Over half a century, the federal law of labor relations has developed out of four basic statutes into an immense body of cases and precedent regulating the formation and governance of labor unions and the relationships among employers, unions, and union members. Like antitrust law, labor law is a complex subject that has spawned a large class of specialized practitioners. Though specialized, it is a subject that no employer of any size can ignore, for labor law has a pervasive influence on how business is conducted throughout the United States. In this chapter, we examine the basic statutory framework and the activities that it regulates.
It is important to note at the outset that legal rights for laborers in the United States came about through physical and political struggles. The right of collective bargaining and the right to strike (and corresponding rights for employers, such as the lockout) were hard-won and incremental. The legislation described in this chapter began only after many years of labor-management strife, including judicial opposition to unions and violent and deadly confrontations between prounion workers and management.
In 1806, the union of Philadelphia Journeymen Cordwainers was convicted of and bankrupted by charges of criminal conspiracy after a strike for higher wages, setting a precedent by which the US government would combat unions for years to come. Andrew Jackson became a strikebreaker in 1834 when he sent troops to the construction sites of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. In 1877, a general strike halted the movement of US railroads. In the following days, strike riots spread across the United States. The next week, federal troops were called out to force an end to the nationwide strike. At the Battle of the Viaduct in Chicago, federal troops (recently returned from an Indian massacre) killed thirty workers and wounded over one hundred. Numerous other violent confrontations marked the post–Civil War period in America, including the violent rail strikes of 1877, when President Rutherford B. Hayes sent troops to prevent obstruction of the mails. President Grover Cleveland used soldiers to break the Pullman strike of 1894. Not until the anthracite coal strikes in Pennsylvania in 1902 did the US government become a mediator between labor and management rather than an enforcer for industry.
Many US labor historians see the first phase of the labor movement in terms of the struggles in the private sector that led to the labor legislation of the New Deal, described in Section 17.1 "A Brief History of Labor Legislation". The second phase of the movement, post–World War II, saw less violent confrontation and more peaceful resolution of labor issues in collective bargaining. Yet right-to-work states in the southern part of the United States and globalization weakened the attractiveness of unions in the private sector. Right-to-work states provided a haven for certain kinds of manufacturing operations that wanted no part of bargaining with unions. Globalization meant that companies could (realistically) threaten to relocate outside the United States entirely. Unions in the public sector of the United States began to grow stronger relative to unions in the private sector: governments could not relocate as companies could, and over the last half century, there has been a gradual decline in private sector unionism and growth in public sector unionism.