"This Act defines...the right of self-organization of employees in industry for the purpose of collective bargaining...it should serve as an important step toward the achievement of just and peaceful labor relations in industry."
- Franklin Roosevelt, Statement on Signing the Wagner Act, July 5, 1935
Before the New Deal, American workers had little power. Employers set wages as low as they wished. Pensions and other benefits were rare. Workplace safety was poor and child labor widespread. Unions had only limited legal protection. Workers who tried to organize faced intimidation, firing, and even violence.
FDR changed this balance of power. The 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act had guaranteed labor's right to organize and bargain collectively. Now FDR signed the Wagner Act, the most important labor law in American history. It affirmed the right of workers to organize unions, required employers to bargain with union representatives, and enhanced the power of the National Labor Relations Board to mediate disputes.
Union organizers swiftly capitalized on these laws. Between 1930 and 1945 the percentage of unionized workers jumped from 7 percent to nearly 34 percent. Organized labor became a major economic force, and a powerful ally of FDR's Democratic Party.
Wages and Hours Legislation
"Today there is general recognition that there should be a floor to wages and a ceiling to hours...that working conditions should be safe and healthy and that child labor should be eliminated from industry."
- Franklin Roosevelt, Letter of Greeting on the 25th Anniversary of the Labor Department, March 3, 1938
In 1938, New Dealers enacted a second landmark labor law. Its goal, in FDR's words, was "to end starvation wages and intolerable hours." The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established a national minimum wage and, eventually, a 40-hour week for workers in industry.
The law did not include workers in agriculture, domestic service, and some other service areas. Liberal critics objected to these exclusions, the result of compromises with conservative Southern Democrats. But they applauded another provision in the Act that fulfilled a decades-long dream of reformers - it prohibited employment of children under the age of 16 in most occupations.