The National Labor Relations Act Turns 80!

A Look at the Progression of the National Labor Policy


President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) into law on July 5, 1935. In the midst of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt’s goal for the NLRA was to bring about “common justice and economic advantage” for all. The purpose of the Act is to serve the public interest by reducing interruptions in commerce caused by industrial strife; the Act accomplishes this by helping to define the rights of employees, and employers, which in turn helps decrease the number of violations.

Although it was enacted with the primary purpose of protecting employees from employers, our national labor policy has recognized that protecting employers may be just as important. Today the NLRA serves the public interest by providing a process to protect the rights of employers and employees alike. The NLRA accomplishes this goal by providing a process to challenge unfair labor practices and ensuring fair union elections.

The History of the Act: The Progression of the National Labor Policy
  • (1918) War Labor Board: The struggle of the workforce reached its pinnacle during World War I, when the labor movement had grown to three million members. The War Labor Board was the first step to managing workforce disputes by providing mediation between labor and management, which led to a decrease in strikes and lockouts. However the Board was ultimately unsuccessful because it lacked enforcement power.
  • (1926) Railway Labor Act: The RLA stressed the importance of collective bargaining to minimize strikes and lockouts on railways. The RLA gave railroad workers the right to select their own bargaining representatives “without interference, influence, or coercion.” This language, protecting the rights of workers, is similar to that found in the NLRA today.
  • (1932) Norris-LaGuardia Act: Curbed the power of the courts to issue injunctions or restraining orders against strikes, absent violence or fraud. Additionally the Norris-LaGuardia Act declared that workers were free to join unions and bargain collectively.
  • (1933) National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA): Allowed employers within a single industry to set production quotas or fixed prices under “Codes of Fair Competition” in exchange for the establishment of minimum wages, maximum hours and other conditions of employment. The Act also gave employees, in section 7(a), “the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.”
  • (1933) National Labor Board: Established to facilitate compliance with section 7(a) of NIRA. The Board’s primary functions were to conduct union representation elections and handle section 7(a) violations. The problem, however, was that the NLB lacked any real enforcement power, which rendered it ineffective in practice.
  • (1935) National Labor Relations Act: Created an independent agency, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), to enforce rights rather than mediate disputes. It obligated employers to bargain collectively with the unions selected by a majority of employees in an appropriate bargaining unit.
Employers’ Rights Provided By the NLRA Today:

The NLRA serves two main purposes, to protect against unfair labor practices and conduct union elections without outside interference. The enforcement of the NLRA serves to provide a number of protections to employers.

  • Employers have the right to freely express their views about unions and unionization, so long as any speech does not interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of their rights granted under the Act.
  • An employer is not required to bargain with a union unless or until the union makes a showing that it represents a majority of the employees through a secret ballot election conducted by the NLRB.
  • Employers have the right to keep union organizers off company property and may forbid union activity during paid, working time.

All of these protections serve to create a workplace free from distraction. The Act allows employees the choice of union involvement without the pressure of recruitment during the workday.

NLRA Protection from Unfair Labor Practices by Unions:

The NLRA protects employers by preventing unions from interfering with, restraining, or coercing employees in anyway. There is a common misconception that unions always act in the best interest of employees, but unfortunately that is not always the case. Misconduct and unfair labor practices are disadvantageous for all parties involved, which is why the NLRA prohibition of unfair labor practices has some benefits for employers as well as employees.

        Examples of Unfair Labor Practices by Unions:

  • Use of violence or threats of violence to coerce employees. This includes violence directed at nonemployees, if employees are present or will hear about it
  • Threats to employees that they will lose their jobs unless they support the union’s activities.
  • Statements to employees who oppose the union that they will lose their jobs if the union wins a majority
  • Accepting recognition from an employer if they do not enjoy the un-coerced support of a majority of the employees they seek to represent.
  • Entering into a collective-bargaining agreement if they do not enjoy the un-coerced support of a majority of the employees they seek to represent.
  • Engaging in picket line misconduct, such as threatening, assaulting, or barring non-strikers from the employer’s premises.
  • Fining or expelling members for crossing a picket line that is unlawful under the Act or that violates a no-strike agreement.
  • Fining employees for crossing a picket line after they resigned from the union.
  • Fining or expelling members for filing unfair labor practice charges with the Board or for participating in an investigation conducted by the Board.
  • Refusing to process a grievance in retaliation against an employee’s criticism of union officers.
The NLRA Guarantees Fair Union Elections:

The NLRA protects employers, as well as employees, from misconduct committed during a union election. The NLRA’s election provisions provide the authority for conducting and certifying results of representation elections. An employer is not required to bargain with a union unless or until the union makes a showing that it represents a majority of the employees in a secret ballot election conducted by the NLRB. This process ensures that the union bargaining on behalf of employees truly represents their interests. It also provides efficiency for employers by ensuring they do not waste time bargaining with a union that may be pushing its own agenda, rather than protecting the interests of employees.

      The Election Process:

A union can request an election if they can make a showing that they represent a majority. A union may prove its majority status in a number of ways; however the most common way is through the use of authorization cards. If the union can authenticate the cards, making a showing of interest for an election, they then petition the NLRB to conduct the election. The NLRB conducts the election by secret-ballot and has a number of policies in place to protect the integrity of the results.

      Employer Protections Throughout the Election Process:

The NLRA provides protections against any conduct that may risk voiding the results of an election. Any conduct that warrants voiding the results of an election, whether or not it constitutes an unfair labor practice, is grounds for challenging an election.

Some union activity that may warrant a challenge is misrepresenting majority status by using authorization cards that were not intended to support the union or signed by employees that no longer work for the company, captive audience speeches, electioneering, or any conduct that threatens the free choice of employees.

If a union engages in any of these prohibited activities, an employer may challenge the results of the election by submitting an objection to the office of the regional director.

The Future of the NLRA:

Although there are many concerns for employers with recent developments in national labor relations policy, the NLRA was enacted during a time of national instability and it allowed workers to come together in a common purpose to raise their voices for a fairer future. Moving forward the goal of maintaining a strong, stable workforce will continue. We hope a fair balance between labor and management rights and privileges can be realized.