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
“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 hold…no
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)
Legislation that Balanced Unions and Management – 1946 –
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
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
1. How did the courts justify the granting of injunction before
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
6. Why was the Landrum-Griffith Act passed?