The National Labor Relations Act Primary Source eText

Primary Source

Senator Robert F. Wagner gives a speech over the radio on April 12, 1937. His pro-union bill became the National Labor Relations (or Wagner) Act in 1935. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Senator Robert F. Wagner gives a speech over the radio on April 12, 1937. His pro-union bill became the National Labor Relations (or Wagner) Act in 1935. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.


By: Senator Robert F. Wagner

Date: July 5, 1935

Source: The National Labor Relations Act, 49 Stat. 449, July 5, 1935. Reprinted in The National Labor Relations Act: Should It Be Amended? Julia E. Johnsen, comp. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1940, 355–356, 357, 359–360, 361–362, 363–365.

About the Author: Robert F. Wagner (1877–1953) was the chief architect of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) when he was representing New York in the Senate as a Democrat. German-born, Wagner became active in Democratic politics early in his career. He served as a justice of the New York Supreme Court before his election to the U.S. Senate in 1926. A strong supporter of labor, Wagner was a key congressional leader supporting the New Deal programs of Franklin Roosevelt. In addition to the NLRA, Wagner sponsored and helped draft such key legislation as the National Industrial Recovery Act (1933), the Federal Emergency Relief Administration Bill (1933), the Social Security Act, and the Wagner-Steagall Act that created the U.S. Housing Authority in 1938.


Since the late 1800s, unions representing skilled trades, primarily associated with the American Federation of Labor, had been reasonably successful. These skilled workers had sufficient bargaining power to force recognition of employers and enforce collective bargaining agreements. The situation for unskilled (industrial) workers was much different.

Employers in industries such as steel and automobile manufacturing were able to defeat every attempt on the part of unskilled workers to organize. Whereas skilled workers were able use their needed knowledge and skills to partially offset employer financial strength, unskilled and semi-skilled workers lacked that leverage. Employers could easily find unskilled workers to replace those who showed any inclination to organize.

The Depression generated a more sympathetic view toward the plight of labor. Previously unions, particularly of unskilled workers, were widely regarded as radical and un-American—opposed to the "rugged individualism" that was so much a part of the American ideal. The Depression convinced many Americans that individuals were not always in control of their economic destiny. Abject poverty in the midst of plenty forced the conclusion that collective action might be necessary to bring about a more equitable distribution of wealth.

The New Deal capitalized on the changing attitude toward labor. The National Industrial Recovery Act, a cornerstone of the early New Deal enacted in 1933, included a provision that guaranteed workers the right to

collective bargaining. While Roosevelt was not strongly pro-union, he clearly recognized the need for workers to be able to offset the power of employers and the value unions had in raising wages.

In May 1935, the Supreme Court declared the NRA unconstitutional. Senator Wagner quickly found the necessary support, including Franklin Roosevelt, for his bill. On July 5, 1935, over the vehement opposition of business leaders and industrialists, the National Labor Relations Act (often called the Wagner Act) passed. This bill protected the rights of workers to form unions and set up guidelines to ensure that employers could not violate those rights. It also created the National Labor Relations Board for the purpose of ensuring compliance with the act. It has served in this capacity since that time.


The Wagner Act was a turning point in American labor history. For the first time the authority of the federal government was clearly behind workers, supporting their right to collective bargaining and to form unions. It was a catalyst to increased labor agitation. Union membership grew from 3.7 million (mostly skilled workers) in 1935 to 7.3 million in 1940. Most of this growth was among unskilled workers. By 1950, union membership was nearly 15 million.

Success, however, did not come overnight. Despite the Wagner Act, employers continued to fight unionization efforts. In part, this reflected a confidence in their ability to "divide and conquer" workers as they had in the past. In part, it was in the belief that the Supreme Court would declare the Wagner Act unconstitutional.

The first setback to employers came when the Supreme Court found the Wagner Act to be constitutional. Bolstered by this, labor became more confident. Beginning in late 1937, a long series of labor actions, highlighted by the appearance of a new tactic—the sit-down strike—resulted in unprecedented union successes by the middle of 1938. Labor had won.

Primary Source: The National Labor Relations Act [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: This extract from the Wagner Act outlines the purposes of the legislation. It also defines unfair labor practices and describes, in part, the powers of the National Labor Relations Board. The Act remained as presented here until modified over the protests of labor—and the veto of President Harry Truman—in the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act.

An Act

To diminish the causes of labor disputes burdening or obstructing interstate and foreign commerce, to create a National Labor Relations Board, and for other purposes.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

Findings and Policy

Section 1. The denial by employers of the right of employees to organize and the refusal by employers to accept the procedure of collective bargaining lead to strikes and other forms of industrial strife or unrest, which have the intent or the necessary effect of burdening or obstructing commerce by (a) impairing the efficiency, safety, or operation of the instrumentalities of commerce; (b) occurring in the current of commerce; (c) materially affecting, restraining, or controlling the flow of raw materials or manufactured or processed goods from or into the channels of commerce, or the prices of such materials or goods in commerce; or (d) causing diminution of employment and wages in such volume as substantially to impair or disrupt the market for goods flowing from or into the channels of commerce.

