Employment and Jobs

The History of the National Labor Relations Act and the Future of Worker Power

March 28, 2022  • Economic Opportunities Program

The recent surge of strikes, lockouts, and resignations indicates that many people are dissatisfied with work as we know it. The causes of discontent vary, ranging from inadequate wages to unsafe conditions to work that conflicts with workers’ values. Workers today are looking to renegotiate the terms of work. The right to organize, join a union, and collectively bargain, granted through the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA), has long been their most reliable path to voice concerns and address issues in the workplace.

Yet joining or starting a union has become increasingly difficult over time. Only 10.3% of workers in the US, including just 6.1% of workers in the private sector, belong to a union today. More than 20% of workers belonged to a union just 40 years ago and over 35% belonged to a union in the 1950s. The decline of worker bargaining power and unionization has affected workplaces and the economy in significant ways, not least of which is the impact on worker wages. Long-term real wage stagnation and a shrinking middle class have accompanied the decrease in unionization over the last few decades. Today, nearly half of non-unionized workers would like to join a union and general support for labor unions is at its highest since 1965. But this desire to join a union has not led to a commensurate increase in union representation, which often faces strong opposition from business leadership and management.

Earlier this month, the Institute’s Economic Opportunities Program hosted a discussion on worker power and the history of the National Labor Relations Act, which explored the history of the right to organize and how to strengthen worker voice and agency. The discussion was the first in a new series, The History and Future of US Labor Law: Conversations to Shape the Future of Work.

Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh provided opening remarks, underscoring that “worker organizing is democracy in action.” Secretary Walsh recapped his personal and professional experience with the right to organize. He described what happens when that right is weakened. “From 1979 to 2002, economic productivity grew by over 60 percent, but the average hourly pay grew by only 17 percent. That’s what happens when workers lose power,” he said. Secretary of Walsh also discussed the Biden administration’s work to expand the right to organize.

Charisse Jones, an economic opportunity reporter for USA Today, then moderated a discussion between Roy Bahat, head of Bloomberg Beta, Annelise Orleck, professor of history at Dartmouth College, and Jennifer Epps, executive director of The LIFT Fund. Jones opened the conversation by discussing the challenges many workers have faced during the pandemic, the new worker activism and unionization drives we are seeing across the country and the benefits of union membership. “Membership increases the household wealth for all workers, but it gives a particular boost to workers of color, increasing their earnings, offering access to retirement savings, and providing other benefits critical to financial security and closing the racial wealth gap,” she said.

The experts discussed the history of the National Labor Relations Act and the challenges workers face today in attempting to organize. Annelise Orleck described how worker organizing in the early 1900s drove the passage of the act and how lawmakers purposefully excluded agricultural and domestic workers, who were mostly women and people of color. A little later in the conversation, she explained how the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 and the firing of air traffic controllers by Ronald Reagan in 1980 reversed the progress the NLRA created and drove down unionization rates for decades. Orleck also described the history of the NLRA and its exclusion of domestic and agricultural workers

Jennifer Epps talked about the challenges The LIFT Fund, which supports partnerships between labor unions and worker centers, is seeing with worker organizing. “Folks are having this energy and organizing and rising up to demand better working conditions, but the NLRA doesn’t always have sufficient support or protections for those workers,” she said. “Companies are blatantly violating the law and are seeing little consequences.” Epps highlighted that workers who want to organize, who are often women and people of color, “have to overcome the fear and challenges of ‘I might lose my job, I might not be able to feed my family.’”

Roy Bahat is the head of Bloomberg Beta, a company that invests in tech startups interested in building a better future of work. Bahat stated early in the conversation that workers want not only better wages and workplace conditions but also dignity. “They want a say. They want the ability to feel powerful and have a seat at the table,” he said. Orleck agreed. “The issues of dignity and respect today in the workplace are profound, and you can’t put a dollar amount on it,” she said.

Bahat also described the polarity among interested parties as well as the institutional and cultural challenges among businesses and labor unions that hamper progress in granting workers power. “For business, their knee-jerk reaction is to treat the union as the enemy and that’s just not going to work anymore,” he said. “What we need are intrepid business leaders who are willing to try something new. The most important business skill of the next 20 years—one that isn’t taught right now in most business schools—is how to collaborate with an organized workforce.”

The panel examined innovations and potential strategies to strengthen worker organizing efforts including approaches such as sectoral bargaining, and the need to address employee misclassification of independent contractors. Epps emphasized the power of collective bargaining and described how The LIFT Fund is working to bring traditional labor unions, worker centers, and philanthropy together to leverage their institutional strengths and support new organizing efforts in the South and around the country.

Bahat stressed the importance of experimentation and innovation in worker organizing. He pointed toward some of the tech companies and new strategies Bloomberg Beta is investing in to support worker organizing and power.

Orleck reviewed new policies that states and cities are passing to address some of the NLRA’s weaknesses and support workers’ rights—including laws to extend rights to other workers such as domestic workers. She discussed the lack of organizing protections for independent contractors, how some employers misclassify workers to skirt the law, and how we need to revisit how the law defines a worker if we are to fix workers’ right to organize and create a more equitable economy.

While many of the challenges workers face today mirror those of the early 1900s, today’s economy looks very different and will require some new approaches to building worker power. The creation of the gig economy, the spread of misclassification of independent contractors, the expansion of shareholder capitalism, and existing laws such as right-to-work statutes all pose obstacles. Yet as the experts pointed out, the technological revolution, heightened awareness of equity and economic fairness across society, innovations by states and cities, and a new generation of worker organizing led by women and people of color hold tremendous promise for strengthening worker power and improving job quality. While new policies, strategies, and different types of partnerships are undoubtedly part of the solution, Bahat emphasized that all stakeholders should be more open to collaboration. A change in mindsets and how we view one another is needed if we are going to address the challenges workers face. “All of us need to be in solidarity together, and that is going to be incredibly uncomfortable as all of us try to figure it out,” he said.


The History of the NLRA and the Future of Worker Power. Featuring @SecMartyWalsh @USDOL, @roybahat @BloombergBeta, Jennifer Epps @theliftfund, @AnneliseOrleck1 @dartmouth, and @charissejones @USATODAY.

Headlines are filled with stories of strikes and union drives. How will the NLRA affect workers’ right to organize? Hear insights from @SecMartyWalsh, @roybahat, Jennifer Epps, @AnneliseOrleck1, and @charissejones.

#JobQuality includes having a voice on the job. Union membership rose after the NLRA passed in 1935, but declined significantly in the last few decades. What can it teach us for the #futureofwork?

The NLRA has weakened over time and excluded many from the beginning. What can we learn from its history and impact? Hear insights from @SecMartyWalsh, @roybahat, Jennifer Epps, @AnneliseOrleck1, and @charissejones.

Join us for the rest of this five-part discussion series, The History and Future of US Labor Law: Conversations to Shape the Future of Work, where we will continue to reflect on the history of US labor law, examine current implications and challenges, and discuss how we shape a future of work that provides opportunity and dignity to all.

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