On this Labor Day, with American unions increasingly under siege, it's worth remembering the objectives and values of the law that established some of the nation's most basic worker protections.
In the midst of the Great Depression, Congress enacted the Wagner Act in 1935 to guarantee the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively with their employers. The express purpose of the law was to equalize the bargaining power of labor and capital and thereby to increase the purchasing power of workers and return the nation to economic prosperity. The act was not intended as a favor to labor, but rather as a way of saving the market economy from its own excesses.
It succeeded in replacing violent labor conflict with orderly procedures established by the law. And for decades, millions of American workers sought union representation and achieved a middle class way of life through collective bargaining.
In recent years, union membership has fallen sharply, and organized labor now represents less than 7% of the private sector workforce. At the same time, income inequality is at levels not seen since the Gilded Age. Opponents of the law dismiss it as a "New Deal relic," and even supporters question its continuing effectiveness.
The last significant amendments to the law were in 1947, although our economy has changed dramatically since then. Still, efforts over the last 35 years to amend the law have failed. While many would agree that labor law is outdated and needs revision, there is little consensus about how to fix it. The last effort — the Employee Free Choice Act of 2009 — stalled after an all-out campaign by the business lobby.
Today, collective bargaining rights are under attack — in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and other states, on Capitol Hill, on the presidential campaign trail and in the Republican Party platform. And the National Labor Relations Board has become a political lightning rod.
The rhetoric surrounding the NLRB is often hyperbolic and rancorous. Mitt Romney, for example, called NLRB members appointed by President Obama –- including a Republican — "union stooges." Organized labor's opponents in Congress have tried to undermine and delegitimize the NLRB through aggressive oversight and by trying to defund the agency. Several Republican presidential candidates this primary season vowed to abolish the agency, while various Republican senators effectively filibustered one nominee to the board and threatened to block confirmation of any other nominee. Recess appointments to the NLRB made last January, when the board was in danger of lacking a quorum to function, remain under legal challenge.
From the rhetoric employed by its opponents, one would think the NLRB threatens to bring an end to capitalism and the free market, rather than simply assuring a role for labor in the workplace and the marketplace. While reasonable people can debate the board's record, I suggest the attacks are not about anything the board has done, will do or even can do.
Rather, the battle against the NLRB is part of a coordinated strategy to weaken organized labor because of its financial support for Democratic candidates and its ability to rally voters.
The battle over labor law is also part of a broader war over the role of government in American society. Many conservatives have never accepted the legitimacy of New Deal laws in the first place or the role of government the New Deal ushered in.
Despite the partisan controversy, our country's labor law remains essential for a fair and free market economy that works for all Americans. The law guarantees such fundamental rights as freedom of association and the right of working people to participate in decisions that govern their working lives. For decades, the U.S. economy prospered because of — not in spite of — the equality of bargaining power the law enshrines, including the private system of workplace governance and dispute resolution.
These values are interconnected and contribute to the social stability and economic health of the nation. Those out to destroy this rule of law should take heed: The social and economic risks from glaring inequality are a far bigger danger.
In this election year, the degradation of political discourse has made sensible discussion of such issues nearly impossible. Is it too much to hope that the energy now fueling the rancor will soon yield to a reasoned conversation about a labor policy that builds on the values of existing law but better fits today's complex economy and labor market?
Wilma B. Liebman was a member of the NLRB under Presidents George W. Bush and Clinton and was named chair of the board by President Obama. She left in 2011 at the end of her third term.