Congress passed and Roosevelt gladly signed a retirement act for
railroaders but the great majority of Americans did not have, indeed
did not even dream of, old age pensions, unemployment insurance,
minimum wages or federal ban on child labor.
In May 1935, the Supreme Court dropped a judicial bomb on
America's working people. The justices held both the National
Industrial Recovery Act and the Railroad Retirement Act
unconstitutional. Most of the Supreme Court justices, known as the
"Nine Old Men," were holdovers from the Hoover, Coolidge
and Harding Administrations and reflected the ultra-conservative
biases of those Presidents.
In surveying the wreckage inflicted by these decisions, the Journal
bitterly commented "A foreign foe could scarcely have
wrought greater havoc on a disillusioned and suffering people . . .
The Supreme Court can . . . now sit serenely. It is no concern of
these elderly gentlemen what happens to the nation."
But Congress was concerned and reacted quickly. Within two
months it passed the National Labor Relations Act (known popularly
as the Wagner Act), the "Magna Carta" for which unionists
had vainly dreamed for generations. It created a permanent National
Labor Relation Board (NLRB) to promote equality of bargaining power
between employers and employees. The new law validated collective
bargaining as national policy and defined specific employer actions
as unfair labor practices. These included interference and coercion
toward employees seeking to organize, discrimination against union
workers, financial support for a company union, firing workers for
filing charges or testifying under the Act, and refusal to bargain
collectively. The NLRB was given power to issue "cease and
desist" orders against such practices.
GVP Harvey Brown had been transferred to Grand Lodge some
months earlier to take charge of organizing activities. In a report
to the membership the described the Wagner Act as a "signal for
the opening gun of a membership campaign that will surpass any . . .
throughout the history of our organization." The Executive
Council hastened to get dispensations for local lodges to reduce the
minimum initiation fee from $5.00 to $3.00 in organizing campaigns.
In a July, 1935 referendum the members approved such a dispensation
by a vote of more than two to one, paving the way for an all-out,
union-wide drive to rebuild the union.
Hysteria in High Places
If the Wagner Act set off rejoicing in union halls it created
hysteria in corporate board rooms. An editorial in Business Week,
the mouthpiece of big business, was captioned "No
Obedience" and openly advised employers not to obey the law.
According to this publication, the National Labor Relations Act may
have been passed by Congress but could be ignored because
"nothing is law that is unconstitutional." The editors
confidently predicted, "This is what the Supreme Court will
ultimately decide about the Wagner Act."
This self-serving conclusion was promptly ratified by an
"impartial panel" of fifty-eight of the nation's leading
corporation lawyers meeting behind closed doors at one of
Washington's swankiest hotels. When they emerged these corporate
mouthpieces imperiously announced that the NLRA was "plainly
The NAM was typically in character. Together with the American
Liberty League* it launched a nationwide campaign to convince
workers that the law was meaningless. NAM flacks planted canned
editorials in friendly newspapers (and most were) declaring the
Wagner Act unconstitutional.