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To Restore the American Dream, Restore the Promise of American Labor Law | Commentary

The Senate is currently considering five nominees for the National Labor Relations Board. All five are experienced, highly qualified candidates, and last month the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved their nominations. But Senate Republicans are refusing to allow a floor vote on the nominees. By blocking the confirmation of new board members, Republicans have rendered the NLRB dysfunctional. It will soon lack the quorum necessary to issue decisions.

This is an unprecedented attack on the NLRB, which has long been an area of bipartisan agreement. As Senate Republicans block these nominees, it is worth considering the history of the NLRB and the crucial role in our country it has played over the past three-quarters of a century.

On July 5, 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act establishing the National Labor Relations Board to protect the “right of self-organization of employees in industry for the purpose of collective bargaining” and to ensure their right to choose their representatives through free and fair elections. In signing the law, soon dubbed the “Wagner Act” after its chief Senate sponsor, Roosevelt proclaimed it “to be necessary as an act of both common justice and economic advance,” a law that would protect workers’ civic rights and independence while also maintaining wages, purchasing power and employment.

The Wagner Act stands as one of the greatest achievements of the New Deal. It inaugurated 40 years of shared prosperity, combining rising productivity, wages and full employment. The act committed the American government to a program of civil rights and workplace regulations that over the next decades was extended to benefit all working Americans regardless of union affiliation. It helped to protect workers from abusive managers and supervisors. and pressure to raise wages forced company managers to search relentlessly for new ways to raise productivity even while limiting the growth of managerial waste and inflated salaries. Not only did productivity growth accelerate under the Wagner Act, but the benefits were more widely shared than ever before in American history.

The Wagner Act was enacted with the support of Republicans and Democrats, and for decades both the act and the National Labor Relations Board that it established received strong bipartisan support. Republican Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon recognized the important work of the NLRB and worked with union leaders and other representatives of organized labor as did Democratic Presidents Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

But starting in the 1970s, the Wagner Act has come under attack. Some in the Republican Party leadership moved away from the ideals of the Wagner Act, the principles of independent worker self-organization to maintain high wages and workers’ civic autonomy. Attacks on the Wagner Act were one part of a larger campaign against the New Deal order, a campaign of economic deregulation that led to 30 years of union decline, stagnant wages, and surging profits and inequality. This period culminated in the Great Recession of 2007, the worst economic crisis that we have faced since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The contrast between the equitable-growth years before the 1970s and the poor economic performance since should alone recommend a return to the Wagner Act and the New Deal regulations. Others would support the NLRB from an appreciation of the responsibilities of good governance. For decades, Republicans and Democrats opposed to unions and the New Deal accepted a responsibility to enforce the Wagner Act and to sustain the National Labor Relations Board as the legitimate agency charged with policing labor relations in the United States.

Today a small minority of senators are abusing parliamentary procedures to block the appointment of members to the National Labor Relations Board. By undermining the work of the board, they are damaging the American economy, hurting American jobs and undercutting respect for law.

We are close to the 78th anniversary of the signing of the Wagner Act. The Senate should send Obama’s appointments to the board so that it can again do its important work.

Gerald Friedman is a professor of economics at University of Massachusetts at Amherst.