The New Deals Effects on Labor Unions


Labor unions had taken a tremendous turn for the worst in the late 1920s. The Great Depression had closed many doors that would not have been opened again if it wasn’t for the work of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. President Roosevelt was in support of the Wagner Act, a law that gave workers the right to form and join unions and negotiate with their employers (Labor Unions). The National Labor Relations Board was created in 1935 alongside the Wagner Act. Another piece of legislature that influenced labor unions was the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, which put into place pro-union laws and agencies, that forced companies to allow employees to join unions with no penalties. However, the National Industrial Recovery Act only lasted a few years before it was deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. These laws and agencies had a significant impact on Washington State.

The 1930s were a time of new policies and change. No policy had a greater impact than the Wagner Act, which was also known as the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner). The Wagner Act got its name from Senator Robert Wagner, a democratic senator from New York. The Wagner Act provided the nation with a board of three members, named the National Labor Board, or the NRLB. The NRLB was given the power to arbitrate disputes between employees and employers. They also provided employees with an anonymous voting system to determine if employees would like a union to represent them. If workers voted yes for a union representative employers could not deny negotiations with a NRLB certified union (Wagner). Anonymity was an important factor of this act because it allowed workers to be represented by a union without fear of employer discrimination. Along with keeping discrimination at bay, the act provided employees with the ability to form and join unions (Labor Relations). The Wagner Act had large effects on businesses in Washington State, and one industry that saw major changes was Washington’s lumber industry.

Timber Strike at Clemons

Timber crew from the Clemons Logging Company, on the Chehalis River east of Aberdeen. By 1935, Washington's timber workers went on strike for better conditions and the legal recognition of their union.

In the early 1900s Washington had vast and lush forestland. The advancement of the railroads meant travel to Washington State was much easier. The trains brought with them the lumber industry, and like an invasive species, it took Washington’s economy by storm (Ebeling). The lumber industry brought men to Washington State to work in the mills and harvest the trees. Cities like Seattle and Tacoma benefited from the new wealth and increase in population. But the workers did not feel the same way. Poor wages and unsafe working conditions lead to rising tensions. In 1935 several companies’ workers went on strike. While these where not the first strikes to happen in the lumber industry, this was the first time that unions had legal support. The National Labor Relations Act had given workers the right to form unions. With the power granted from the NLRA, the small existing unions now had the upper hand on company owners. Thus, the Northwest Council of Sawmill and Timber Workers Union was established to fight for better pay and safer working conditions. After a long battle in Washington State, unions were in the final phases of negotiation with business which ended with better pay and safer working conditions (Ebeling). This strike was successful for several reasons, but would not have been possible without the New Deal. Without the legislation put in place by President Roosevelt, Washington’s timber and saw mill unions would not exist, let alone produce safe work environments and better pay. The unions finely had the power they needed to stand up to the big corporations. Without the National Labor Relations Act workers would have had little chance to from unions after the demise of the Wagner Act.   

NRA Blue Eagle Poster

NRA poster typically hung in store fronts. 

The predecessor of the Wagner Act was the National Recovery Act. This act was only in effect from 1933 to 1935. It was unanimously deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States (Buchholz). The National Recovery Act was one of the first acts to include rules to protect employees access to form and join unions. It also stopped employers from prohibiting workers to join unions. This was important because companies did everything possible to keep unions out of their business. The act eliminated the use of spies, antiunion contracts, and most importantly firing employees that joined a union (Buchholz). While all of this is very similar to the Wagner act; the National Recovery Act was deemed unconstitutional because of its group, The National Recovery Administration (NRA). The NRA’s goal was to set up laws that required companies to use specific pay rates, work shifts, and product value. The idea behind these guidelines was to rebuild a stable economy and steer away from the depression (Buchholz). The NRA and the National Recovery Act were considered unconstitutional because it took away powers that were dutifully claimed by congress. While this law did not last more than two years, it provided a solid footing for future laws such as the Wagner Act.

The NRA helped produce one of the biggest unions of the 1930s in the pacific northwest. This union was called the Longshoremen and Riggers Union of Seattle. Water ports in Washington State were just as critical to the economy as the lumber industry. Because of low pay, they strcked in 1934. Longshoremen had been suffering from low pay and long hours since the early 1900s. While labor unions had existed before the strike of 1934, the unions made little progress that did not last. They held little power against the ship owners because if a port went on strike there was typically another port nearby. Once the NRA was established in 1933, it provided shelter for pro union workers. Thus, in the 1930s, the Longshoremen and Riggers Union was formed.

The Longshoremen and Riggers Union was large.  The union was up and down the entire west coast in ports from Seattle to San Francisco. The size of the union made it a power to be reckoned with. For instance, during an eight month strike in Seattle, the mayor demanded negotiations take place with the union because of the deviating affects the strike was having on the local economy (Reider).  With all their hard work, the Longshoremen and Riggers Union according to Reider, had achieved a 95 cent pay increase and a work week of 30 hours. Reider also says the union sat dormant for “14 years”, and it most likely would have stayed that way if it wasn’t for the help of the NRA. The NRA built a legal backbone that provided unions the power to form and grow.  The West Coast Waterfront Strike of 1934 is an example of how effective the NRA was at its time. While the NRA and the Wagner Act only lasted a few years. It gave workers a taste of unionism and made it a priority in the New Deal to reestablish laws to protect workers and unions; giving birth to the previously mentioned NLRA.

The New Deal is known for many great achievements, its reform and advancements to labor unions was crucial. Without the legal backing the Wagner Act and the National Recovery Act many of the unions formed in the 20s and 30s would not have made any substantial advancements. They provided the lumbermen and longshoremen of Washington State the right to form unions without discrimination. This allowed them to fight for better pay and safer working conditions. None of this would have been possible without legislation from the New Deal.

Works cited


Buchholz, Rogene A. "National Industrial Recovery Act." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Accessed October 13, 2016.



Ebeling, Kristin. "The Timber Workers Strike of 1935." Timber Strike in the News. University of Washington, 2010. Web. 17 Nov. 2016. <>.


"Labor Relations Act." Our Documents. Accessed October 13, 2016.


"Labor Unions During the Great Depression and New Deal - American Memory Timeline." Library of Congress Accessed October 13, 2016.


Reider, Ross, and Walt Crowley. "" West Coast Waterfront Strike of 1934. Port of Seattle, 16 June 1999. Web. 17 Nov. 2016. <>.


"Wagner Act." , Encyclopædia Britannica, 1 May. 2015. Accessed 13 Oct. 2016.