National Labor Relations Act
The National Labor Relations Act or Wagner Act (after its sponsor, New York Senator Robert F. Wagner
Robert F. Wagner
Robert Ferdinand Wagner I was an American politician. He was a Democratic U.S. Senator from New York from 1927 to 1949.-Origin and early life:...

) , is a 1935 United States federal law that limits the means with which employers may react to workers in the private sector
Private sector
In economics, the private sector is that part of the economy, sometimes referred to as the citizen sector, which is run by private individuals or groups, usually as a means of enterprise for profit, and is not controlled by the state...

 who create labor union
Labor history of the United States
The labor history of the United States describes the history of organized labor, as well as the more general history of working people, in the United States. Pressures dictating the nature and power of organized labor have included the evolution and power of the corporation, efforts by employers...

s (also known as trade unions), engage in collective bargaining
Collective bargaining
Collective bargaining is a process of negotiations between employers and the representatives of a unit of employees aimed at reaching agreements that regulate working conditions...

, and take part in strike
Strike action
Strike action, also called labour strike, on strike, greve , or simply strike, is a work stoppage caused by the mass refusal of employees to work. A strike usually takes place in response to employee grievances. Strikes became important during the industrial revolution, when mass labour became...

s and other forms of concerted activity in support of their demands. The Act does not apply to workers who are covered by the Railway Labor Act
Railway Labor Act
The Railway Labor Act is a United States federal law that governs labor relations in the railroad and airline industries. The Act, passed in 1926 and amended in 1934 and 1936, seeks to substitute bargaining, arbitration and mediation for strikes as a means of resolving labor disputes...

, agricultural employees, domestic employees, supervisors, federal, state or local government workers, independent contractors and some close relatives of individual employers.


President Roosevelt signed the legislation into law on July 5, 1935. It defined and prohibited five unfair labor practices. These prohibitions still exist, while others have been added under later legislation. The original employer unfair labor practices consisted of:
  • Interfering with, restraining or coercing employees in their rights under Section 7. These rights include freedom of association, mutual aid or protection, self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively for wages and working conditions through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other protected concerted activities with or without a union. Section 8(a)(1)

  • "Dominating" or interfering with the formation or administration of any labor organization . Section 8(a)(2)

  • Discriminating against employees to encourage or discourage acts of support for a labor organization. 8(a)(3)

  • Discriminating against employees who file charges or testify. 8(a)(4)

  • Refusing to bargain collectively with the representative of the employer's employees. 8(a)(5)

The key principles of the NLRA are embodied in its concluding paragraph of section 1 including:

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.

The key principles also include:
  • Protecting a wide range of activities, whether a union is involved or not, in order to promote organization and collective bargaining.

  • Protecting employees as a class and expressly not on the basis of a relationship with an employer. Sections 2(5) and 2(9).

  • There can be only one exclusive bargaining representative for a unit of employees.

  • Promotion of the practice and procedure of collective bargaining.

  • Employers have a duty to bargain with the representative of its employees.

General information about the NLRA may be found on the NLRB website.


The National Labor Relations Board has two basic functions: overseeing the process by which employees decide whether to be represented by a labor organization and prosecuting violations. Those processes are initiated in the regional offices of the NLRB.

The National Labor Relations Act is enforced by the National Labor Relations Board and the General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board.

The NLRB's website includes the text of manuals useful for those who are engaged in union organizing or in the practice of labor relations and law. These include Rules and Regulations.

The list of practice manuals whose text may be found on the NLRB Website include

* NLRB Casehandling Manual, Part 1, Unfair Labor Practice Proceedings

* NLRB Casehandling Manual, Part 2, Representation Proceedings

* NLRB Casehandling Manual, Part 3, Compliance Proceedings

* NLRB An Outline of Law and Procedure in Representation Cases

* NLRB Guide for Hearing Officers

* NLRB Bench Book

* NLRB Section 10(j) Manual (Redacted) (PDF*)

* NLRB FOIA Manual

* NLRB Style Manual

* Dos Idiomas -- Una Ley, Two Languages -- One Law (A Bilingual Guide)


The act was immediately controversial.

