The economic chaos of the Great Depression intensified the organized labor movement's desire for a comprehensive, national labor law that would permanently end judicial and employer interference with workers' union activity.

The first attempt at a national labor law came with the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in 1933. NIRA was intended as a general plan to promote economic recovery,19 and as part of the package it conferred upon employees statutory rights to organize labor unions and bargain collectively. However, the law lacked a mechanism for implementing these rights; for example, employees had no ability to hold elections to choose their bargaining representatives.20 As a result, many employers formed their own company-dominated unions or else simply ignored the law.21 The Supreme Court ultimately struck down the largely ineffective and counterproductive NIRA as unconstitutional in 1935.22

But later that same year, the unions' dreams of a national labor law were realized. Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which has served as the framework for federal regulation of private-sector labor-management relations ever since. In introducing the bill that would eventually become the NLRA, Senator Robert Wagner of New York emphasized that "[g]enuine collective bargaining is the only way to attain equality of bargaining power between management and labor." 24

The NLRA made it illegal for employers to interfere with three significant areas of employee activity:

  • organization into labor unions;

  • collective bargaining through labor unions; and

  • concerted activities such as striking and picketing.25

The NLRA outlawed as "unfair labor practices"26 any employer attempts to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees engaged in these protected union activities. The NLRA also forced employers to bargain in "good faith" with unions that represented their employees; failure to do so was considered an "unfair labor practice." 27

A new federal agency, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was established to enforce these and other provisions of the NLRA.

The original NLRA as passed marked a radical departure from the country's previous governmental "hands-off" approach to labor-management relations; Congress in fact later amended the NLRA several times in an effort to restore to the employment relationship a balance of power between labor and management.

In 1947, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley amendments to the NLRA, which sought to enhance the legal rights of individual employees under the law and prevent excessive union coercion and abuses. These amendments recognized the right of employees to refrain from union activities, added new provisions to prohibit union unfair labor practices, and set forth the duties of each party in collective bargaining.

Taft-Hartley also prohibited unions from engaging in coercive conduct (such as strikes or picketing) against neutral persons in certain circumstances, including "work jurisdiction disputes" between two or more unions over employee work assignments. Provisions for mandatory and discretionary injunctions against this activity were added, and administrative changes to the NLRB were also made.28

Other major features of Taft-Hartley included a new provision that authorized suits in federal court by or against labor organizations for violations of labor contracts, and, most importantly, a provision that allowed states to pass "right-to-work laws." Right-to-work laws make union membership optional by preventing labor unions and employers from agreeing to force workers to join or financially support a labor union as a condition of employment. Since Taft-Hartley was enacted, twenty-one states29 have passed right-to-work laws to give workers more freedom from compulsory unionism, although Michigan has yet to do so.

In 1959, Congress amended the NLRA again to correct various union and management abuses of employees uncovered by the Senate during investigative hearings.30 These amendments, known as the Landrum-Griffin amendments, were primarily intended to establish additional legal rights for union members to participate in the internal governance of their unions.

Landrum-Griffin strengthened NLRA provisions that prohibited unions from striking or picketing employers who were not directly involved in a labor dispute and established new legal rights for union members and duties for labor organizations,31 including the following:

  • a "bill of rights" for union members, including the rights to criticize union policies, nominate candidates for officer positions, and run for office;

  • reporting and disclosure requirements for unions;

  • requirements for democratic union elections;

  • greater regulation of union officers' spending; and

  • a prohibition against union picketing for purposes of organizing employees or forcing employer recognition.

In 1974, Congress again amended the NLRA to extend its coverage to nonprofit hospitals, broadly define the term "health care institution," and establish some special procedures covering collective bargaining in the health care industry.32

This was the last significant legislative change to the NLRA. But how do unions today actually function under the law and what do they do? That is the focus of the next section.