The National Labor Relations Act

The NLRA was enacted by Congress in 1935.  It was hailed at the time and for many years after as the Magna Carta of America labor.  Previously, employers had been free to spy on, interrogate, discipline, discharge, and blacklist union members.  But in the 1930's workers began to organize militantly.  A great strike wave in 1933 and 1934 included citywide general strikes and factory takeovers. Violent confrontations occurred between workers trying to form unions and the police and private security forces defending the interests of anti-union employers.  Some historians believe that Congress adopted the NLRA primarily in the hopes of averting greater, possible revolutionary, labor unrest.

     The NLRA guaranteed workers the right to join unions without fear of management reprisal.  It created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to enforce this right and prohibited employers from committing unfair labor practices that might discourage organizing or prevent workers from negotiating a union contract.

     The NLRA's passage galvanized union organizing.  Successful campaigns soon followed in the automobile, steel, electrical, manufacturing, and rubber industries.  By 1945, union membership reached 35% of the work-force.  In reaction, industrialists, and other opponents of organized labor sought to weaken the NLRA.  They succeeded in 1947 with the passage of the Taft-Hartly Act, which added provisions to the NLRA allowing unions to be prosecuted, enjoined, and sued for a variety of activities, including mass picketing and secondary boycotts.

     The last major revision of the NLRA occurred in 1959, when Congress imposed further restrictions on unions in the Landrum-Griffin Act.

Key Provisions

     The most important sections of the NLRA are Sections 7, 8, and 9.
     Section 7, is the heart of the NLRA.  It defines
protected activity.  Stripped to its essential, it reads:

     Employees shall have 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 other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid and protection.

     Section 7 applies to a wide range of union an collective activities.  In addition to organizing, it protects employees who take part in grievances, on-the-job protests, picketing, and strikes.

     Section 8 defines employer unfair labor practices.

Five types of conduct are made illegal:

  • Employer interference, restraint, or coercion directed against union or collective activity (Section 8(a)(1))
  • Employer domination of unions (Section 8(a)(2))
  • Employer discrimination against employees who take part in union or collective activities (Section 8(a)(3))
  • Employer retaliation for filing unfair-labor-practice charges or cooperating with the NLRB (Section 8(a)(4))
  • Employer refusal to bargain in good faith with union representatives (Section 8(a)(5))

     Threats, warnings, and orders to refrain from protected activities are forms of interference and coercion that violate Section 8(a)(1).  Disciplinary actions, such as suspensions, discharges, transfers, and demotions, violate Section 8(a)(3).  Failures to supply information, unilateral changes, refusals to hold grievance meetings, and direct dealings violate Section 8(a)(5).

     Section 8 also prohibits union unfair labor practices, which include, according to legal construction, failure to provide fair representation to all members of the bargaining unit.

     Section 9 provides that unions, if certified or recognized, are the exclusive representatives of bargaining unit members.  It prohibits the adjustment of employee grievances unless a union representative is given and opportunity to be present, and establishes procedures to vote on union representation.

     The NLRA sets out general rights and obligation.  Enforcing the Act in particular situations is the job of the NLRB.

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