Experience with Company Unions and their Treatment under the Wagner Act: A Four Frames of Reference Analysis
This paper reexamines American experience with company unions (also known as nonunion employee representation plans) before they were banned by the Wagner Act (1935). For the half‐century following the passage of the act, labor historians and industrial relations scholars painted a bleak portrait of company unions as anti‐union sham organizations. Since the 1980s, additional research has documented a more positive side; similarly, concern has grown that the Wagner Act's ban is stifling legitimate employee participation programs. This paper brings new theoretical and empirical evidence to both historical and legal parts of this debate, including examination of company unions through individualist, unitarist, pluralist, and radical frames; demonstration that the pluralists’ view of company unions was more diverse and positive than conventionally portrayed; presentation of new historical evidence and testimony on the company union experience; and a substantially revisionist assessment of the merits of the Wagner Act's ban. In particular, the conclusion is that, given any reasonable weighting of the four frames, the company union ban is overly restrictive and should be modified so companies can implement the positive side of nonunion employee committees but not the negative. The paper ends by noting that the unbalanced and narrowly critical treatment of company unions in the mainline industrial relations tradition is a case study of the field's perhaps fatal post–World War II core intellectual‐normative contradiction—professed inclusiveness of all frames of employment relations but, in practice, attention to and preference for a narrow union‐centric version of one frame.