National Labor Relations Act of 1935
Also known as the Wagner Act, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 greatly expanded the federal government’s power to regulate interstate commerce by creating a national right for most workers to unionize. As noted, this legislation allows most private sector employees to organize labor unions, bargain collectively, and engage in concerted activities, such as strikes, to support their bargaining position. The act covered employees engaged in interstate commerce, except for railroad, agricultural, airline, government, and domestic employees.
The legislation established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a federal agency with the power to enforce its provisions. The NLRB has the authority to arbitrate labor-employer impasses, investigate and penalize unfair labor practices, and conduct union elections. The five members of the NLRB are appointed by the president. In addition, there are thirty-three regional directors, who advise and assist the board members.
The constitutionality of the Wagner Act was challenged in 1937 in National Labor Relations Board v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court reversed its previous positions that struck down much of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs as unconstitutional. In upholding the constitutionality of the National Labor Relations Act, the Court essentially expanded the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce. The new view of federalism espoused by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes in this decision meant that the Court would now adopt cooperative federalism as the operating principal behind federal-state relations, and it opened the door to an expansion of federal authority into almost all areas of American economic and even social life.
Congress amended the Wagner Act in 1947 when it passed the Taft-Hartley Amendments. With these amendments, Congress banned secondary boycotts and closed shops, allowed states to pass “right to work” statutes, excluded certain professions from engaging in union activities, and enhanced presidential authority to intervene in strikes that threatened national security.
As a result of the National Labor Relations Act, union membership increased dramatically, making labor a political force that still exerts significant influence on public policy.
Joseph R. Marbach
Last Updated: 2006