in labor disputes and permitted employees to organize and bargain collectively free from employer coercion. The Supreme Court interpreted these laws broadly and allowed union activity even if it had an anti-competitive effect. Additionally, the Court insulated unions from criminal liability, treble damages and injunctive relief.

Before the mid 1930's, Congress's approach to labor relations was essentially to leave the dispute unregulated and allow labor and management to bring to bear whatever economic resources each side had the power to apply. Labor used picketing and striking and management used termination. With the Wagner Act, or the NLRA of 1935, Congress adopted a more positive approach. The Wagner Act granted labor a federally protected right to "self-organize, 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 Wagner Act made illegal certain employer acts or "unfair labor practices," including coercion or interference with an employee's right to organize, domination of unions, discrimination to discourage union membership, and a refusal to bargain in good faith with an employee representative. The Wagner Act also created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to monitor unfair labor practices through judicial type proceedings. The Board had the power to order employers to remedy any unfair labor practices. The Board's orders were enforceable and reviewable in the U.S. Courts of Appeals.

In the years after the Wagner Act, union membership dramatically increased, disputes between unions proliferated, labor use of strikes and mass picketing increased, and undemocratic or corrupt practices surfaced in internal union affairs. Concurrently, the NLRB was cited by many to be overly protective of labor with strict regulation of employer unfair labor practices. Congress reacted to the abuses under the Wagner Act in 1947, by enacting the Taft-Hartley Act, or NLRA of 1947. Taft-Hartley reorganized the NLRB to separate the judicial function from the prosecutorial function, removed supervisors and independent contractors from coverage under the act, placed limits on the ability of the Board to hear certain cases, and gave Courts of Appeals greater authority to set aside Board findings. Taft-Hartley also made clear that unfair labor practices could not be based on any employer expression that did not contain a threat of reprisal or on any refusal to make a concession or reach an agreement during bargaining. Unions were regulated regarding procedures and finances. Employees were given the protected right to refuse membership in a union and closed shop agreements were declared illegal. Most importantly, Taft-Hartley enumerated a list of unfair labor practices by labor organizations, including restraining or coercing employees in violation of their protected rights, causing an employer to discriminate against employees, refusing to bargain in good faith, and causing an employer to pay for work not performed. Taft-Hartley also reintroduced the labor injunction limited to unfair labor practices and only by request of the NLRB.

In 1959, The Landrum-LaGuardia Act, or Labor-Reporting and Disclosure Act, was passed largely to address corruption in union leadership and undemocratic conduct of internal union affairs. The Act provided for elaborate union reporting requirements and a bill of rights for union members. The act also imposed further limits on union activities to close loopholes left in the secondary-boycott provisions of the previous Taft-Hartley Act.


The NLRA does not cover all workers; the Act specifically excludes certain categories of workers. Those excluded from coverage include: agricultural laborers; domestic employees in a home, persons employed by a parent or spouse; independent contractors, supervisors, employees covered by the Railway Act such as in the railroad or airline employees; Federal, state or local government employees. The central features of the NLRA protection for most other private sector employees are the provisions regarding unfair labor practices and union elections as administered by the NLRB. The NLRB is an independent federal agency that has two primary functions, first: to avoid and correct unfair labor practices done by labor or management, and second: to determine whether groups of employees wish to form a union and if so, which union through secret ballot elections. The NLRB is divided into two major parts: a five-member governing Board and the office of General Counsel. The Board is a quasi-judicial body and members are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for five-year terms. The General Counsel is appointed by the President with Senate consent for four-year terms. The General Counsel is separate from the Board and is obligated to investigate and prosecute unfair labor practices cases. The General Counsel is also responsible for supervising NLRB field offices in processing cases.

The NLRB does not act of its own accord; it processes only claims made through one of its 51 offices around the nation. When an unfair labor practice (ULP) claim is filed by an employee, the appropriate office conducts an investigation to decide if there is reasonable cause to think that the NLRA has been violated. If the appropriate regional director finds reasonable cause, the office will seek a voluntary settlement to correct the violation. If the voluntary settlement effort fails, a formal complaint will be issued and the matter will go before an NLRB Administrative Law Judge. That judge issues a written decision of the case which can be appealed to NLRB five-member Board. The subsequent Board decision is subject to review by the U.S. Court of Appeals. Approximately 25,000 ULP cases are filed each year; one third of those cases have merit, of which 90 percent are settled.

The prohibition on ULPs applies both to unions and management. Under the NLRA, employers and labor unions are prohibited from “interfering, restraining, or coercing employees in the exercise of rights relating to organizing, forming, joining or assisting a labor organization for collective bargaining purposes, or engaging in protected concerted activities, or refraining from such activity” (NLRA violations, 2010, ¶1). Under the NLRA, concerted activities are group activities where two or more employees are trying to...

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