In July 1935, the United States Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in order to regulate labor–management relations in organizations involved in interstate commerce. Through the NLRA, the executive and legislative branches sought to equalize bargaining power between employers and employees to protect the rights of workers who chose to organize and bargain collectively.
Commonly known as the Wagner Act, the National Labor Relations Act was enacted during the Great Depression, a time of high unemployment, labor management strife, and a stagnant economy. Historically, the federal government had not supported the growth of labor unions or collective bargaining over wages and working conditions. However, President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress were sympathetic to the plight of the unions and working class as a result of the severely depressed economy. The NLRA was enacted with the strong and coordinated support of the administration and Congress, marking a significant change in the government’s position on labor–management relations. In light of the impact that the National Labor Relations Act continues to have on the life of labor relations in American colleges and universities, this entry examines key aspects of the act.
Provisions of the NLRA
The primary purpose of the NLRA is to guarantee employees “the right to self-organization, 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 or protection. . . .” Under the act, employers cannot restrain or coerce employees in their exercise of these rights. The National Labor Relations Act also ensures the right of employees to refrain from joining unions, collective bargaining, and related activities “except to the extent that such right may be affected by an agreement requiring membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment as authorized in section 8(a)(3).” The federal government, states and their political subdivisions, and labor organizations except when they are acting as employers were not included as employers under National Labor Relations Act. In order to enforce the NLRA, Congress created a three-member National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to arbitrate labor– management disputes, ensure democratic union elections, penalize specified unfair labor practices by employers (but not unions), and administer all components of the law.
Impact and Evolution of the NLRA
Stated simply, the National Labor Relations Act was intended to improve wages, hours, and conditions of employment for American workers in both public and private sectors. When enacted in 1935, management viewed the National Labor Relations Act as biased and one sided, because it listed unfair labor practices for employers but did not include unfair labor practices for which the unions would be sanctioned. From the perspective of many in corporate management, the National Labor Relations Act was blatantly prolabor, and its passage prompted a contentious debate about the fairness and constitutionality of the act. Differences of opinion about the NLRA notwithstanding, it did provide the legal framework necessary for civil and productive labor–management dialogue and cooperation.
Ultimately, the National Labor Relations Act fostered reasonably peaceful labor relations during the tumultuous period between 1935 and the end of World War II. In 1937, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the NLRA in NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., ruling that the statute did not violate the constitutional rights of employers or employees. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) responded to the National Labor Relations Act with aggressive, nationwide membership campaigns, and the number of unionized workers increased from about 3.5 million in 1935 to approximately 15 million in 1947.
The Taft-Hartley Act
By 1947, the federal government’s attitude toward organized labor had changed. Congress, then dominated by a conservative Republican majority, sought to curb the power of the unions by amending the National Labor Relations Act. The Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947, also known as the Taft- Hartley Act, amended the National Labor Relations Act by listing unfair labor practices for unions and empowering the NLRB to secure injunctions for using such practices. Both unions and management were banned from restraining or coercing employees in organization activities. Unions could not refuse to bargain in good faith, and check-off of union dues was prohibited without written consent of the employees. Union-shop agreements were permitted only with the approval of a majority of employees in a secret-ballot election. At this time, the NLRB membership was increased from three to five.
Above all, Taft-Hartley emphasized the right of all employees not to join a union and not to bargain collectively. Taft-Hartley prompted a fierce controversy between its supporters, who insisted that it was necessary to restore a proper balance between labor and management in the workplace, and its opponents, who asserted that it was intended to destroy the labor movement. Detractors described Taft-Hartley as the “slave labor law.” In the end, the Taft-Hartley Act did not destroy the labor movement, but union leaders claimed (and still claim) that Section 14(b) of the act, permitting states to adopt right-to-work laws, impeded union activity in those states enacting such legislation.
Additional amendments to the National Labor Relations Act followed those in Taft-Hartley. In 1951, for example, Congress permitted union-shop agreements without approval of the majority of employees in a secret-ballot election, but employees could petition the NLRB for a secret-ballot election to rescind union-shop initiatives. The Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure (Landrum-Griffin) Act of 1959 amended the National Labor Relations Act to preclude secondary boycotts, control union corruption, and prevent picketing by a union if a valid bargaining agreement was in effect with another union. In the 1970s, Congress expanded the National Labor Relations Act to include employees in the U.S. Postal Service, private health care facilities, colleges and universities, and law firms.
NLRA and Higher Education
Federal labor law creates three distinct categories of employee organizations in higher education. The National Labor Relations Act left states free to regulate labor relationships with their public employees. Consequently, public colleges and universities, as subdivisions of the state, are excluded from National Labor Relations Act coverage. Public institutions are governed by state laws regarding employee rights to organize and bargain collectively. Some jurisdictions have extended organization rights to employees of public institutions, while other states, particularly those in the South, have not done so. As a general rule, states with right-to-work laws, most of which are in the South, have maintained their statutory exemption from mandatory collective bargaining and have made organized activity and strikes illegal.
The National Labor Relations Act impacts private institutions differently than it does public colleges and universities. In 1970, the NLRB extended the reach of the NLRA to private colleges and universities when it ensured the recognition of employee bargaining units at Cornell and Syracuse universities. Consequently, employees in private secular institutions retain the right to organize, bargain collectively, pursue grievances, and conduct strikes to achieve union goals. However, the Supreme Court’s ruling in NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago (1979), a case that was concerned with unionization in Catholic secondary schools, may have indirectly limited the National Labor Relations Act’s applicability to religiously affiliated colleges and universities as persuasive precedent. In dicta (meaning that this precise issue was not before it), the Court suggested that imposing federal labor law on religious institutions might have created entangling conflicts between church and state. Even so, because it was able to resolve the case on the basis of statutory interpretation of the National Labor Relations Act, the Court was able to sidestep the difficult questions associated with the First Amendment religion clauses. Lacking a clear intent by Congress to apply the NLRA to religious institutions, the Court concluded that the NLRB was barred from extending its authority into Catholic high schools.
A year later, in National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University (1980), the Supreme Court affirmed an earlier order of the Second Circuit with regard to faculty unionization. The Court observed that insofar as full-time faculty members in a religiously affiliated university could be considered managerial employees, they were not entitled to the protections of the National Labor Relations Act that would have allowed them to form unions in order to engage in collective bargaining with their employer. As a result of Yeshiva, faculty members in private colleges and universities are not entitled to the protections that the National Labor Relations Act affords with regard to unionization and collective bargaining. Consequently, bargaining is an internal labor relations issue that faculty members must resolve with the leadership of their institutions free from the dictates of federal labor laws.
See also Political Activities and Speech of Faculty Members; Unions on Campus
Gregory, D. L. (1990). The right to unionize as a fundamental human and civil right. Mississippi College Law Review, 9, 136–154.
Labor-Management Relations (Taft-Hartley) Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 141 et seq.
Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure (Landrum- Griffin) Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq.
National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 151 et seq.
NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 440 U.S. 490 (1979).
NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 301 U.S. 1 (1937).
NLRB v. Yeshiva University, 443 U.S. 672 (1980).