Section 1 of the National Labor Relations Act (from the original 1935 Wagner Act) is premised on facilitating the flow of commerce by reducing industrial “strife and unrest” through collective bargaining and peaceful dispute resolution mechanisms. In light of the recent controversy involving public sector unions, it would seem virtually impossible that the following language from the Act would find its way into any contemporary legislation:
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 within and between industries.
The New Deal Congress thereby endorsed workplace democracy and the benefits of good-faith collective bargaining. These concepts were indisputably critical to the subsequent era of prosperity and the growth of the middle class.
Fast forward to 2011. Contrast these Wagner Act principles with the current rancorous debate about public-sector unions, including movements in numerous states to drastically limit, if not eliminate, collective bargaining. Restricting collective rights to organize and bargain may make short-term sense to bean counters who hope to balance budgets, but it represents a long-term disaster in the making. How will the discontent of employees manifest itself if its collective bargaining rights are eliminated? Without this pressure release valve, how hard is it to imagine a return to pre-1935 “strife and unrest?” In the long run, taking away bargaining and political power from unions will certainly depress the wage rates and the purchasing power of middle-class workers. Who then will be able to afford to buy the goods and services our economy must sell? We should be very cautious about trying to “fix” a problem that was successfully addressed in 1935.