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The Wagner Act Previous Next
Digital History ID 3445



In 1932, George Barnett, a prominent economist and president of the American Economics Association, forecasted a bleak future for organized labor. "The changes, occupational and technological, which checked the advance of unionism in the last decade, appear likely to continue in the same direction," he intoned.

In 1930, only 3.4 million workers belonged to labor unions--down from 5 million in 1920. Union members were confined to a few industries, such as construction, railroads, and local truck delivery. The nation's major industries, like autos and steel, remained unorganized.

In 1935, Congress passed the landmark Wagner Act (the National Labor Relations Act), which spurred labor to historic victories. One such success included a sit-down strike by auto workers in Flint, Michigan in 1937. The strike led General Motors to recognize the United Automobile Workers. Union membership soared from 3.4 million in 1932 to 10 million in 1942 and to 16 million in 1952.

Bitter labor-management warfare erupted as the Depression dragged on. In 1934, some 1.5 million workers went on strike. Auto and steel workers and longshoremen became involved in violent strikes. Police shot 67 striking Teamsters in Minneapolis. In August, textile workers staged the largest strike the country had ever seen--a total of 500,000 workers in 20 states. In Massachusetts alone, 110,000 workers went on strike, and 60,000 workers in Georgia struck. While some of the strikes aimed at higher wages, a third demanded union recognition.

Labor unrest forced the federal government to step into labor relations and to forge a compromise between management and labor. Under the Wagner Act of 1935, the federal government guaranteed the right of employees to form unions and to bargain collectively. It also set up the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which had the power to prohibit unfair labor practices by employers.

During the mid-1930s, a bitter dispute broke out within labor's ranks. It involved an issue that had been simmering for half a century: Should labor focus its efforts on unionizing skilled workers; or should labor unionize all workers in industry, regardless of skill level? The country's major labor federation, the American Federation of Labor, consisted of craft unions organized by occupation. In late 1935, a group of union leaders, including John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers, David Dubinsky of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and Sidney Hillman of the International Ladies' Garment Workers, formed the Committee of Industrial Organization (CIO) to organize unskilled workers in America's mass production industries. The CIO formed unions in the auto, glass, radio, rubber, and steel industries, and by the end of 1937, it had more members than the American Federation of Labor (AFL)--3.7 million CIO members against 3.4 million AFL members.

The 44-day sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan forced General Motors to recognize the United Auto Workers. A few weeks later, U.S. Steel accepted unionization without a strike, but the "Little Steel" companies, Bethlehem, Inland, National, Republic, and Youngstown Sheet & Tube, vowed to resist the steel workers union. In response to the opposition, 75,000 workers walked out and violence flared. In May 1937, police in South Chicago opened fire on marchers at the Republic mill, killing ten. Soon after, the strike was routed, but in 1941 the National Labor Relations Board ordered "Little Steel" to recognize the United Steelworkers of America and to reinstate all workers fired for union activity.

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