Labor Day: The History of Workers Rights under the New Deal
Written by; Allana O. - Workers' Rights Committee
Roosevelt’s Second phase of the New Deal (1935-36) created the systems of social welfare that many people depend on and are regularly chastised for today. Within that was the Social Security Act (to protect the elderly), the invention of the National Labor Relations Act (to empower groups of workers), the Fair Labor Standards Act (to protect employees), tax reform (to tax the rich), housing reform (to abolish slums), and the Work Progress Administration (to eradicate unemployment).
The NLRA in 1935 and the FLSA in 1938 ushered in a new era of workers’ rights. They outline rights of a minimum wage, overtime pay, freedom from “oppressive child labor,” and the rights to “protected concerted activities,” collectively bargain for terms and conditions of employment, and to be a part of a union.
About the NLRA. The National Labor Relations Act (also called the Wagner Act) instituted the National Labor Relations Board which is tasked with investigating, deciding, and enforcing the guidelines set up in the NLRA. The NLRA was designed because of a recognition that there is an innate power imbalance between the employer and the worker. So far, the most effective way to correct this imbalance is for workers to gather together around similar goals. However, in instances in which the employer has access to significant resources, a workers’ ability to collectively organize for better working conditions could be stifled through union-busting techniques. The federal government, through the NLRA, assists workers so that their collective voice is heard and everyone involved is held to the standards of their legal rights. In passing the NLRA, the federal government recognized this imbalance and the universal social benefits that come from everyone being treated with respect, dignity, and to be paid fairly for a day’s work.
The Fall From Grace. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 prohibited certain kinds of strikes, secondary boycotts/picketing, mass picketing, union campaign donations made from dues money, the closed shop, and unions of supervisors. This was the single most influential blow to unions and unionization in the US. Deep in the era of McCarthyism, the Act passed with strong bipartisan support even though President Truman (probably at the urging of Frances Perkins) vetoed it. The Taft-Harley Act made it possible for employers to resist unions or prosecute them for lost profits suffered during strikes and boycotts. It increased the burden of the NLRB by forcing it to pursue injunctions - an action that was previously discretionary. Because the NLRB is funded/supervised by Congress, they are susceptible to congressional politicking. Since at least 2007, there has been a lack of replacement appointments for board members, leaving the Board (supposedly consisting of 5 members) to have between 2 and 4. This inhibits its ability to reach a quorum and thus weakens its power of influence.
Women Behind the Scenes. Unsung heroine, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins championed the FLSA, guided by the post-depression ingenuity of Theodore Roosevelt and his New Deal reforms. Already a professor and safety activist in New York City, young Ms. Perkins witnessed the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and sprung into action. Of the disaster, she was quoted as saying, “There was a stricken conscience of public guilt and we all felt that we had been wrong, that something was wrong with that building which we had accepted or the tragedy never would have happened. Moved by this sense of stricken guilt, we banded ourselves together to find a way by law to prevent this kind of disaster.” (Stein, Leon. The Triangle Fire. J.B. Carroll & Graf Publishers/Quicksilver Books. 1962. p 211-212.)
In 1929, Governor Theodore Roosevelt appointed her the inaugural Commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor and would later appoint her as Secretary of the Department of Labor at the federal level. This appointment was significant in that she was the first female to in a cabinet position and thus part of the presidential line of succession. She was also the longest standing Secretary of the DOL, serving for 12 years. Ms. Perkins was largely credited with the creation and adoption of unemployment insurance, social security, and the FLSA.
About the FLSA. Arguably the most important piece of legislation during the presidency Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Fair Labor Standards Act paved the way for improved working conditions here in the U.S. and influenced other countries to adopt similar legislation. In brief, the FLSA established a federal minimum wage, overtime pay, child labor standards, and record-keeping requirements. Each rule has certain exemptions for which jobs or persons are covered by the legislation. Click the links below to find out more about each of the Act’s components via the US Department of Labor and Industry:
Closing Thoughts. It’s important to pause and consider all the challenges and pushback that workers have confronted, persisted against, and triumphed over throughout history in order to give us the working conditions we have here in the United States. Despite all the progress we have made, the fight continues. Since the FLSA’s passage, amendments continue to strengthen or weaken the impact of the bill on everyday people’s lives. Recent proposed but failed federal amendments include increasing minimum wage to $10.10, paid sick leave, paid vacation, and wage theft prevention/recovery. Local municipalities are getting involved too such as the Fight for $15 in Minneapolis and St. Paul (minimum wage), and the NYC Freelance Isn’t Free Act (transferred some FLSA rights to contractors).
Recent court rulings such as Janus vs. AFSCME (fair share fees), the Dynamex decision (“gig workers” misclassified), and EPIC Systems Corp. v. Lewis, Ernst & Young v. Morris, and NLRB v. Murphy Oil (forced arbitration) continue to struggle with the power imbalance of the employee and the employer. In the America we live in, money and hard work are two of our highest-valued resources. It is a shame that the power of one does not equate to the power of the other.