During the global depression of the 1930s, the US economy saw jobless rates of a third of all workers, and President Roosevelt’s New Deal program required more active federal legislation. Included in the New Deal program was the recognition of a “right” to form labor unions without undue interference from employers. Congress created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in 1935 to investigate and to enjoin employer practices that violated this right.
In NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, a union dispute with management at a large steel-producing facility near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, became a court case. In this case, the NLRB had charged the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation with discriminating against employees who were union members.
The company’s position was that the law authorizing the NLRB was unconstitutional, exceeding Congress’s powers. The court held that the act was narrowly constructed so as to regulate industrial activities that had the potential to restrict interstate commerce. The earlier decisions under the commerce clause to the effect that labor relations had only an indirect effect on commerce were effectively reversed. Since the ability of employees to engage in collective bargaining (one activity protected by the act) is “an essential condition of industrial peace,” the national government was justified in penalizing corporations engaging in interstate commerce that “refuse to confer and negotiate” with their workers. This was, however, a close decision, and the switch of one justice made this ruling possible. Without this switch, the New Deal agenda would have been effectively derailed.