Home / General / This Day in Labor History: December 17, 1953

This Day in Labor History: December 17, 1953

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On December 17, 1953, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in the Livingston Shirt Corporation Case that companies could force workers to sit through anti-union meetings. This terrible ruling went very far to undermine the power of the unions that had built since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935.

The National Labor Relations Board was intended to be a non-partisan board that would adjudicate disputes between labor and management. This was something of a pipe dream. In its early years, the NLRB was pretty openly pro-CIO, much to the fury of the AFL. In fact, many of the early cases consisted of issues between the two federations fighting for the same workplaces. But the NLRB, staffed by New Dealers who had little interest in the out of date and out of touch nineteenth century predilections of the craft unions, usually supported the industrial unionism of the CIO. That said, the NLRB did a fair job of working through issues between unions and employers and that continued through World War II (though other agencies really took over the more important issues in those years) and through the Truman years.

But the election of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 changed the equation. Eisenhower has a completely unearned reputation for moderation. In a sense, that’s because the far right of the Republican Party were vocally unhappy that he did not overturn the entire New Deal and return the nation to their Coolidgeite fantasies. But that was never realistic. In the end, it was a still a liberal nation in these years. Eisenhower understood this. So he went after the agencies of the New Deal to make them pro-corporate. You especially saw this in Cabinet departments such as Agriculture, Interior, and Labor, where the two parties really did differ very strongly and where much of this work could be done in relative quiet. Repealing Social Security? No. But handing effective control over the nation’s water resources back to companies? Sure, that was a complex issue unlikely to garner too many headlines.

Well, one of the agencies that Eisenhower went after was the National Labor Relations Board. No more were self-considered technocrats going to be the appointments, men would who sit on high and evaluate the claims of both sides. Again, this was a fantasy anyway, but it was Eisenhower who started to break that fantasy. He began to name openly pro-business activists to the Board, people who were hostile to organized labor. All of a sudden, their decisions began to switch. Corporations continued to look to the state to represent its interests over that of workers, even if it had far less power than it did before the New Deal. Unions responded by noting that no unionist had ever served on the NLRB. But corporate America had never accepted the legitimacy of unions, particularly not as an equal counterpart.

The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America were organizing workers at Livingston Shirt. The apparel industry has always led the world in labor exploitation. It might be the 1950s now, but that didn’t mean any fundamental attitude had changed among that industry’s titans, nor has it to the present. The only thing that has changed is the location of the horribly exploited workers. The ACW had organized the workers and the NLRB had scheduled an election. But then, the president of Livingston decided he would gather all the workers together and give them a coercive anti-union speech, threatening the workers with what would happen if they voted for the union. Outraged, the ACW demanded a similar meeting. Livingston told them to jump in a lake. The union lost the election. So it went to the NLRB for redress, noting how this was obviously an unfair labor practice. The regional director in fact set aside the election. But then the same thing happened with the second election and the union lost again. By now, Eisenhower’s NLRB had taken shape. And it ruled in favor of the company.

Unions were furious. CIO General Counsel Arthur Goldberg, who would become Secretary of Labor under Kennedy and a very fine one, stated that these decisions were compulsory “brain-washing sessions.” The AFL was just as denunciatory. The NLRB was super defensive about these charges and its members engaged in a rare speaking publicly to defend themselves.

In the aftermath of Eisenhower’s new war on the NLRB, presidents on both sides of the aisle sought to counter each other by naming increasingly partisan appointees to the agency. The Kennedy and Johnson Administration soon after reinstated the tradition of appointing members with no ties to either unions or management. This was, however, short-lived as another Republican, Richard Nixon, would, again, see the board as a partisan agency and name management appointees. But, compared to today, this remained relatively muted through the 1970s.

The modern era of the truly partisan NLRB began in earnest with Ronald Reagan’s first appointee, who was a union-busting management consultant. This was followed later on by a protégé of the staunchly anti-union North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, who had created and distributed both anti-union videos and pamphlets. This broke the façade of neutrality at the NLRB; the Reagan Administration had simultaneously been seeking to gut labor regulations across the board. Bill Clinton was the first President to name union representatives to the NLRB; he appointed three union lawyers, evening out the score while continuing to entrench partisanship. George W. Bush later tilted things sharply back to the right.

Thanks to these developments, by the time Obama took office, the NLRB had become a prime target for congressional Republicans, who chose to filibuster his nominees. It was only after the 2013 break of this filibuster that Obama could finally name his NLRB appointees, who reoriented the agency toward the pro-worker positions that have recently caught headlines. Of course, nothing has really changed in the years since. Trump’s appointees were openly anti-worker, Biden’s are pro-worker, so it will seemingly continue forever.

Moreover, the use of coercive anti-union meetings has become the centerpiece of the corporate playbook against workers. Doesn’t matter how small your business is. If you want to pay the money, anti-union law firms who specialize in how to do these things will parachute in overnight and give you a whole playbook on just what to say to bust the union. These are becoming increasingly less effective among highly educated workforces, but among non-college educated workforces, which are certainly the majority of American workers, they remain extremely effective. The Livingston decision has gone far to destroy the American labor movement. It’s not the only reason. But it’s a pretty big one and one that we ought to pay more attention to.

This is the 462nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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