The Wagner Act on Trial: The 1937 'Little Steel' Strike and the Limits of New Deal Reform
60 Pages Posted: 31 May 2014
Date Written: May 29, 2014
The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, or Wagner Act, played a crucial role in shaping the New Deal and eventually transforming the economic, political, and legal foundations of modern America. Although many aspects of the statute’s history, including its relationship to the rise of industrial unionism and the epic struggle to secure its constitutionality, have been well told by historians and legal scholars, key elements of its story remain obscured by misconceptions, oversight, and outright myth. Not least among these areas of uncertainty is how the new law actually functioned in the months and years immediately after the Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality, and what its fate in this crucial time says about the nature of the New Deal itself. This article undertakes to shed light on these questions by unfolding the history of one of the most important events in the Second New Deal period: the “Little Steel” Strike of 1937. Drawing on a host of sources, including five major archival collections, this article tells the story of this dramatic and violent episode, including its legal history. Presenting the strike as a key test of the Wagner Act and a critical bellwether of the New Deal, the article documents not only the virtues of new regime in labor rights just as it emerged from the shadow of unconstitutionality, but also congenital shortcomings in the labor law that have undermined workers’ rights ever since. In a further challenge to conventional narratives of the period, the story of the strike exposes the remarkable degree to which the power of the business community survived, relatively undiminished, the Wagner Act and the political changes that accompanied it. Moreover, giving credence to a broader literature on New Deal law and policy, the article presents the strike and litigation surrounding it as proof of the continuing weakness of the New Deal and as key moments in the conservative turn that marked course of reform in the late 1930s.
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