When Roosevelt took office, he sought a number of important laws that advanced labor's cause. One of these, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (also known as the Wagner Act) gave workers the right to join unions and to bargain collectively through union representatives. The act established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to punish unfair labor practices and to organize elections when employees wanted to form unions. The NLRB could force employers to provide back pay if they unjustly discharged employees for engaging in union activities.
With such support, trade union membership jumped to almost 9 million by 1940. Larger membership rolls did not come without growing pains, however. In 1935, eight unions within the AFL created the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) to organize workers in such mass-production industries as automobiles and steel. Its supporters wanted to organize all workers at a company -- skilled and unskilled alike -- at the same time. The craft unions that controlled the AFL opposed efforts to unionize unskilled and semiskilled workers, preferring that workers remain organized by craft across industries. The CIO's aggressive drives succeeded in unionizing many plants, however. In 1938, the AFL expelled the unions that had formed the CIO. The CIO quickly established its own federation using a new name, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which became a full competitor with the AFL.
After the United States entered World War II, key labor leaders promised not to interrupt the nation's defense production with strikes. The government also put controls on wages, stalling wage gains. But workers won significant improvements in fringe benefits -- notably in the area of health insurance. Union membership soared.
Next Article: Post-War Victories for Labor
This article is adapted from the book "Outline of the U.S. Economy" by Conte and Carr and has been adapted with permission from the U.S. Department of State.