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Labor Boards: The New Mechanism for Industrial Relations

by John A. Fitch

Director of Industrial Courses, New York School of Social Work

November 1934

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NEVER before in the history of the United States has there been such an army of labor mediators, conciliators and labor adjusters as now have their headquarters in Washington. Even during the World War when industrial peace was felt to be an essential to effectiveness on the battle-field, there were not half so many agencies for handling industrial disputes. It is doubtful whether anyone knows precisely how many there are. In early October when this article was being prepared neither the Labor Department nor the NRA could give me anything that they were willing to certify as a complete list of such agencies. In two different government offices lists were then being compiled, and preliminary copies were placed in my hands. One list contained the titles of sixty-nine official bodies, the other of fifty-six, and only thirty titles appeared in both lists.

It is in no jesting spirit that I call attention to the multiplication of these agencies for ironing out industrial controversy. It may be that we should have more rather than fewer, and it is not surprising that no one is keeping track of them all, they have emerged so rapidly and under so many different authorities. Anyone who looks at the scene, even briefly, from the mountain top of the national capital must realize their importance.

We need adjustment machinery as never before, and not merely because there have been many strikes of exceptional bitterness in the last year. The new responsibility of the federal government for labor conditions, and the new statutory definition of the rights of organized labor contained in the Recovery Act make it imperative that the government should provide machinery for inquiry and adjudication.

All the codes make provision for maximum hours of labor and for minimum wages. These provisions have the force of law and must be respected. The compliance machinery of the NRA is concerned with them and so ultimately is the Department of Justice. But questions arise with respect to these matters that involve interpretation, understanding and adjustment. Hence it is that provision is made in many of the codes for labor boards responsible to the code authorities, whose function is to inquire into and attempt to adjust difficulties that may arise concerning wages and hours. Such boards often mediate in other types of dispute. It is the existence of these boards that swells the total number to such astounding limits; and it is the casual and more or less spontaneous character of their emergence that makes it so difficult to keep an accurate count.

BUT it is Section 7-a that is keeping the adjustment machinery going at high pressure. Section 7-a is a part of the Recovery Act and as required by law is also written into every code. It declares that the workers are to have the following rights:

. . . "to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing." . . . to be "free from the interference, restraint or coercion of employers . . . in the designation of such representatives." No worker is to be required, "as a condition of employment to join any company union or to refrain from joining . . . a labor organization of his own choosing."

Essentially, then, two rights are guaranteed to the worker in Section 7-a: the right to bargain collectively and the right to be free from every form of employer-coercion. In the interpretation and enforcement of these provisions certain difficulties emerge.

The first difficulty arises out of the fact that while the worker has a right "to bargain collectively" there is no definition of collective bargaining in the statute. Neither is there any statement of the positive action required of the employer to make the rule effective. Obviously it takes two sides not only to make a bargain but to engage in the bargain but to engage in the bargaining process. What then does this law require the employer to do?

Cases were appealed to the National Labor Board (the Wagner Board) in which the employer held that he had met i the requirements of the statute merely by meeting and hearing representatives of the employes. In one such case the Board said:

True collective-bargaining requires more than the holding of conferences and the exchange of pleasantries....While the law does not compel the parties to reach an agreement, it does contemplate that both parties will approach the negotiations with an open mind and will make a reasonable effort to reach common ground of agreement. [1]


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