The Wagner Act and the Birth of the NLRB

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) plays a pivotal role in protecting workers’ rights and ensuring fair labor practices in the United States. To understand the NLRB’s significance, it is essential to delve into its origins, exploring how and why it was created. This article uncovers the historical context and motivations that led to the establishment of the NLRB.

The Need for Labor Reform

The early 20th century was marked by significant labor unrest and tensions between workers and employers. Labor strikes, disputes, and sometimes violent confrontations between labor unions and management were common. Workers faced numerous challenges, including unsafe working conditions, long hours, and limited bargaining power.

Amidst this turmoil, there was a growing recognition that labor laws were outdated and inadequate. The need for labor reform became apparent as the nation’s industrial and economic landscape continued to evolve.

The Wagner Act of 1935

The creation of the NLRB can be attributed to the passage of the Wagner Act, also known as the National Labor Relations Act, in 1935. The Wagner Act was a landmark piece of legislation that reshaped labor relations in the United States. It was introduced by Senator Robert F. Wagner and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Key Provisions of the Wagner Act:

  1. Protected Workers’ Rights: The Wagner Act guaranteed workers the right to join labor unions, engage in collective bargaining, and strike without employer interference.

  2. Established the NLRB: Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Wagner Act was the creation of the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB was tasked with overseeing labor relations, conducting elections to determine union representation, and addressing unfair labor practices by employers.

  3. Prohibited Unfair Labor Practices: The act prohibited employers from engaging in unfair labor practices, such as interfering with workers’ rights to unionize, discriminate against union members, or refuse to bargain in good faith.

  4. Encouraged Collective Bargaining: The Wagner Act encouraged the practice of collective bargaining, a process in which unions and employers negotiate employment terms and conditions.

The Motivation Behind the Wagner Act

The primary motivation behind the Wagner Act was to promote industrial peace and economic stability during the Great Depression. It aimed to address the labor disputes and strikes that had become increasingly disruptive to the nation’s economy. By protecting workers’ rights and encouraging collective bargaining, the act sought to reduce labor conflicts and ensure a fair balance of power between workers and employers.

Additionally, the Wagner Act was part of the New Deal, a series of programs and reforms implemented by the Roosevelt administration to combat the economic challenges of the Depression. It reflected the government’s commitment to social and economic reform, with an emphasis on improving the lives of American workers.


The NLRB was created as a response to the pressing need for labor reform during a tumultuous period in American history. The Wagner Act and the establishment of the NLRB marked a significant departure from previous labor laws and set the stage for a more equitable relationship between labor unions and employers. Over the years, the NLRB has continued to play a vital role in safeguarding workers’ rights and promoting fair labor practices in the United States, ensuring that the legacy of its creation endures.

See also – Has the American Government been a friend or foe to unionism?

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