The inequality of bargaining power between employees who do not possess full freedom of association or actual liberty of contract, and employers who are organized in the corporate or other forms of ownership association substantially burdens and affects the flow of commerce, and tends to aggravate recurrent business depressions, by depressing wage rates and the purchasing power of wage earners in industry and by preventing the stabilization of competitive wage rates and working conditions within and between industries.

Experience has proved that protection by law of the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively safeguards commerce from injury, impairment, or interruption, and promotes the flow of commerce by removing certain recognized sources of industrial strife and unrest, by encouraging practices fundamental to the friendly adjustment of industrial disputes arising out of differences as to wages, hours, or other working conditions, and by restoring equality of bargaining power between employers and employees.

It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States to eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to the free flow of commerce and to mitigate and eliminate these obstructions when they have occurred by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.…

National Labor Relations Board

Sec. 3. (a) There is hereby created a board, to be known as the "National Labor Relations Board" (hereinafter referred to as the "Board"), which shall be composed of three members, who shall be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate.…

Sec. 6. (a) The Board shall have authority from time to time to make, amend, and rescind such rules and regulations as may be necessary to carry out the provisions of this Act. Such rules and regulations shall be effective upon publication in the manner which the Board shall prescribe.

Rights of Employees

Sec. 7. Employees shall have 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 or protection.

Sec. 8. It shall be an unfair practice for an employer—

  1. To interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in section 7.
  2. To dominate or interfere with the formation or administration of any labor organization or contribute financial or other support to it: Provided, That subject to rules and regulations made and published by the Board pursuant to section 6 (a), an employer shall not be prohibited from permitting employees to confer with him during working hours without loss of time or pay.
  3. By discrimination in regard to hire or tenure of employment or any term or condition of employment to encourage or discourage membership in any labor organization: Provided, That nothing in this Act, or in the National Industrial Recovery Act (U. S. C., Supp. VII, title 15, secs. 701–712), as amended from time to time, or in any code or agreement approved or prescribed thereunder, or in any other statute of the United States, shall preclude an employer from making an agreement with a labor organization (not established, maintained, or assisted by any action defined in this Act as an unfair labor practice) to require as a condition of employment membership therein, if such labor organization is the representative of the employees as provided in section 9 (a), in the appropriate collective bargain unit covered by such agreement when made.
  4. To discharge or otherwise discriminate against an employee because he has filed charges or given testimony under this Act.
  5. To refuse to bargain collectively with the representatives of his employees, subject to the provisions of section 9 (a).

Representatives and Elections

Sec. 9. (a) Representatives designated or selected for the purposes of collective bargaining by the majority of the employees in a unit appropriate for such purposes, shall be the exclusive representatives of all the employees in such unit for the purposes of collective bargaining in respect to rates of pay, wages, hours of employment, or other conditions of employment: Provided, That any individual employee or a group of employees shall have the right at any time to present grievances to their employer.

(b) The Board shall decide in each case whether, in order to insure to employees the full benefit of their right to self-organization and to collective bargaining, and otherwise to effectuate the policies of this Act, the unit appropriate for the purposes of collective bargaining shall be the employer unit, craft unit, plant unit, or subdivision thereof.

(c) Whenever a question affecting commerce arises concerning the representation of employees, the Board may investigate such controversy and certify to the parties, in writing, the name or names of the representatives that have been designated or selected. In any such investigation, the Board shall provide for an appropriate hearing upon due notice, either in conjunction with a proceeding under section 10 or otherwise, and may take a secret ballot of employees, or utilize any other suitable method to ascertain such representatives.…

Presentation of Unfair Labor Practices

Sec. 10. (a) The Board is empowered, as hereinafter provided, to prevent any person from engaging in any unfair labor practice (listed in section 8) affecting commerce. This power shall be exclusive, and shall not be affected by any other means of adjustment or prevention that has been or may be established by agreement, code, law, or otherwise.

(b) Whenever it is charged that any person has engaged in or is engaging in any such unfair labor practice, the Board, or any agent or agency designated by the Board for such purposes, shall have power to issue and cause to be served upon such person complaint stating the charges in that respect, and containing notice of hearing before the Board or a member thereof, or before a designated agent or agency, at a place therein fixed, not less than five days after the serving of said complaint. Any such complaint may be amended by the member, agent, or agency conducting the hearing or the Board in its discretion at any time prior to the issuance of an order based thereon. The person so complained of shall have the right to file an answer to the original or amended complaint and to appear in person or otherwise and give testimony at the place and time fixed in the complaint. In the discretion of the member, agent or agency conducting the hearing or the Board, any other person may be allowed to intervene in the said proceeding and to present testimony. In any such proceeding the rules of evidence prevailing in courts of law or equity shall not be controlling.

