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Albert Goldman

What Do the Amendments to the Wagner Act
Mean for the American Working Class?

(May 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 32, 12 May 1939, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Whatever benefits the workers can still derive from the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) would be done away with by the amendments proposed by the National Association of Manufacturers through Senator Burke of Nebraska and partially by the amendments offered by the A.F.L. bureaucrats through Senator Walsh of Massachusetts.

The original effectiveness of the Wagner Act has been destroyed to a great extent by three decisions of the United States Supreme Court. In the Fansteel case it was declared that workers who participate in any sit-down strike or in any way violate any law are to lose the privileges they have under the Wagner Act. In another case the same court decided that if a union is found to have broken a contract with an employer it loses its right under the Act, and in still another case the honorable justices decreed that findings of fact by the National Labor Board are subject to be reviewed by the courts.

These three decisions reduced the effectiveness of the Act by more than seventy-five percent. The amendments proposed by the A.F.L. would limit the Act still further, while those proposed by the employers would make of it a very dangerous weapon against the working class.

* * *

In its original form, without the modifications introduced by the decisions of the Supreme Court, the Wagner Act had sufficient merit to justify its being supported by all sections of the labor movement.

Basically it was the upswing in the business cycle that facilitated a strong organizing movement in the years of 1936 and 1937. The great organization campaign that brought hundreds of thousands of workers into the auto union came as a result of the militant sit-down strikes and not because of reliance on the Wagner Act. When the reaction to the business upswing came in the latter part of 1937 the Wagner Act could not and did not prevent a tremendous drop in union, membership, especially in those unions that were organized after its enactment.

But even as a factor of secondary importance the Wagner Act proved beneficial and Labor should not only prevent amendments that would further destroy its effectiveness but should press for amendments that would enable Labor to use it more effectively for its own interests.

Bosses Would Transform Law into Opposite

Ever since the Wagner Act went into effect, the employers have been whining about its inequality because, forsooth, it only prohibits unfair labor practices by the employers and not by the employees. Senator Burke has introduced an amendment which would ban “unfair labor practices” by the workers. This amendment is the most important one for the employers and should it pass it would not only destroy whatever good there is in the Wagner Act but it would actually transform it into a very dangerous weapon in the hands of the bosses. Everything that is usually done by a union organizer in order to bring the workers into the union would constitute an unfair labor practice and would be prohibited under severe penalties. The employers also want the

right to petition the Labor Board for elections: Such a provision would give them a chance to have an election before the union has succeeded in organizing a majority of the workers and thus assure, for a year at least, the continuance of non-union conditions.

The A.F.L. bureaucrats have joined hands with the bosses in asking for such an amendment.

Another amendment the employers want would take away practically all important functions from the Labor Board and turn them over to the Federal courts. It would be dangerous for the workers to rely upon any particular individuals who happen to constitute the Labor Board. Not only is it likely that liberals will wilt under pressure, but it is certain that a turn in the wheel of politics will bring reactionaries of the worst kind into the Board. Generally speaking, however, the Federal courts are far more certain to give all the breaks to the protection of property rights. Labor has a greater chance to influence members of the Labor Board than judges of the Federal Courts. The bosses, well aware of that, are anxious to have their cases tried by their trusted servants rather than take a chance on newcomers.

* * *

A.F.L. Amendments Serve Bosses

The amendments offered by the A.F.L. leadership are intended to serve the narrow interests of that leadership and this necessarily means that they will also serve the interests of the employers. One amendment has as its purpose to guard the craft form of organization. Another amendment is intended to give the employers greater “freedom of speech.” By that is meant that the employers, in case of any conflict between the A.F.L. and C.I.O., should have the right to influence the workers in favor of the A.F.L. A third amendment has as its aim to prevent the Board from invalidating contracts entered into between the A.F.L. and employers.

It is a notorious fact that some A.F.L. bureaucrats have succeeded in getting employers to sign a contract with them when there was danger of an effective organization campaign by the C.I.O. Under such circumstances the A.F.L. is nothing but a company union and in several instances the C.I.O. has been successful in getting the Labor Board to invalidate such contracts. The A.F.L. top leaders want to restrict the right of the Board to declare such contracts null and void. That such an amendment will ultimately be used against the A.F.L. by the bosses is something that the A.F.L. leadership is too thick-headed to realize.

The charge that John L. Lewis made to the effect that the A.F.L. leaders consulted the employers before proposing their amendments can almost be accepted without evidence because the amendments would in fact benefit the employers.

* * *

Not Enough to Stand Pat

The strategy of the C.I.O. officials, in combating the campaign for amending the Wagner Act, has been to insist that the Act needs no amending. But the fact remains that the Act does require amending.

It requires amending in order to enable it to serve the purpose originally intended for it. It requires amending in order to destroy the modifications introduced by the Supreme Court in the Fansteel and other decisions. The Supreme Court has cut the Act’s effectiveness and now it is necessary to have that effectiveness restored and strengthened. And that can be done only by amending the Act.

To be against the amendments offered by the employers and the A.F.L. officials is correct but it is not enough.

An amendment is necessary which would state clearly and unambiguously that no alleged or actual violation of any State or Federal Law or any city ordinance by any worker should deprive such worker of the privileges conferred upon him by the Wagner Act. The amendment should go further and state that nothing that the union does which is claimed to be in violation of any contract or law should cause it to lose its rights under the Act.

Such an amendment would at least restore to the Wagner Act the effectiveness it was supposed to have originally. As a matter of fact, even if the C.I.O. bureaucrats wanted nothing more than to have the Act remain as is, good strategy should have dictated the necessity of proposing its own amendments.

Only militant action will succeed in organizing the unorganized. The workers must nevertheless insist on the passage of an act which will recognize their absolute right to organize without interference by bosses or courts.

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