Labor historian cites La Follette, calls for congressional hearings to expose employer abuses

The 1930s struggle to pass this nation’s first federal legislation to protect workers’ right to unionize has important lessons for today’s battles to regain that right, says history professor Nelson Lichtenstein of the University of California Santa Barbara.

Lichtenstein was the guest lecturer at an AFL-CIO-sponsored breakfast in Chicago earlier this year.

Today, Lichtenstein told the gathering, “the problems facing the trade union movement are enormous, especially as it seeks to advance a key piece of legislation like the Employee Free Choice Act.” He called for a 21st century renewal of the crusading spirit that pushed Congress to act in the 1930s.

Looking back to the early 20th century, Lichtenstein said, “Reformers and labor partisans wanted to institute in the workplace the kind of democratic norms and expectations found in larger civil society.” They believed that collective bargaining would bring “industrial democracy” and make workers, especially new immigrants, better citizens.

The general thinking of that time among government and labor, he continued, was that since employers were organized, workers should also be. Thus, Section 7a of the New Deal’s National Industrial Recovery Act, enacted in 1933, asserted that 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 concerted activities, for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

However, he explained, so many “company unions” had been started by management that by 1940 a process was established to allow workers to vote on the union they wanted representing them. Elections were seen as an internal union debate that the employer had to stay out of.

This view was undermined by the development of the “employer free speech” doctrine, which was codified in 1947 by the Taft-Hartley Act. From this point on, the National Labor Relations Board proceeded to regulate union organizing on the theory that employers and unions would — and should — campaign like political candidates for the support of presumably undecided voters on a level playing field. Of course, employers started throwing their weight around, and have continued to do so ever since.

For a few decades the employers were kept relatively in check, but eventually they developed into the slick anti-union monsters they are today.

Lichtenstein called for an “ideological offensive against the anti-union right.”

“The 110th Congress needs to reestablish, in spirit, energy and human resources, the committee once made so famous by Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette Jr.,” he argued. From 1936 to 1940, the La Follette subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Education and Labor investigated violations of workers’ rights of free speech and assembly and “undue interference with the right of labor to organize and bargain collectively,” seeking to “drain the industrial swamp.”

Lichtenstein proposed that the new Democratic head of the House Education and Labor Committee, Rep. George Miller of California, launch similar hearings and lead a Congressional investigation “which exposes and interrogates the key personnel and the key practices of the union-avoidance law firms, consulting operations, private security companies and personnel departments to demonstrate the cynicism and illegality that are rife in this segment of corporate America.”

Such a committee, he continued, would be able to draw on a generation of research and experience by labor activists and their allies “to put before the Congress and the American people the obstacles and money and organization that have stymied union organization during the last several decades.”

The committee would have subpoena power to compel testimony from Wal-Mart and other big anti-union corporations.

Lichtenstein pointed out that even though the La Follette committee didn’t actually create any new laws, it shaped the way labor law was enacted.

He concluded by calling for a renewal of the crusading spirit of the La Follette committee to once again demonstrate to the public and to Congress what is required for a genuine effort to defend the rights of American workers and to expose the “cynical corporate subversion of that union-building liberty.”

Should such a transformation take place, said the professor, “then the Employee Free Choice Act will be seen by all as but a modest, necessary first step in the reconstitution of freedom and dignity in the American workplace.”

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Paul S. Kaczocha
Paul S. Kaczocha

Steelworker Paul Kaczocha is a long-time union and civil rights activist in Gary, Indiana.