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Realizing the Promise of the National Labor Relations Act: Common Justice and Economic Advance

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Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of the National Labor Relations Act - also known as the Wagner Act - one of the lesser known, but key components of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. In addition to Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, a Federal minimum wage and laws regulating child labor - all controversial concepts at the time that we now take for granted as basic elements of fairness - the New Deal included the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) which protected workers' rights to join or form unions and engage in collective bargaining.

The NLRA was signed into law when our nation was in the grip of the Great Depression. At a time when the economy was spinning out of control, some critics were hesitant about a law that empowered workers. Sound familiar?

But President Roosevelt and his Labor Secretary, Frances Perkins, understood the importance of giving workers bargaining power and saw the NLRA as central to his strategy to rebuild the economy. The famous economist John Maynard Keynes would later write a letter to FDR praising his efforts to restore the American economy and emphasizing the expansion of collective bargaining as an essential effort to the economic recovery.

Collective bargaining helped create our middle class. Working people were able to share in the gains of their productivity and labor and management together forged creative solutions to create the powerful engine of the American economy we all are proud of.

In order to rebuild the middle class today, we need to level the playing field for all working people and update our labor laws to fit the 21st century workplace. That's why the President and I support the Employee Free Choice Act - which would update the NLRA so workers can form unions if they choose to without fear or pressure. In addition, millions of workers are not covered by the NLRA including public sector workers, farm workers, domestic workers, and more - so other laws, like the Public Safety Cooperation Act would ensure that firefighters and other public servants have a voice on the job, too.

Some people say that given the state of the economy, we can't afford unions right now. They've got it backwards.

Workers are facing unprecedented challenges and they need the voice on the job that unions provide. Leveling the playing field is a win for workers and employers. Most employers believe that investing in their workforce makes good business sense, but businesses that play by the rules and respect workers rights should not have to compete unfairly with those who do not.

As we work together to overcome our own Great Recession we need strategies that create Good Jobs. That means realizing the promise of the Wagner Act, in the words of FDR, to achieve both "common justice and economic advance."