Organized labor will note, but certainly not celebrate, the 50th anniversary of the National Labor Relations Act on July 5.
At the time of its passage, the law was seen as labor's Magna Carta, giving workers the right to band together to combat the overwhelming power that management had over individual employees.
Many unions and companies are working cooperatively these days and don't urgently need the law as a referee. However, as evidenced by bitter disputes such as those at United Airlines and Phelps-Dodge, there are cases where the law is not helping.
While there is no uniform pattern to labor relations in the United States these days, there is growing agreement on many fronts that drastic changes are needed in federal labor law.
AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland said recently that, as the law is now administered, "I frankly would prefer no law. . . . It has become an instrument in the hands of employers to frustrate trade union organizations."
After lengthy hearings last year, a Democratic-controlled House subcommittee on labor-management relations issued a report contending that the "labor law has failed."
"Workers and unions who rely on the protections and promises of federal labor law are being badly betrayed, and, as a result, labor-management relations are facing a serious crisis," the report said.
"Perhaps the most striking evidence of the law's failure is that . . . virtually every labor union leader testifying (before the subcommittee) called for (its) repeal."
Interestingly, management is almost as critical of the law, even though most decisions by the National Labor Relations Board under the Reagan Administration have been pro-management.
Joseph E. Herman, a prominent Los Angeles management attorney with Seyfarth, Shaw, Fairweather & Geraldson, one of the nation's largest law firms representing management in labor cases, says that "the anniversary of the law provides the occasion for an urgently needed re-evaluation."
Not unexpectedly, Herman says that, while the law declares that the nation's policy is to encourage collective bargaining between management and unions, "this rationale is no longer viable." Herman argues that the law assumes a "fundamental and ineradicable conflict of interest between employer and employee" when, in fact, "they have much more in common than they do dividing them."
Unions are no longer needed to play the role of primary protector of workers, he said, and labor relations should be "deregulated" to, among other things, "remove the government from involvement in determining who should represent the interest of employees and what occurs after a labor contract has been negotiated."
In other words, Herman sees little use for the section of the law requiring secret-ballot elections to determine which union, if any, a majority of a company's workers want to represent them or the section requiring that both sides bargain "in good faith" to reach a contract. In sum, he would revise the law by further weakening unions and putting more responsibility on individual workers to deal with their employers.
This clearly conflicts with the stated purpose of the law, which says in its preamble that there is an "inequality of bargaining power between (individual) employees and employers" and that this inequality "tends to aggravate recurrent business depressions by depressing wage rates and the purchasing power of wage earners."
Since 1935, the basic law, known as the Wagner Act, has been amended twice: first, in 1947 with passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, and then in 1959 by the Landrum-Griffin Act, both of which diminished the strength of unions.
Organized labor tried to make some gains in 1977 by lobbying Congress for reforms that, while relatively mild, would have made it easier for unions to organize workers and negotiate contracts and would have speeded the decision-making process of the National Labor Relations Board. The board in many cases takes three years or longer to make rulings, which are then subject to appeal in the courts.
That reform effort was killed by one vote after a five-week filibuster in the Senate by conservatives.
Today, many experts are proposing changes aimed at improving relations between workers and their employers by encouraging cooperation and providing incentives for management to share profits and decision making with workers.
Daniel J. B. Mitchell, director of the UCLA Institute of Industrial Relations, would revise the law to further encourage profit sharing and give workers and their unions more of a voice in decisions and more information about their companies' financial situations. As it stands now, a union can legally demand to see a company's financial records only if the company "pleads poverty" when the union seeks a raise.
Mitchell would, however, leave intact the part of the law's preamble that says its objective is the equalization of bargaining power.