Fulfilling the Promise of the National Labor Relations Act: A Review of Taking Back the Workers' Law

By Hodges, Ann C. | Labor Law Journal, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Fulfilling the Promise of the National Labor Relations Act: A Review of Taking Back the Workers' Law


Hodges, Ann C., Labor Law Journal


FULFILLING THE PROMISE OF THE NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS ACT: A REVIEW OF TAKING BACK THE WORKERS' LAW

Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration.1

Ellen Dannin's excellent book, Taking Back the Workers Law, reminds us of the importance of labor as reflected in the enactment of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. In these days when private sector union membership has declined to the single digits,2 this is a timely reminder. Of course, scholars and unionists have bemoaned this decline for years, theorizing about its causes and proposing various fixes, most requiring legislative change or alternatives to legal strategies.3 While some nonlegal strategies, such as the Justice for Janitors organizing campaign, have been effective,4 legislative change is highly unlikely. Professor Dannin instead focuses on the promise of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) as written. Those who have labored in the trenches of the NLRA for years, many of whom have come to view the Act as an obstacle rather than an aid, will benefit from this re-visioning of the NLRA. In 1935, Congress firmly declared:

The inequality of bargaining power between employees who do not possess full freedom of association or actual liberty of contract, and employers who are organized in the corporate or other forms of ownership association substantially burdens and affects the flow of commerce, and tends to aggravate recurrent business depressions, by depressing wage rates and the purchasing power of wage earners in industry and by preventing the stabilization of competitive wage rates and working conditions between industries.

Experience has proved that protection by law of the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively safeguards commerce from injury, impairment, or interruption . . . .

It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States to eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to the free flow of commerce and to mitigate and eliminate these obstructions when they have occurred by protecting the exercise by workers of the full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.5

While this inspirational vision of the Act has never been fully realized, it remains the law and Dannin offers a strategy for making it real. The power of her analysis is two-fold. It requires no legislative change and it injects a note of optimism into the often depressing world of labor law. It should be required reading for all who fight to advance the cause of labor.

JUDICIAL DECISIONS CRUCIAL

The book is somewhat loosely organized, but so packed with valuable information that one hardly notices. Dannin begins her discussion by analyzing the impact of judicial interpretation on the law. She emphasizes that judicial decisions are crucial to the enforcement of labor law, whether the current version or any new legislation. The NLRA was a radical revision of the common law, limiting the employer's property rights and right to act unilaterally, including the right to terminate at will and set pay and benefits. Yet the new law was generally written, leaving room for interpretation by the expert agency it created, the National Labor Relations Board, and, on appeal from the Board, by the courts. As a result of this general language, the interpretations of the judges, informed by their traditional legal assumptions rather than the fundamentally altered vision of the NLRA, restricted the broad statutory change intended by Senator Wagner and the Congress.

Dannin does not view these existing decisions as impossible obstacles, however, pointing to the success of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in reversing negative precedent against far more daunting odds. …

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