The Wagner Act was passed and signed into law by President Roosevelt in 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression. Also known as the National Labor Relations Act, it established collective bargaining as a remedy to the violent conflict going on between labor unions and employers. This is from the website Digital History:
An investigation by a Senate committee headed by Senator Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin revealed that corporations were conducting an all-out war to keep unions from gaining power. Agencies specializing in industrial espionage were hired to infiltrate unions and sabotage efforts to organize, and some corporations accumulated weapons in anticipation of outright battles with unions:
Congress not only wanted to stop the violence and disruption of commerce, but improve workers' wages and working conditions. This is from the Act itself:
As written, however, the Act had no teeth. It forbade employers from interfering with employees’ efforts to form a union and forced them to “bargain” with the union. It did not, however, require the establishment of a contract and it did not condone violence or coercion from either party. Strikes were permitted, but strikers could not prevent employers from hiring replacement workers. This is from A Primer on American Labor Law by former chairman of the NLRB William B. Gould IV (page 106):
The fact that violence on the part of strikers was not condoned by the Act was emphasized by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Here is Gould again (page 55):
So it is unclear why Congress and President Roosevelt thought collective bargaining would improve the lot of workers. The employer had no reason to make concessions when he could get all the workers he needed at the current wage, and there was nothing in the Act to force him to do so. The expectation that friendly, face-to-face discussion would result in compromise was unrealistic, if not naïve.
As the years passed and employers reluctantly accepted collective bargaining as the law of the land, violence against unions subsided, but conflict continued - even during the war years:
Conflict continued because unions realized that they didn't have to take "No" for an answer. They found that the Taft-Hartley prohibition against violence was weakly enforced. They found ways to push the limits of the law, to intimidate without blatantly breaking the law. They cleverly came up with the name "scab" to vilify workers willing to take their jobs at lower wage than they were demanding and they portrayed themselves to the public and to politicians as the poor, trod-upon victims of cold corporate giants. With their numerical strength and reputation for violence, they scared the hell out of not only replacement workers, but local law enforcement agencies.
Conflict continues to the present. Here are some of the more notable strikes that have occurred:
Although the Wagner Act did not stop conflict, it did increase wages and benefits of union members (an ever dwindling number of union members in the private sector). This came at the expense of the rest of society, however. The major accomplishment of the Wagner Act was to make possible a steady stream of income for union treasuries, because when a union is voted in, the employer is required to deduct union dues from the paychecks of the employees - dues that would be difficult to collect if the union had to do it by itself. For big unions, dues could bring in millions of dollars, which was what made organized labor attractive to organized crime. Dues paid for nice salaries for union leaders and enabled unions to make generous contributions to politicians who in return vote as the unions wish. Collective bargaining has corrupted the Democratic party, crippling its mission as advocate for the common citizen.
So if collective bargaining is not the solution to conflict between labor and business, what is?
The Alternative. By passing the Wagner Act, Congress legitimized and institutionalized hostile confrontation in labor relations, an area of commerce that – like others – should be entirely peaceful and free from conflict. No law requires “bargaining” for commercial transactions other than labor contracts, and yet there is no violence and turmoil in those areas. Food processors are not required to bargain with farmers. Walmart is not required to bargain with suppliers. Grocers are not required to bargain with shoppers. These parties choose or choose not to do business with each other - no hard feelings. Neither is forced to accept terms it feels are unfair.
Instead of requiring employers to bargain with unions, we should simply make it clear that although workers may form unions, employers are not required to bargain with them or collect dues for them, and although workers may strike, they may be fired for doing so. They may not interfere when the employer attempts to hire workers to replace them and may not harass the employer or his employees or his customers. At the same time, employers should be prohibited from interfering with the workers’ right to discuss wages and working conditions and to form unions.
Strikes occurred before and after the Wagner Act became law and likely will continue even if collective bargaining rights are taken away. We must, however, make it clear to workers that it is the law of the land and the will of the people that they not interfere with employers’ right to set the terms of employment. To state it plainly, workers have the right to take or leave it, and if they insist on violent obstruction of an employer’s right to do business, they will be arrested and prosecuted.
Responsibility for protecting businesses from strikers will fall entirely on public law enforcement agencies. Businesses will be allowed to use force only in self defense, when the police fail to act.
There are those who would argue that the right to bargain collectively is a basic human right. But there is no such thing. In a democracy, rights are defined by the people. The right to form a union appears to be guaranteed by the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
Note that it says “peaceably”. While workers may have the right to form a union, the Constitution does not grant a right to block an employer from hiring replacements for striking workers, and the Constitution makes no mention of collective bargaining or a fair wage. With no right to collective bargaining and no official tolerance of workplace violence, unions will have no power. Other than as social and mutual benefit organizations, they will have no purpose.
Although collective bargaining is mentioned neither in the Bible nor the U.S. Constitution, it is considered by people all over the world as a basic human right, so if that right is denied in the U.S., the outcry will be deafening. This is a democracy, however, and if the people of the U.S. decide they don't want collective bargaining, that decision must be accepted by unions and their supporters. To fear the consequences of repealing the Wagner Act reveals that unions are too powerful, at least in the minds of the public.