July 2009
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A history of labor laws

A history of labor laws

With the recent surge of labor laws and others pending, changes to labor regulations are on the minds of employers and employees. But labor laws have been changing the workplace for many years, shaping the way employers operate their businesses.

Following is a list from Congressional Digest of major labor laws that have been employed throughout history:

  • Passed in 1914, the Clayton Act included provisions that protected the existence and operation of organized labor and stated that "the labor of a human being is not commodity or article of commerce."
  • The Railway Labor Act was passed in 1926, prohibiting discrimination against unions and requiring employers to bargain collectively. Originally intended for interstate railroads, the law was amended in 1936 to include airlines engaged in interstate commerce.
  • In 1931, the Davis-Bacon Act stated that the federal government's construction contracts must specify the minimum wages to be paid to people employed by the contracts. For more information, view "Revisiting Davis-Bacon."
  • The Norris-LaGuardia Act, which passed in 1932, gave federal sanction to labor unions' rights to organize and strike, as well as use other methods of economic leverage when dealing with management. It also prohibited federal courts from enforcing "yellow dog" contracts, under which workers promised not to join a union, as well as from issuing restraining orders or injunctions against activities such as joining or organizing a union; striking or refusing to work; and providing lawful legal aid to people participating in a labor dispute.
  • Passed in 1933, the National Industry Recovery Act intended to provide codes of "fair competition" and fix wages and hours in industries that subscribed to such codes. Title I of the legislation, which stated all codes of fair competition approved under the law should guarantee employees' right to collective bargaining without interference or coercion of employees, was deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1935.
  • The Wagner Act, also know as the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, guaranteed covered workers the right to organize and join labor movements, strike, and choose representatives and bargain collectively. It also established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and prohibited dominating or otherwise interfering with formation of a labor union; imposing special employment conditions that tended to encourage or discourage union membership; and refusing to bargain collectively with unions representing a company's employees, among other things. The law spurred union growth as the number of union members increased from 3,584,000 in 1935 to 10,201,000 by 1941.
  • The Byrnes Act of 1936 made it a felony to transport any person in interstate commerce who was employed for the purpose of using force or threats against peaceful picketing in a labor dispute or against organizing or bargaining efforts.
  • The Walsh-Healy Act passed in 1936 and mandated that workers must be paid at least the "prevailing minimum wage"; restricted regular working hours to eight hours per day and 40 hours per week with time-and-a-half pay for additional hours; prohibited employing convicts and children younger than 18; and established sanitation and safety standards.
  • Passed in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act established minimum wages and maximum hours for all workers engaged in covered "interstate commerce." For more information, view "To pay or not to pay," and "An ounce of prevention."
  • The first major modification of the National Labor Relations Act, The Taft-Hartley Act, was enacted in 1947. The act established procedures for delaying or averting "national emergency" strikes; excluded supervisory employees from coverage of the Wagner Act; included a list of unfair labor practices forbidden to unions, including their refusal to bargain collectively; and prohibited the "closed shop," among many other provisions.
  • The Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, also known as the Landrum-Griffin Act, made major additions to the Taft-Hartley Act, including a definition of additional unfair labor practices; ban on organizational or recognition picketing; and allowing state labor relations agencies and courts to assume jurisdiction over labor disputes the NRLB declined to consider.
  • The Equal Pay Act of 1963 stated that women and men must receive equal pay for equal work. Discrimination based on sex was denounced because it depresses wages and living standards for employees necessary for their health and efficiency; prevents the maximum use of available labor resources; can cause labor disputes, which affect commerce; and constitutes an unfair method of competition. For information view "Equal pay for equal work."
  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin, as well as employers' discrimination against an individual because of his or her association with another individual of a particular race, color, religion, sex or national origin. For more information, view "Religion and the workplace: ever the two should meet?"
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protected individuals who are 40 years of age or older from employment discrimination based on age. The law's provisions state it is unlawful to discriminate against a person because of his or her age with respect to any term, condition, or privilege of employment, including hiring, firing, promoting, laying off, compensation, benefits, job assignments and training. It applies to employers with 20 or more employees. For information, view "Equal pay for equal work."
  • Passed in 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Act established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to set and enforce workplace health and safety standards; Occupational Health and Safety Review Commission to review enforcement priorities, actions and cases; and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health for research purposes. For more information, view "OSHA's 35th anniversary."
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1991 was passed in response to a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that limited the rights of employees who had sued their employers for discrimination. It was the first effort since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to modify some of the basic procedural and substantive rights provided by federal law in employment discrimination cases. It established the right to trial by jury on discrimination claims, introduced the possibility of emotional distress damages and limited the amount a jury could award.


This Web exclusive information is a supplement to A complicated workplace.

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