Documenting Labor Relations

Today’s post is written by Ashby Crowder, a processing archivist in College Park.

In honor of Labor Day yesterday, and since the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has been in the news lately, it seems like a good time to write about a couple of small series I came across the other day in Record Group 25, the Records of the NLRB. These records relate to the official commemoration of the 25 millionth employee to vote in an NLRB sponsored union representation election. The series are entitled 25-Millionth Voter General Project Files (NAID 5897853) and 25 Millionth Voter Photography Files (NAID 5898767).

Leonard Scheno, who worked at the Reynolds Metals Can Factory in Woodbridge, New Jersey, cast the 25 millionth NLRB-sponsored vote when he elected to join the United Steelworkers in 1966, shortly after the can factory opened. In a press release, the NLRB Chairman describes the 25 millionth voter as a “symbol of industrial democracy.” The process that has led to this vote is a “substitute for the wave of strikes for union recognition that plagued the economy in the 1930s and often resulted in violence.” The occasion is one to celebrate the “tremendous contribution of collective bargaining to industrial peace and economic progress for both workers and management,” the chairman writes in a memorandum to regional directors. On the occasion of the commemoration, Mr. Scheno was presented a plaque, and representatives from both labor and management organizations spoke in praise of the NLRB. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who is in the photograph posted above, presided over the ceremony.

The records in these series give a sense of the consensus approach toward labor-management relations that prevailed in heavy industry during the mid-twentieth century. In speeches too lengthy to be reproduced here on the blog, AFL-CIO president George Meany and manufacturing executive William May praise the NLRB and the system of collective bargaining. Both management and labor agreed that the Wagner Act, which created the NLRB, had established an efficient system for labor-management relations in the wake of the disruptive and violent strikes of the 1930s. Both Meany and May celebrate the collective bargaining process and the right to join a union guaranteed through the NLRB. Meany observes that “responsible employers have come to accept unionism and collective bargaining as a normal part of the American way of life.”  For May, “unions are accepted as an important economic force in our industrial society. Management recognizes the need for constructive and responsible approaches for exercising a greater degree of social responsibility.” But the two men use the occasion to interpret the right to join a union slightly differently, and in a way that seems strikingly contemporary. Meany complains about the onerous restrictions of the Taft-Hartley Act and the flouting of the law and abuse of workers in some parts of the country where organized labor was weak. May weighs in against “the use of authorization cards as a substitute for the secret ballot.” This same debate has emerged in recent years over the Employee Free Choice Act, or “Card Check.”

Like so many other North American manufacturing facilities, the Woodbridge can factory where Mr. Scheno worked was closed in the 1980s.

If you’re interested in labor history, visit the National Archives to explore some more of the Records of the National Labor Relations Board and the other record groups that make up the labor cluster.