First, the American Liberty League, an organization made up of conservative Democrats, viewed the act as a threat to democracy and engaged in a campaign of opposition in order to repeal these "socialist" efforts. This included encouraging employers to refuse to comply with the NLRA and supporting the nationwide filing of injunctions to keep the NLRB from functioning. This campaign continued until the NLRA was found constitutional by the Supreme Court
Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States. It has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all state and federal courts, and original jurisdiction over a small range of cases...

 in National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation
National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation
National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, 301 U.S. 1 , was a United States Supreme Court case that declared that the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 was constitutional...


Second, the American Federation of Labor
American Federation of Labor
The American Federation of Labor was one of the first federations of labor unions in the United States. It was founded in 1886 by an alliance of craft unions disaffected from the Knights of Labor, a national labor association. Samuel Gompers was elected president of the Federation at its...

 and some employers accused the NLRB of favoring the Congress of Industrial Organizations
Congress of Industrial Organizations
The Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO, proposed by John L. Lewis in 1932, was a federation of unions that organized workers in industrial unions in the United States and Canada from 1935 to 1955. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 required union leaders to swear that they were not...

, particularly when determining whether to hold union elections in plantwide, or wall-to-wall, units, which the CIO usually sought, or to hold separate elections in separate craft units, which the craft unions in the AFL favored. While the NLRB initially favored plant-wide units, which tacitly favored the CIO's industrial unionism
Industrial unionism
Industrial unionism is a labor union organizing method through which all workers in the same industry are organized into the same union—regardless of skill or trade—thus giving workers in one industry, or in all industries, more leverage in bargaining and in strike situations...

, it retreated to a compromise position several years later under pressure from Congress that allowed craft unions to seek separate representation of smaller groups of workers at the same time that another union was seeking a wall-to-wall unit.

Third, as time went by, employers and their allies in Congress also criticized the NLRB for its expansive definition of "employee" and for allowing supervisors and plant guards to form unions, sometimes affiliated with the unions that represented the employees whom they were supposed to supervise or police. Many accused the NLRB of a general pro-union and anti-employer bias, pointing to the Board's controversial decisions in such areas as employer free speech and "mixed motive" cases, in which the NLRB held that an employer violated the Act by firing an employee for anti-union reasons, even if the employee had engaged in misconduct. In addition, employers campaigned over the years to outlaw a number of union practices such as closed shop
Closed shop
A closed shop is a form of union security agreement under which the employer agrees to hire union members only, and employees must remain members of the union at all times in order to remain employed....

s, secondary boycotts, jurisdictional strike
Jurisdictional strike
Labor unions use the term jurisdiction to refer to their claims to represent workers who perform a certain type of work and the right of their members to perform such work...

s, mass picketing, strikes in violation of contractual no-strike clauses, pension and health and welfare plans sponsored by unions and multi-employer bargaining.

Many of these criticisms included provisions that employers and their allies were unable to have included in the NLRA. Others developed in reaction to NLRB decisions. Over all, they wanted the NLRB to be neutral as to bargaining power, even though the NLRA's policy section takes a decidedly pro-employee position:

It is 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.

Some of these changes were later achieved in the 1947 amendments.


Opponents of the Wagner Act introduced several hundred bills to amend or repeal the law in the decade after its passage. All of them failed or were vetoed until the passage of the Taft-Hartley amendments in 1947. More recent failed amendments included attempts in 1978 to permit triple backpay awards and union collective bargaining certification based on signed union authorization cards, a provision that is similar to one of proposed amendments in the Employee Free Choice Act. Under the NLRA unions can become the representative based on signed union authorization cards, but only if the employer voluntarily recognizes the union. If the employer refuses to recognize the union, the union can be certified through a secret-ballot election conducted by the NLRB.

See also

  • Duty of fair representation
    Duty of fair representation
    The duty of fair representation is incumbent upon U.S. labor unions that are the exclusive bargaining representative of workers in a particular group. It is the obligation to represent all employees fairly, in good faith, and without discrimination...

  • Employee Free Choice Act
    Employee Free Choice Act
    The Employee Free Choice Act was a legislative bill that was introduced into both chambers of the U.S. Congress on March 10, 2009. The bill's purpose was to,...

  • Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act
    Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act
    The Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 , is a United States labor law that regulates labor unions' internal affairs and their officials' relationships with employers.-Background:...

  • National Labor Board
    National Labor Board
    The National Labor Board was an independent agency of the United States Government established on August 5, 1933 to handle labor disputes arising under the National Industrial Recovery Act .-Establishment, structure and procedures:...

