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A diamond in the rough: The NLRA's 75th anniversary

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Last week, as we celebrated the 234th anniversary of our nation's birth, we marked another significant date in our country's history -- the 75th birthday of the National Labor Relations Act.

It is a quiet commemoration -- no cake, no fireworks. Having gone nearly eight decades without a meaningful update, the NLRA has long shown signs of its legislative decrepitude.

As usual, it is workers who pay the price.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the NLRA into law in 1935. At the time, it was a milestone in the protection of workers' rights to organize unions and exercise real ability in the workplace to collectively bargain for fair wages, benefits, and workplace safety.

Sponsored by Sen. Robert F. Wagner, the NLRA -- also known as "the Wagner Act" -- provided a process by which employers and employees could avoid the labor-management strife experienced in earlier decades.

The Act was intended to help labor meet at the bargaining table as equal partners with management, to reach fair decisions about how to compensate the working people who manufacture -- and purchase -- America's goods and services, thus fueling America's economy.

As President Roosevelt said in his NLRA signing statement, "This Act defines, as a part of our substantive law, the right of self-organization of employees in industry for the purpose of collective bargaining, and provides methods by which the Government can safeguard that legal right."

Sadly, since 1935, corporations and their lobbyists in Washington have succeeded in subverting the Act's intent and have significantly weakened the NLRA's power to protect what President Roosevelt called "the independence of labor." As a consequence, today's NLRA is severely hamstrung in its ability to adapt to the facts of life in the modern workplace.

For example, the Act does little to discourage the intimidation, retaliation and firings faced by workers seeking organize into unions. In fact, some unionbusting consultants today simply advise employers to violate the Act, while others advise companies to adopt methods which may be lawful, yet clearly violate the NLRA's intent. Either way, workers who wish to form unions are silenced, while unscrupulous employers are virtually let off the hook.

Further, thanks to business lobbying that has diminished the Act over time, the NLRA now permits only weak remedies to corporate law-breaking, which, in turn, take far too long to implement.

What is more, the Act in too many instances today fails to prevent violations of labor law from being committed in the first place. The NLRA provides little in the way of harsh penalties and strict enforcement to discourage corporate misbehavior that thwarts the intent of the Act. That leaves few incentives for employers to play by the rules.

Yet even with these limitations, the Act still gives the National Labor Relations Board the power to enact tougher remedies on lawbreaking employers, demand swifter justice for illegally fired workers, and protect workers' rights to a first contract. In fact, those who honestly care about the freedom of America's workers and the democratic process should support the ability of the NLRB to enforce the law of the land to the fullest extent possible.

At the end of the day, however, while the NLRB can begin to balance the scales of fairness and enforce the intent of the Act, it is up to our elected officials to comprehensively protect working families and strengthen our antiquated labor laws.

After 75 years, modernizing the National Labor Relations Act might be the best birthday present that our nation's labor law -- and the working families who depend on it -- could get.

(This article first published on The Hill's Congress Blog.)