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51.1 A Brief History of Labor Legislation

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand and explain the rise of labor unions in the United States.
  2. Explain what common-law principles were used by employers and courts to resist legalized collective bargaining.
  3. Be able to put US labor law in its historical context.

Labor and the Common Law in the Nineteenth Century

Labor unions appeared in modern form in the United States in the 1790s in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Early in the nineteenth century, employers began to seek injunctions against union organizing and other activities. Two doctrines were employed: (1) common-law conspiracy and (2) common-law restraint of trade. The first doctrine held that workers who joined together were acting criminally as conspirators, regardless of the means chosen or the objectives sought.

The second doctrine—common-law restraint of trade—was also a favorite theory used by the courts to enjoin unionizing and other joint employee activities. Workers who banded together to seek better wages or working conditions were, according to this theory, engaged in concerted activity that restrained trade in their labor. This theory made sense in a day in which conventional wisdom held that an employer was entitled to buy labor as cheaply as possible—the price would obviously rise if workers were allowed to bargain jointly rather than if they were required to offer their services individually on the open market.

Labor under the Antitrust Laws

The Sherman Act did nothing to change this basic judicial attitude. A number of cases decided early in the act’s history condemned labor activities as violations of the antitrust law. In particular, in the Danbury Hatters’ case (Loewe v. Lawlor) the Supreme Court held that a “secondary boycott” against a nonunionized company violated the Sherman Act. The hatters instigated a boycott of retail stores that sold hats manufactured by a company whose workers had struck. The union was held liable for treble damages.Loewe v. Lawlor, 208 U.S. 274 (1908).

By 1912, labor had organized widely, and it played a pivotal role in electing Woodrow Wilson and giving him a Democratic Congress, which responded in 1914 with the Clayton Act’s “labor exemption.” Section 6 of the Clayton Act says that labor unions are not “illegal combinations or conspiracies in restraint of trade, under the antitrust laws.” Section 20 forbids courts from issuing injunctions in cases involving strikes, boycotts, and other concerted union activities (which were declared to be lawful) as long as they arose out of disputes between employer and employees over the terms of employment.

But even the Clayton Act proved of little lasting value to the unions. In 1921, the Supreme Court again struck out against a secondary boycott that crippled the significance of the Clayton Act provisions. In the case, a machinists’ union staged a boycott against an employer (by whom the members were not employed) in order to pressure the employer into permitting one of its factories to be unionized. The Court ruled that the Clayton Act exemptions applied only in cases involving an employer and its own employees.Duplex Printing Press Co. v. Deering, 254 U.S. 443 (1921). Without the ability to boycott under those circumstances, and with the threat of antitrust prosecutions or treble-damage actions, labor would be hard-pressed to unionize many companies. More antiunion decisions followed.

Moves toward Modern Labor Legislation

Collective bargaining appeared on the national scene for the first time in 1918 with the creation of the War Labor Conference Board. The National War Labor Board was empowered to mediate or reconcile labor disputes that affected industries essential to the war, but after the war, the board was abolished.

In 1926, Congress enacted the Railway Labor Act. This statute imposed a duty on railroads to bargain in good faith with their employees’ elected representatives. The act also established the National Mediation Board to mediate disputes that were not resolved in contract negotiations. The stage was set for more comprehensive national labor laws. These would come with the Great Depression.

The Norris–La Guardia Act

The first labor law of the Great Depression was the Norris–La Guardia Act of 1932. It dealt with the propensity of federal courts to issue preliminary injunctions, often ex parte (i.e., after hearing only the plaintiff’s argument), against union activities. Even though the permanent injunction might later have been denied, the effect of the vaguely worded preliminary injunction would have been sufficient to destroy the attempt to unionize. The Norris–La Guardia Act forbids federal courts from temporarily or permanently enjoining certain union activities, such as peaceful picketing and strikes. The act is applicable is any “labor dispute,” defined as embracing “any controversy concerning terms or conditions of employment, or concerning the association or representation of persons in negotiating, fixing, maintaining, changing, or seeking to arrange terms or conditions of employment, regardless of whether or not the disputants stand in the proximate relation of employer and employee.” This language thus permitted the secondary boycott that had been held a violation of the antitrust laws in Duplex Printing Press v. Deering. The act also bars the courts from enforcing so-called yellow-dog contracts—agreements that employees made with their employer not to join unions.

