1935 July 5

Wagner Act: Labor Gains First Amendment Rights, Right to Organize

 

The Wagner Act (officially the National Labor Relations Act), signed into law on this day by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, has been hailed as the “Magna Carta of organized labor.” The law guaranteed working people the right to form labor unions “of their own choosing,” and compelled employers to negotiate with them. Before the Wagner Act, employers routinely denied workers the right to organize unions, to picket and, in many cases, even to discuss labor unions. The Courts had upheld these actions with injunctions against the workers. See, for example, the injunction against the railroad workers on September 1, 1922, denying them basic First Amendment rights.

Despite the law guaranteeing workers the right to organize, resistance to unions continued to exist in some industries and communities. One of the most famous struggles in the late 1930s involved the attempt to block all union organizing efforts by Mayor Frank (“Boss”) Hague in Jersey City, New Jersey. See the dramatic events of May 19, 1938 and June 4, 1938, and the landmark Supreme Court decision, Hague v. C.I.O on June 5, 1939.

The Wagner Act was preceded by the Norris-LaGuardia Act, on March 23, 1932, which outlawed injunctions against labor union organizing.

Although rarely recognized as such, the Wagner Act is one of the most important laws protecting First Amendment rights ever enacted in the U.S. President Roosevelt signed the bill into law, but had not supported it, despite the fact that he enjoyed the overwhelming support of working people at the polls.

Read about the struggles of labor in the 1930s: Irving Bernstein, The Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933–1940 (1970)

Listen to Pete Seeger sing “Solidarity Forever:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ly5ZKjjxMNM

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