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Has the American government been a friend or foe to unionism

"The government should do what they can to limit the power of Unions because Unions hurt our economy and slow down industrial growth."


"The government should pass legislation designed to protect unions. Unions protect workers, the common man. Without unions business does what it wants and can hurt the worker."

These two statements summarize the conflicting points of view in the debate over labor unions. While each side can argue that labor unions either help or hurt the economy neither can dispute the fact that unions have been a very successful force in winning concessions for their members. It is interesting to note that despite the political power of unions and their apparent popularity our government has not always embraced and supported unionization. As a matter of fact for many years at the beginning of the labor movement the government was opposed to unions.

The government positions on unions can basically be broken into three time periods:

1. Anti Union - 1830's - 1932 - During this time the government sided with factory workers as it embraced the Laissez Faire/Rugged Individualist mentality.

2. Pro Union - 1932 - 1945 - During the time the government passed laws that supported union activity. The Depression changed the way people looked at government help and the way we viewed governments responsibility as a whole. The notion of rugged individualism died as did the laissez faire economic philosophy.

3. Seeking a Balance -1945 - Present - Since the end of WWII the government has tried to find a fair balance between unions and management. The goal has been to keep a level playing field. Often the government (even the President himself) has acted as a mediator.

4. Today - Many feel the government has begun to swing the pendulum in favor of management again, what will the future one knows.


Major Union Legislation

Anti Union Legislation - Before 1933

The antiunion attitude of government before the New Deal was seen in the way the federal courts interpreted existing law and in the use of federal troops or state militia during a strike. Management would often seek injunctions from the court. An injunction is a court order barring a specific activity. In this case the injunctions would be against the formation of unions or against a strike or other union activity. In order to grant an injunction the court must base its decision on existing law. In this case the law referred to was the Sherman Antitrust Act.

The Sherman Antitrust Act a basic federal enactment regulating the operations of corporate trusts declared illegal "every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce." In interpreting the Sherman Act the courts decided that unions represented a "restraint of trade and thus granted injunctions against them in violation of the Sherman Act.


Pro Union Legislation - 1932 - 1945

In 1932 the Norris-La Guardia Anti-Injunction Act was passed severely limiting the power to issue injunctions in labor disputes. The passage of the Norris-La Guardia Act signaled the beginning of a shift away from the governments anti union sentiment.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) a federal law enacted by the United States Congress in July 1935 to govern the labor-management relation is generally known as the Wagner Act, after Senator Robert R. Wagner of New York.

The general objective of the act to guarantee to 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."

To safeguard these rights the act created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which, among other powers, has the authority to prevent employers from engaging in certain specified unfair labor practices. Examples of such practices are acts of interference, restraint, or coercion upon employees with respect to their right to organize and bargain collectively; domination of or interference with the formation or administration of any labor organization, or the contribution of financial or other support thereto; discrimination in regard to hiring or dismissal of employees or to any term or condition of employment, in order to encourage or discourage membership in any labor organization; discrimination against any employee for filing charges or giving testimony under the provisions of the act; and refusal to bargain collectively with the representative chosen by a majority of employees in a bargaining unit deemed appropriate by the NLRB.

Before the enactment of the NLRA, the federal government had refrained almost entirely from supporting collective bargaining over wages and working conditions and from facilitating the growth of trade unions. The new law, which was proposed and enacted with the firm support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, marked a significant reversal of this attitude. First the American Federation of Labor and later the Congress of Industrial Organizations took advantage of governmental encouragement by carrying out nationwide organizational campaigns. Largely as a result of such efforts, the number of organized workers rose from about 3.5 million in 1935 to about 15 million in 1947.

The Wages and Hours Act passed in 1938 established a minimum wage of 25 cents per hour and a maximum workweek of 40 hours for industrial workers. Workers were to receive overtime at a rate of time and a half. Child labor was restricted. This federal law applied only to businesses engaged in interstate trade but soon most states had passed similar laws.

The Social Security Act passed in 1935 also provided protection to workers. There were three phases to the program: (1) benefits to cover the risks of old age, death, dependency of children, disability and blindness; (2) medical care for the aged (added in 1965); and (3) unemployment benefits.


Legislation that Balanced Unions and Management - 1946 - Present

In 1947 Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act limiting the actions of Unions and balancing the tend begun by the Wagner Act. The Taft-Hartley act amended (changed by adding to) the Wagner Act and set up standards of conduct for both unions and management. These were the major provisions of the act:

a. Unions were required to bargain with employers fairly and in good faith just as the Wagner Act had decreed that management must bargain similarly with unions.

b. Unions were required to give notice before striking. If a strike threatened the national interest the President could request and injunction to delay the strike for 60 days (cooling off period).

c. Unfair labor practices by unions were listed and prohibited. These included the refusal to bargain in good faith, attempting to cause an employer to discriminate against an employee because of the employees refusal to join a union, charging excessive initiation fees and union dues and encouraging employees to take a job related action for the specific purpose of achieving objectives deemed unfair to employers.

d. Unions could be sued and held legally responsible for the actions of their members.

e. Secondary boycotts, when a union agrees not to do business or handle products from non union shops or from shops currently involved in a job action where prohibited.

f. Financial contributions to political campaigns were forbidden.

g. The closed shop, which required that all employees be union members before they could be hired, was declared illegal. The union shop, which required that all employees become union members after a certain period of time on the job was allowed.

h. The checkoff of union dues without the written consent of employees; contributions by employers to union health and welfare funds not under joint labor-management administration was prohibited.

I. It required labor unions desiring to use the facilities of the NLRB to file certain organizational and financial data with the NLRB, and it required the officers of such unions to file affidavits certifying that they are not members of the Communist party.

j. It emphasized the right of all employees not to join a union and not to participate in collective action.


The Landrum-Griffin Act was passed in 1949 as the result of a Senate investigation into the relationship of unions and organized crime. Racketeering (Organized illegal activity such as bootlegging or extorting money by threat or violence from legitimate businessmen; a dishonest scheme or trick, illegally attempting to control businesses by threat of force or violence.) And undemocratic practices in unions were uncovered. This law was designed to protect union members rights by curbing racketeering and eliminating other corrupt practices such as stealing union controlled pension plans.


Most Recent Trends in Union Management Relations

Recently there has been an anti union trend. Many states bar public employees from striking, and there has been a rash of what might be called "union busting," or the attempt to break and destroy a particular union. The single best example of union busting is President Ronald Reagan's firing of the members of PATCO, an air traffic controllers union. PATCO members had been in conflict with management for several years. Since PATCO was a national union they had to deal with several different management structures in states throughout the country. When PATCO struck President Reagan feeling that the public safety was in danger, fired the striking workers and replaced them with military personnel. Many states have also passed laws that prohibit public employees from striking. In New York State the Taylor Law fines workers 2 days pay for every day they are out on strike.


1. How did the courts justify the granting of injunction before 1933?

2. How was the granting of anti union injunctions limited?

3. How and why was the NLRB created?

4. How did the Taft-Hartley Act create a balance between unions and management? Cite at least five examples.

5. Explain the difference between a closed shop and a union shop.

6. Why was the Landrum-Griffith Act passed?

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