(c) The testimony taken by such member, agent or agency or the Board shall be reduced to writing and filed with the Board. Thereafter, in its discretion, the Board upon notice may take further testimony or hear argument. If upon all the testimony taken the Board shall be of the opinion that any person named in the complaint has engaged in or is engaging in any such unfair labor practice, then the Board shall state its findings of fact and shall issue and cause to be served on such person an order requiring such person to cease and desist from such unfair labor practice, and to take such affirmative action, including reinstatement of employees with or without back pay, as will effectuate the policies of this Act. Such order may further require such person to make reports from time to time showing the extent to which it has complied with the order. If upon all the testimony taken the Board shall be of the opinion that no person named in the complaint has engaged in or is engaging in any such unfair labor practice, then the Board shall state its findings of fact and shall issue an order dismissing the said complaint.

(d) Until a transcript of the record in a case shall have been filed in a court, as hereinafter provided, the Board may at any time, upon reasonable notice and in such manner as it shall deem proper, modify or set aside, in whole or in part, any finding or order made or issued by it.…

Investigatory Powers

Sec. 11. For the purpose of all hearings and investigations, which, in the opinion of the Board, are necessary and proper for the exercise of the powers vested in it by section 9 and section 10—

  1. The Board, or its duly authorized agents or agencies, shall at all reasonable times have access to, for the purpose of examination, and the right to copy any evidence of any person being investigated or proceeded against that relates to any matter under investigation or in question. Any member of the Board shall have power to issue subpenas requiring the attendance and testimony of witnesses and the production of any evidence that relates to any matter under investigation or in question, before the Board, its member, agent, or agency conducting the hearing or investigation. Any member of the Board, or any agent or agency designated by the Board for such purposes, may administer oaths and affirmations, examine witnesses, and receive evidence. Such attendance of witnesses and the production of such evidence may be required from any place in the United States or any Territory or possession thereof, at any designated place of hearing.
  2. In case of contumacy or refusal to obey a subpena issued to any person, any District Court of the United States or the United States courts of any Territory or possession, or the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, within the jurisdiction of which the inquiry is carried on or within the jurisdiction of which said person guilty of contumacy or refusal to obey is found or resides or transacts business, upon application by the Board shall have jurisdiction to issue to such person an order requiring such person to appear before the Board, its member agent, or agency, there to produce evidence if so ordered, or there to give testimony touching the matter under investigation or in question; and any failure to obey such order of the court may be punished by said court as a contempt thereof.
  3. No person shall be excused from attending and testifying or from producing books, records, correspondence, documents, or other evidence in obedience to the subpena of the Board, on the ground that the testimony or evidence required of him may tend to incriminate him or subject him to a penalty or forfeiture; but no individual shall be prosecuted or subjected to any penalty or forfeiture for or on account of any transaction, matter, or thing concerning which he is compelled, after having claimed his privilege against self-incrimination, to testify or produce evidence, except that such individual so testifying shall not be exempt from prosecution and punishment for perjury committed in so testifying.
  4. Complaints, orders, and other process and papers of the Board, its member, agent, or agency, may be served either personally or by registered mail or by telegraph or by leaving a copy thereof at the principal office or place of business of the person required to be served. The verified return by the individual so serving the same setting forth the manner of such service shall be proof of the same, and the return post office receipt or telegraph receipt therefor when registered and mailed or telegraphed as aforesaid shall be proof of service of the same. Witnesses summoned before the Board, its member, agent, or agency, shall be paid the same fees and mileage that are paid witnesses in the courts of the United States, and witnesses whose depositions are taken and the persons taking the same shall severally be entitled to the same fees as are paid for like services in the courts of the United States.
  5. All process of any court to which application may be made under this Act may be served in the judicial district wherein the defendant or other person required to be served resides or may be found.
  6. The several departments and agencies of the Government, when directed by the President, shall furnish the Board, upon its request, all records, papers and information in their possession relating to any matter before the Board.

Sec. 12. Any person who shall willfully resist, prevent, impede, or interfere with any member of the Board or any of its agents or agencies in the performance of duties pursuant to this Act shall be punished by a fine of not more than $5,000 or by imprisonment for not more than one year, or both.


Sec. 13. Nothing in this Act shall be construed so as to interfere with or impede or diminish in any way the right to strike.

Further Resources


Bernstein, Irving. A Caring Society: The New Deal, the Worker, and the Great Depression; A History of the American Worker, 1933–1941. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Cronon, Edmund David, ed. Labor and the New Deal. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1963.

Leuchtenburg, William E. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932–1940. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.