Protecting Organized Labor Used to Be a Bipartisan Activity

I went to vote early on Monday. My polling place is Middle School 167, also known as Wagner.  While I was waiting in line, I was thinking about the school’s namesake, Senator Robert F. Wagner, who was perhaps best known for the Wagner Act, also known as The National Labor Relations Act of 1935.

The last time our nation was in the midst of mass unemployment, with a few people getting very rich and millions losing everything, our leaders stood up and took drastic action and changed the world.

The Wagner Act made employers bargain and contract with unions which won the support of a majority of workers. The act prohibited retaliation against workers who supported unions, and created the National Labor Relations Board to deal with disputes with unions. 

Senator Wagner did not invent organized labor. But he did make a significant difference in the country’s acceptance of unions. Before the Wagner Act, the conflict between organized labor and capital threatened to destabilize the country. There had been major strikes through the late 19th and early 20th centuries; many devolved into violence, with employers and sometimes unions organizing private military forces to maintain control of mining areas by force. Non-union or striking facilities were often destroyed with dynamite, and attempted assassinations of business executives were common. Being a miner in a labor dispute was difficult (not that it was so easy without labor disputes), particularly in the company towns where literally everything, including the miner’s home, was the property of the coal mine company, and the miners and their families could be evicted by force if the company was not happy with the miner.

In that context, many officials, who are now best known for the schools which bear their names, created new law to aid American workers in being treated fairly, or at least safely. That law was passed by Democrats only a few years after Republicans (Fiorello La Guardia and George Norris) passed the Norris – La Guardia Act that prohibited requiring workers to sign agreements not to join unions and banned court injunctions against non-violent strikes, etc. 

At the time, fighting for working Americans was seen as a bipartisan cause, a responsibility of elected officials on both sides of the aisle. We have to ask our leaders today: Why is protecting American workers considered partisan? Where are the leaders today to walk in the shoes of Wagner, Norris, and La Guardia, and so many others who protected the rights of workers? Why did one of our political parties become anti-labor? 

It was only a dozen years after the Wagner Act that the Taft Hartley Act restricting unions was passed by Republicans, overriding Harry Truman’s veto. In the decades since, the Republican party has consistently sided with corporate interests over workers, despite workers still making up the vast majority of their constituents. 

If Republican politicians want to start winning more elections, all they need to do is stop working to make their constituents’ lives harder. Give workers the tools they need to negotiate on an even footing with their employers, and give them the ability to support themselves and their families through honest work.

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