Narrative and Social Change: A Case Study of the Wagner Act of 1935

Article excerpt

The Wagner Act was one of the most drastic legislative innovations of the decade. It threw the weight of government behind the right of labor to bargain collectively, and compelled employers to accede peacefully to the unionization of their plants. It imposed no reciprocal obligations of any kind on unions. No one, then or later, fully understood why Congress passed so radical a law with so little opposition and by such overwhelming margins.

William E. Leuchtenberg (1963), Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal

We who believed in the Act were dizzy with watching a 200-to-1 shot come up from the outside.

Malcolm Ross (1939), Death of a Yale Man

The Wagner Act (National Labor Relations Act of 1935) may be the most progressive labor legislation enacted in the United States. The Wagner Act established the National Labor Relations Board and guaranteed workers the right to organize and bargain collectively. After decades of federal promises, workers at last had a legal body that could punish employers for violating rights to organize. Legislation-including the Clayton Act of 1914, the Railway Labor Act of 1925, the Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932, and the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933-acknowledged workers' right to organize into independent bargaining units but provided no means for protecting this right. Employers' resistance to unionization included paying spies to infiltrate workers' groups, firing organizers, and using armed, private security forces against strikers. Thus, the Wagner Act marked a major shift in the legislative status of labor in the United States: Unionization and collective bargaining were transformed from legally-acknowledged rights into federally-protected rights that one need not risk one's life or livelihood to enjoy. By establishing conditions in which unions could bargain effectively with corporate powers, the Wagner Act set the stage for that period in American history when "Big Labor" was recognized as one of a triumvirate of powerful social forces, along with Big Government and Big Business, throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. During this period, union contracts helped create the high standard of living enjoyed today by employed people in the U.S. (Freeman & Medoff, 1984).

Passage of the Wagner Act is not only of tremendous social significance but also is rhetorically informative. The hearings for the act were extended and lively contests offering two contrasting sets of stories about the future of the nation. The stories presented by the labor leaders legitimated passage of the act, while the stories told by business opponents of the act were insufficient to forestall this important legal change. Analysis of the two competing stories in the historical context suggests that the public persuasiveness of labor's story was related to the ability to address the consequences of passage of the act, or failure to pass it, in a fashion superior to the story offered by business. The ability of each side to address the issue of consequence was, however, simultaneously tied to the values at issue through the respective portrayals of the actors within the narratives. Significantly, the success of the proponents' appeal to consequence was closely related to changes in the social scene immediately prior to the hearings. Rather than seeing appeals to principle and appeals to consequence as inimical, therefore, we argue that appeals are coordinated in rhetorical practice through the structuring of characters constituted in narratives. By exploring the role of projected consequences in these significant and competing public narratives, and by relating narrative consequentiality to the immediate social context and thence to public values, we extend upon Walter Fisher's (1987) theory of narrative fidelity.


Because narrative provides a rich and pervasive human resource, a welter of theorists have addressed the nature of narrative and its social role (Balthrop, 1984; Bennett & Edelman, 1985; Carpenter, 1986; McGee & Nelson, 1985; McGuire, 1987; Rein, 1975; Smith, 1990; White, 1981). …