The ACLU has championed the right of workers to organize unions since its inception more than 90 years ago, beginning with efforts to counter the vehement anti-union crusades of the 1920s.
The ACLU continues to support the rights of employees, both public and private, to organize unions and bargain collectively. Collective bargaining statutes provide critical and necessary protection for workers who exercise basic civil rights, in particular, the rights of speech, association, and petition. Efforts to strip workers of these protections have no place in our democracy.
What is the right to collective bargaining?
The right to collective bargaining is the right of individual employees in a workplace to come together and to choose a representative, based on a majority vote, who will then negotiate with their employer over terms and conditions of employment. Because the individual worker typically lacks meaningful bargaining power to negotiate favorable employment terms, designating a representative to negotiate on behalf of a large group of workers can level the playing field between labor and management and give workers a meaningful seat at the bargaining table.
Why are the rights to form a union and engage in collective bargaining civil liberties?
Collective action is often necessary to protect individual rights. Unions by their nature facilitate and enhance the exercise of core civil liberties, such as the right of association, speech, and petition.
What laws protect the right to collective bargaining?
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is the federal statute that grants most private sector employees the right to join a union and engage in collective bargaining. Employees of state or local governments only have collective bargaining rights if their state legislature has granted them such rights in statute or the governor has done so by executive order. Many states do have such statutes, which are typically modeled on the NLRA.
Public employees' right to engage in collective bargaining can be taken away by their state governments; the collective bargaining rights of private sector employees lies in Congress's hands.
What is the ACLU's history of protecting the right to form unions and collectively bargain?
The ACLU's very first actions were to counter the virulent anti-union crusades of the 1920's — protesting the ban on textile workers from meeting in Passaic, New Jersey; demonstrating on behalf of the right of steelworkers to hold union meetings in Duquesne, PA; and defending Upton Sinclair when he was arrested in 1923 in San Pedro, CA for trying to read the First Amendment at an IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) rally.
At the time of the ACLU's founding, unions were reeling from a well financed attack from a group of industrialists including John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan who, under a patriotic banner, the "National Security League," led an anti-union campaign that resulted in a decline in union membership from 5,047,800 in 1920 to 3,622,000 in 1923. By 1929 the labor movement was weaker than it had been since the 1890s.
With the Supreme Court's blessing in 1921, courts routinely granted orders to employers that prohibited "any organized picketing," and granted employers' requests for orders that broke strikes before the union could even contest the court order. Even ACLU founder Roger Baldwin was arrested in 1924 and convicted under a 1796 unlawful assembly law for organizing a demonstration in support of the free speech rights of silk workers embroiled in a bitter labor dispute in Paterson, New Jersey. Baldwin ultimately prevailed in court, making his own case one of the most sweeping First Amendment victories of the decade.
The passage of the NLRA, originally enacted as the Wagner Act in 1935, guaranteed the right to organize unions, giving power and dignity to millions of American workers. The Wagner Act was described at the time as the greatest civil rights law in American history. The new law, however, was not always followed, and shortly after its passage the ACLU intervened and persuaded the courts to force Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague to end his campaign to suppress labor unions by denying meeting permits, banning leaflets and violently harassing picketers.
The ACLU's injunction against Hague was upheld by the U. S. Supreme Court in 1939, bolstering the rights of labor and leading the courts to embrace the notion that the First Amendment provided a meaningful guarantee of free expression.
The ACLU continued to support the democratic rights of workers both inside and outside of unions, and in 1947 urged President Truman to veto the Taft Hartley Act; an amendment to the NLRA designed as a cold war crackdown to control the activities of the stronger post World War II union movement. President Truman vetoed Taft Hartley claiming that it was "designed to interfere with free speech." His veto was overturned and the ACLU joined an unsuccessful Supreme Court challenge to Taft Hartley urging the court to strike it down on First Amendment grounds.