The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The Birth of the National Labor Relations Act and the NLRB

May 20, 2024

When the NLRB was first created in 1935, its main aim was never to interfere with any capitalist. On the contrary, it was to protect the interests of the capitalist class against a rebellious working class, that was organizing increasingly more massive strikes and protests, despite the threats and violence of companies, police, private armies and the National Guard.

Of course, the labor officials at the time, along with politicians, led by President Franklin Roosevelt, claimed that the NLRB was to protect workers, by granting workers the right to strike and the right to form unions. But the only reason why the government claimed it was “granting” these rights was because the workers were already taking them, by striking in a massive way and forming their own unions in labor battles that were being led by Communists, Socialists and other radicals.

The year before Roosevelt and the Democrats had called for the creation of the NLRB, workers had already carried out four gigantic general strikes in San Francisco, Toledo, Minneapolis and in the entire textile industry. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was an attempt at taming the movement. It was a way of saying to workers that instead of fighting in open rebellion, the workers could look to the government and the labor friendly politicians to protect them. Congressional support for the NLRA was overwhelming, with the Senate voting 63–12 for it.

But the National Association of Manufacturers and a large portion of the capitalist class opposed the NLRA. These capitalists wanted the government to crack down on labor with a much firmer hand in order to forestall the threatening unionization of their workforces. The DuPont family, which controlled General Motors, and conservative leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties, formed the American Liberty League in open opposition to the Roosevelt administration’s labor policies.

A Growing Strike Movement

However, in 1936 and 1937 the workers movement surged ahead with factory occupations, which began in rubber and culminated in auto. GM, controlled by the same DuPont family that had opposed Roosevelt’s policy, was hit by sit-down strikes that quickly spread throughout the Midwest. This led an important part of the U.S. bourgeoisie to finally come around to support Roosevelt’s policy of seeking officials inside the union movement to collaborate with, making them junior partners ready to get the workers’ movement to willingly submit to government authority and tie the unions to the Democratic Party and its supposed “left-wing” bureaucrats at the NLRB and the state. Certainly, there were revolutionary militants inside the working class who opposed this policy. But there were not nearly enough of them to have a lasting impact.

Over the following decades the workers’ movement was increasingly channeled and contained, with the collaboration of a union bureaucracy whose main goal was to partner with the capitalists and government officials. By tying the workers up in the red tape and bureaucracy of the NLRB and the grievance procedure, they sought to strangle any attempt by the workers to take their own independent initiative. As the workers movement receded, the union apparatuses themselves shrank and weakened, and were increasingly dependent on the Democratic Party and the state, a degeneration that continues to this day.

What the workers movement of the 1930s shows is that this will not happen automatically. The working class desperately needs revolutionary militants, militants who understand that the only way for the working class to defend its interests in the short-term is to have a perspective to get rid of capitalist rule altogether.