The National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act)

In 1935, Congress finally enacted a comprehensive labor statute. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), often called the Wagner Act after its sponsor, Senator Robert F. Wagner, declared in Section 7 that workers in interstate commerce “have the right to self-organization, to form, join or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” Section 8 sets out five key unfair labor practicesActs that violate the National Labor Relations Act, such as failing to bargain in good faith. Unfair labor practices can be committed by employers and by unions.:

  1. Interference with the rights guaranteed by Section 7
  2. Interference with the organization of unions, or dominance by the employer of union administration (this section thus outlaws “company unions”)
  3. Discrimination against employees who belong to unions
  4. Discharging or otherwise discriminating against employees who seek relief under the act
  5. Refusing to bargain collectively with union representatives

The procedures for forming a union to represent employees in an appropriate “bargaining unit” are set out in Section 9. Finally, the Wagner Act established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) as an independent federal administrative agency, with power to investigate and remedy unfair labor practices.

The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the act in 1937 in a series of five cases. In the first, NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., the Court ruled that congressional power under the Commerce Clause extends to activities that might affect the flow of interstate commerce, as labor relations certainly did.NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 301 U.S. 1 (1937). Through its elaborate mechanisms for establishing collective bargaining as a basic national policy, the Wagner Act has had a profound effect on interstate commerce during the last half-century.

The Taft-Hartley Act (Labor-Management Relations Act)

The Wagner Act did not attempt to restrict union activities in any way. For a dozen years, opponents of unions sought some means of curtailing the breadth of opportunity opened up to unions by the Wagner Act. After failing to obtain relief in the Supreme Court, they took their case to Congress and finally succeeded after World War II when, in 1947, Congress, for the first time since 1930, had Republican majorities in both houses. Congress responded to critics of “big labor” with the Taft-Hartley Act, passed over President Truman’s veto. Taft-Hartley—known formally as the Labor-Management Relations Act—did not repeal the protections given employees and unions under the NLRA. Instead, it balanced union power with a declaration of rights of employers. In particular, Taft-Hartley lists six unfair labor practices of unions, including secondary boycotts, strikes aimed at coercing an employer to fire an employee who refuses to join a union, and so-called jurisdictional strikes over which union should be entitled to do specified jobs at the work site.

In addition to these provisions, Taft-Hartley contains several others that balance the rights of unions and employers. For example, the act guarantees both employers and unions the right to present their views on unionization and collective bargaining. Like employers, unions became obligated to bargain in good faith. The act outlaws the closed shopA firm where potential employees must belong to a union before being hired and must remain a member during employment. (a firm in which a worker must belong to a union), gives federal courts the power to enforce collective bargaining agreements, and permits private parties to sue for damages arising out of a secondary boycott. The act also created the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to cope with strikes that create national emergencies, and it declared strikes by federal employees to be unlawful. It was this provision that President Reagan invoked in 1981 to fire air traffic controllers who walked off the job for higher pay.

The Landrum-Griffin Act

Congressional hearings in the 1950s brought to light union corruption and abuses and led in 1959 to the last of the major federal labor statutes, the Landrum-Griffin Act (Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act). It established a series of controls on internal union procedures, including the method of electing union officers and the financial controls necessary to avoid the problems of corruption that had been encountered. Landrum-Griffin also restricted union picketing under various circumstances, narrowed the loopholes in Taft-Hartley’s prohibitions against secondary boycotts, and banned “hot cargo” agreements (see Section 51.3.6 "Hot Cargo Agreement").

Key Takeaway

Common-law doctrines were used in the early history of the labor movement to enjoin unionizing and other joint employee activities. These were deemed to be restraints of trade that violated antitrust laws. In addition, common-law conspiracy charges provided criminal enforcement against joint employee actions and agreements. Politically, the labor movement gained some traction in 1912 and got an antitrust-law exemption in the Clayton Act. But it was not until the Great Depression and the New Deal that the right of collective bargaining was recognized by federal statute in the National Labor Relations Act. Subsequent legislation (Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin) added limits to union activities and controls over unions in their internal functions.


  1. Use the Internet to find stories of government-sponsored violence against union activities in the late 1900s and early part of the twentieth century. What were some of the most violent confrontations, and what caused them? Discuss why business and government were so opposed to collective bargaining.
  2. Use the Internet to find out which countries in the world have legal systems that support collective bargaining. What do these countries have in common with the United States? Does the People’s Republic of China support collective bargaining?