In 1932, George Barnett, a prominent economist and president of the American Economics Association, forecasted a bleak future for organized labor: “The changes, occupational and technological, which checked the advance of unionism in the last decade, appear likely to continue in the same direction.”
John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath was published. The book told the story of an Oklahoma sharecropper family forced to migrate to California in search of work. The book instantly became a literary emblem of the Great Depression and soon earned the Pulitzer Prize and was instrumental in his selection for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
As the Depression dragged on, bitter labor-management warfare erupted. In 1934, 1.5 million American workers went on strike. Auto and steel workers and longshoremen became involved in violent strikes. In Minneapolis, police shot sixty-seven striking Teamsters. In August, textile workers staged the largest strike the country had ever seen. 110,000 workers struck in Massachusetts, 60,000 in Georgia. While some of the strikes aimed at higher wages, fully a third demanded union recognition.
Labor unrest forced the federal government to step into labor relations and forge a compromise between management and labor. Under the Wagner Act of 1935 (the National Labor Relations Act), the federal government guaranteed the right of employees to form unions and bargain collectively. It also set up the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which had the power to prohibit unfair labor practices by employers.