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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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IT is too early to attempt final judgment as to the operation of I the new boards. It is noteworthy that they are proceeding with dispatch to the discharge of their duties. In its first monthly report to the President, the National Labor Relations Board made the significant statement, "It is not enough that the decision should be just, it must be prompt." One is impressed also with the vigor and independence of their decisions. The Steel Labor Board has ruled that the employer has "no legal interest" in the organization of his own employes. That is a matter which concerns them alone. It follows that the employes may be protected against any interference on the part of their employer with the development of their own ideas with respect to organization. This is a blow to the typical company union.

The National Labor Relations Board in a case ordering the reinstatement of men who had been discharged on account of union activity ruled that places must be found for them even if that should mean the discharge of persons who have been employed in their stead. Equally impressive is the clearness and cogency of the reasoning found in the decisions of these boards.

Two possible conclusions emerge from the experience of the government in setting up labor boards under the Recovery Act. One is that while the reverse may be true in organized industries, nonpartisan boards appear to be more successful in fields where the workers are without organization.

Where labor is unorganized and especially where it is attempting, as now, to achieve organization in the face of years of history of opposition it is doubtful whether the workers are in a position adequately to protect their rights on adjustment boards. When this difficulty is met by the appointment of labor representatives from other fields they are likely to be handicapped in understanding the problems. The chances are, too, that the persons chosen will be officers of other unions with such demands upon their time and energy that they will be unable to give adequate attention to the work of the board.

The second conclusion is that under the new set-up it appears that Section 7-a means something and is not to be trifled with. It should be made clear, however, that none of the boards are in a position directly to enforce the law. They are administrators and interpreters of the law with no power of enforcement in themselves. Like factory inspectors, they investigate, obtain the facts, and issue orders in accordance with the facts and the law. When orders are disregarded they refer the cases to the proper authorities. Specifically, cases of violation may be referred either to the Compliance Division of the NRA or to the Department of Justice. The Compliance Division may bring pressure to bear by the removal of the Blue Eagle or in case of industries making use of the NRA label, particularly the clothing industries, may withhold the use of the label. There seems to be considerable effectiveness in these procedures.

If, however, the offender disregards both board and compliance division, the case obviously becomes one for the Department of Justice. The law provides for two different procedures. An injunction may be sought in a federal district court restraining the offender from continuing his violation of the law or recourse may be had to the penal provisions, and prosecutions may be instituted having as their objective fine or imprisonment. The tendency of the Department of Justice has been to rely upon the method of injunction rather than of prosecution. This seems to be the milder method of approach and questions have been raised as to its justification.

Many are inquiring why it is that the Department of Justice is not proceeding vigorously against the large employers who are accused of violating the law. The feeling of the authorities in Washington seems to be that the legislation is so new and the type of supervision involved so unfamiliar that overmilitant action might create a reaction against the whole procedure. They may be right. It seems likely however that if the Department of Justice is to have the confidence of the public in general it must act more promptly and prosecute the cases with greater vigor than it appears to have done heretofore.

But no such criticism can be directed to the non-partisan boards. They are functioning with vigor, and as a result the right of the workers to organize, to select their own representatives and to bargain collectively is now, for the first time (except on the railroads) being supported by federal law. Employers are not being put in jail for violations, but steadily, anti-union tactics are being opposed and thwarted by the authority of the government itself and a new concept of labor's rights is being built into our thinking.

IS this "unfair"? Is it "partisan"? Only a hidebound adherence to traditional injustice, because it is traditional, could possibly prompt an affirmative answer. The government has always encouraged organizations of capitalists through the laws permitting incorporation. Under the NRA it is not only encouraging employers to combine in associations, but it is requiring them to do so. Thus it is strengthening the economic power and hence the bargaining power of the employers. To do this and to leave the workers to the helplessness of individual bargaining would be partisan indeed.

Nearly forty years ago the Supreme Court of the United States, said: "The proprietors . . . and their operatives do not stand upon an equality.... The latter are often induced by the fear of discharge to conform to regulations which their judgment, fairly exercised, would pronounce to be detrimental to their health or strength. In other words, the proprietors lay down the rules and the laborers are practically constrained to obey them. In such cases . . . the legislature may properly interpose its authority."

[1] In the matter of the Connecticut Coke Co. and United Coke and Gas Workers Union No. 18829. Decisions of the National Labor Board, Part 11, p. 89.

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