The Great Depression

Although the advent of the Great Depression reduced AFL membership to fewer than 3 million, the Depression helped advance the labor movement by creating sympathy for the plight of working people (at the depths of the Depression, about one-third of the American work force was unemployed). With the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, government and the courts began to look more favorably on the pleas of labor. In 1932, Congress passed one of the first pro-labor laws, the Norris-La Guardia Act, which made yellow dog contracts unenforceable and limited the power of federal courts to issue injunctions in labor disputes.

Roosevelt's program to end the Depression included several laws that advanced labor's cause. One of these, the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, guaranteed workers a minimum wage, reasonable hours, collective bargaining and the right to join unions. But in 1935, the Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional. The federal government responded by enacting the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, better known as the Wagner Act, which states: "Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in connected activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection."

For the first time, labor had been given the legal right to bargain collectively. Moreover, the act established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to administer its provisions, to punish unfair labor practices, and to determine which union should represent workers. The NLRB was required to go into factories and hold elections when workers wanted to organize or to be represented by a particular union. It gained the authority to force employers to provide back pay if employees were unjustly discharged because of union activities. With such support from legislation, trade union membership jumped to almost 9 million by 1940.