A Look at Historic Labor Acts during Labor History Month

By Mars, Harvey S. | International Musician, May 2012 | Go to article overview

A Look at Historic Labor Acts during Labor History Month


Mars, Harvey S., International Musician


May is labor history month. As such, I think it would be instructive for us to revisit the legal wrangling that led to the birth of the National Labor Relations Act. On May 27, 1935 the US Supreme Court in its decision Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, 295 US 495 (1935), declared the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) unconstitutional. The crown jewel of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal legislation, the NIRA was meant to provide greater regulation on the quality of goods sold in commerce. Under the act, the US government brought criminal charges against the Schechter Poultry Company because it allegedly sold infirm chickens to the public. This ultimately led to a constitutional challenge to the law.

The NIRA is particularly noteworthy because it also contained provisions providing for the right of employees to form unions, as well as limitations on the maximum amount of hours employees could work, and the minimum wages they would receive. The law was deemed unconstitutional because it was viewed by the court as a legislative abuse of Congressional power to regulate commerce. The court declared that the NIRA exceeded the permissible boundary of Congress's regulatory authority under the Commerce Clause because the law reached activity that only "indirectly" affected commerce.

As one could imagine, Roosevelt's reaction to the Supreme Court's invalidation of the NIRA was extremely harsh. He openly challenged the court's authority. Sound familiar? In response, Roosevelt proposed the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937. Through this legislation, often referred to as the court packing plan, the president would be allowed to appoint one new, younger judge for each federal judge with 10 years' service who did not retire or resign after reaching the age of 70. Most likely, in reaction to the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill, the court had a change of view concerning the scope of Congressional power under the Commerce Clause. In what is known as the stitch in time that saved nine, the Supreme Court started validating New Deal legislation.

In National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, 301 U.S. 1(1937), the Supreme Court declared that the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (commonly known as the Wagner Act) was constitutional. It effectively spelled the end to the court's striking down of New Deal economic legislation, and greatly increased Congress's power under the Commerce Clause. In National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, Chief Justice Hughes held that "although activities may be intrastate in character, when separately considered, if they have such a close and substantial relation to interstate commerce that their control is essential or appropriate to protect that commerce from burdens and obstructions, Congress cannot be denied the power to exercise that control" This was directly contrary to Chief Justice Hughes' earlier opinion in Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States.

With the recent constitutional challenge to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), it appears that history may be repeating itself 75 years later. In essence, it appears that the 26 states challenging the ACA are reanimating the failed arguments that lay at the heart of Schechter Poultry Corp.

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A Look at Historic Labor Acts during Labor History Month
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