  • National Labor Relations Board
    National Labor Relations Board
    The National Labor Relations Board is an independent agency of the United States government charged with conducting elections for labor union representation and with investigating and remedying unfair labor practices. Unfair labor practices may involve union-related situations or instances of...

  • NLRB election procedures
    NLRB election procedures
    The National Labor Relations Board, an agency within the United States government, was created in 1935 as part of the National Labor Relations Act. Among the NLRB’s chief responsibilities is the holding of elections to permit employees to vote whether they wish to be represented by a particular...

  • Norris – La Guardia Act

  • Right-to-work law
    Right-to-work law
    Right-to-work laws are statutes enforced in twenty-two U.S. states, mostly in the southern or western U.S., allowed under provisions of the federal Taft–Hartley Act, which prohibit agreements between labor unions and employers that make membership, payment of union dues, or fees a condition of...

  • Sen. Robert Wagner (D-NY)
    Robert F. Wagner
    Robert Ferdinand Wagner I was an American politician. He was a Democratic U.S. Senator from New York from 1927 to 1949.-Origin and early life:...

  • Taft-Hartley Act
    Taft-Hartley Act
    The Labor–Management Relations Act is a United States federal law that monitors the activities and power of labor unions. The act, still effective, was sponsored by Senator Robert Taft and Representative Fred A. Hartley, Jr. and became law by overriding U.S. President Harry S...

  • Unfair labor practice
    Unfair labor practice
    In United States labor law, the term unfair labor practice refers to certain actions taken by employers or unions that violate the National Labor Relations Act and other legislation...

  • Union organizer
    Union organizer
    A union organizer is a specific type of trade union member or an appointed union official. A majority of unions appoint rather than elect their organizers....

  • United States labor law
    United States labor law
    United States labor law is a heterogeneous collection of state and federal laws. Federal law not only sets the standards that govern workers' rights to organize in the private sector, but also overrides most state and local laws that attempt to regulate this area. Federal law also provides more...

  • WPA
    Works Progress Administration
    The Works Progress Administration was the largest and most ambitious New Deal agency, employing millions of unskilled workers to carry out public works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads, and operated large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects...

Further reading

  • Atleson, James B. "Values and Assumptions in American Labor Law" (Amherst, Mass: University of Massachusetts Press 1983)
  • Cortner, Richard C. The Wagner Act Cases 90 (1964).
  • Dannin, Ellen. "Taking Back the Workers' Law: How to Fight the Assault on Labor Rights" (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006)
  • Gregory, Charles O. "Labor and the Law" (2d rev. ed. 1961)
  • Keyserling, Leon H. Wagner Act: Its Origin and Current Significance, 29 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 199 (1960).
  • Klare, Karl E. Judicial Deradicalization of the Wagner Act and the Origins of Modern Legal Consciousness, 1937–1941, 62 Minn. L. Rev. 265 (1977–1978).
  • Lynd, Staughton. Communal Rights, 62 Tex. L. Rev. 1417, 1430-35 (1984)
  • Morris, Charles
    Charles Morris (legal educator)
    Charles J. Morris is professor of law emeritus at the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He is an internationally renowned labor law scholar and authority on the National Labor Relations Act....

    . The Blue Eagle at Work: Reclaiming Democratic Rights in the American Workplace
    The Blue Eagle At Work
    The Blue Eagle At Work: Reclaiming Democratic Rights in the American Workplace is a legal treatise written by Charles J. Morris which analyzes collective bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act , the federal statute governing most private sector labor relations in the United States...

    Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-8014-4317-2
  • Nathanson Nathaniel L. & Ellis Lyons. Judicial Review of the National Labor Relations Board, 33 Ill. L. Rev. 749 (1938–1939).
  • Note. The Proposed Amendments to the Wagner Act, 52 Harv. L. Rev. 970 (1938–1939).
  • Scheunemann, Edward. The National Labor Relations Act Versus the Courts, 11 Rocky Mountain L. Rev. 135 (1939)
  • Schlesinger, Arthur M. The Age of Roosevelt: The Coming of the New Deal: 1933-1935. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1958. ISBN 0-618-34086-6
  • Warm, J. Louis. A Study of the Judicial Attitude Toward Trade Unions and Labor Legislation, 23 Minn. L. Rev. 256 (1938–1939)
  • Woods, Warren & Altha Connor Wheatley. The Wagner Act Decision – A Charter of Liberty for Labor? 5 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 846 (1936–1937).

External links

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