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What is the Wagner Act?

By Jason C. Chavis
Updated Feb 22, 2024
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The Wagner Act is a federal law in the United States that provides for certain protections for specific workers in the private sector in regards to their ability to establish labor unions and engage in activities with those groups. Also known as the National Labor Relations Act, it was signed into law in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It is loosely associated with the New Deal Roosevelt launched around the same era. In the most basic sense, the Wagner Act prevents the legal retaliation against workers for forming collective bargaining agreements or going on strike. It was named after the original sponsor of the bill, Senator Robert F. Wagner.

Limitations to the Wagner Act essentially revolve around certain types of workers. The government had already passed the Railway Labor Act, which provided protections for the rights of all workers in this important industry. Likewise, agricultural workers are not included in the law. One of the major controversies that has continued to be associated with the law is the fact that no local, state and federal workers for government offices are protected by any of the provisions of the Wagner Act. Since this time, many lawsuits and additional legislation have been passed in regards to these employees.

In order to enforce the laws provided for in the mandate, the government established the National Labor Relations Board. This organization was given the ability to hear charges on behalf of workers when it came to the actions of companies. It also has the right to conduct investigations. One primary responsibility was the oversight of major businesses such as the factories and the industrial sector, which the government viewed as essential to the recovery effort from the Great Depression.

Being that the Wagner Act was passed into law during the height of the Great Depression, many opponents pointed to the fact that it would limit the rights of owners and managers when dealing with their workers, said to detrimentally impact the chances of recovery. It brought into question the role of government in the economy, particularly those who believed in the laissez faire concept of relations. Prior to this era, many companies used force to prevent their workers from organizing. Likewise, police force was occasionally used as authorized by the government itself to break up strikes.

Attempts to remove the Wagner Act from federal law have been made on a regular basis within the United States Congress. In 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act passed, which set up another agency that monitored the activities of the unions themselves. After this amendment, the government was more heavily involved in all aspects of the workplace.

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