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Major Union Legislation

The attitude of government towards unions has shifted throughout history as have citizens attitudes in general.

Throughout the mid eighteen hundreds and into the industrial revolution America embraced a laissez faire approach as it hurtled towards industrialism. Even in the progressive era from 1900 to 1917 unions received scant little support with the notable exception of the Sherman antitrust act in 1914. It was almost as if unions were rebels against a very conservative society. America at this time was VERY conservative and unions represented a change in the status quo. Unions also, for many Americans, represented a step towards Communism and when the Red Scare arose in reaction to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 many Americans saw Unions as the vehicle for socialist and communist ideology. The reality is that they where not entirely wrong as such union organizers as Eugene V. Debs were, in fact, socialists.

Times, as Dylan said, they are a changing and change they did. When the depression hit, Roosevelt's New Deal began to revolutionize the way Americans looked at workers. The depression made us realize that workers were a part of the industrial and economic landscape. Workers, we finally recognized, were at the heart of the economy because workers spend. Government also changed its tune as we moved from a laissez faire philosophy that believed in supply side (trickle down) economics to an activist government that believed in Keynesian (pump priming) economics. During this pro union era notable legislation, described below was passed that ever increased the power of unions.

As World War II and the depression ended unions had gained a strong foothold in America. We emerged from the war as the undisputed world military and economic power and if we were to remain as such we would need to shift from a wart time to a post war economy. This is a difficult transition and recognizing that unions had perhaps gained an upper hand that might stifle this transition, government moved to limit the power of unions and perhaps balance things out a little. Laws such as the Taft Hartley Act, described below, achieved this balance.

Where do we stand today... history will be the judge but many observers feel that as the role and importance of unions in a post industrial economy lessens, that the government has adopted an anti union stance. Again, this is merely supposition and is subject to much debate.

Anti Union Legislation - Before 1933

The anti union 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.

In 1914 Congress passed the Clayton Anti Trust Act. This act was designed to strengthen the anti trust provisions of the Sherman Act but had a clause in it that stated that Unions were not a conspiracy in restraint of trade. Samuel Gompers, founder of the AFL referred to the Clayton Act as the "Magna Carta" of union legislation.

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.

Pro Union Legislation - 1933 - 1939

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." The NLRA establishes procedures for the selection of a labor organization to represent a unit of employees in collective bargaining. The act prohibits employers from interfering with this selection. The NLRA requires the employer to bargain with the appointed representative of its employees. It does not require either side to agree to a proposal or make concessions but does that each side bargain in good faith. Proposals which would violate the NLRA or other laws may not be the subject matter of collective bargaining. The NLRA also establishes regulations on what tactics (e.g. strikes, lockouts, picketing) a side in negotiations may employ to further their bargaining objectives.

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) unemployment benefits.

Legislation that Balanced Unions and Management - 1946 - Present

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 80 days.

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 threat 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 employers.

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. The law also set forth provisions that enabled workers to refuse to join the union. In this case a agency shop is established. This is a union shop where some workers pay an agency fee to the union that still bargains collectively on their behalf but they do not contribute that portion of dues that might have gone to poltical activities.

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.


Landmark legislation involving public employees exists in New York State. Due to the potentially severe impacts to citizens of a halt in essential government service provision, New York State law has long prohibited public sector strike. From 1947 to 1967, employees of all levels of government in New York State were governed by the Condon-Wadlin Act which prohibited public sector strikes and assessed harsh penalties to strikers. The law made public employee unions illegal and strictly forbade striking. In fact, striking workers were fired, fined and often jailed. This strategy did not, however, prevent such serious strikes as the 1966 New York City transit worker strike which effectively crippled the city and cost an estimated $100 million per day. By the late 1960s, a number of public sector employee strikes in the State pushed the government to shift from a penalty-based system to a prevention-based one.

The new law passed in 1967, the Taylor Law, permits union organizing, and provides a system within which to resolve labor-management conflict short of striking. Public employers are required to recognize and negotiate in good faith with the union representatives of a bargaining unit, thus public employee unions were legally recognized. The law establishes certain mandatory bargaining issues, which public employers must negotiate with union representation. Broadly stated, mandatory bargaining issues are terms and conditions of employment.

The Public Employees Relations Board(PERB) interprets which issues are terms and conditions of employment under the law. PERB is also mandated to facilitate union recognition and labor-management contract negotiations, and to arbitrate any unresolved disputes. PERB is thus similar to the NLRB but for public employees within New York State.

The Taylor law does, however, outlaw striking by public employees. Public employees who engage in a strike are fined two days pay for every day they are out. Authorizing unions are also subject to the loss of the dues payoff provision and the incarceration of union leaders as well a fines.


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

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