Government union: 1934
The firing of a government union leader at the National Recovery Administration within the Commerce Department prompted a long debate over the rights of government employees.

In this case, John L. Donovan was reinstated to his position.

Donovan was fired by Gen. Hugh S. Johnson, National Recovery Administrator, alleging “inefficiency, inattention to duty, unauthorized absence from duty and insubordination.”

Donovan, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), AFL, charged that the termination was in retaliation for union activity at the agency.

Labor law under the National Recovery Act was somewhat ill-defined, but Section 7(a) of the act protected union rights and prohibited retaliation. The two sides agreed to submit the case to the labor board for arbitration and agreed to abide by the ruling even though the law didn’t specifically apply to government employees.

The board found that Donovan should be reinstated.

The board said in its ruling, “It may be asserted that, in the public interest, the NRA should have a wider discretion than ordinary employers in discharging employees. On the other hand, it may also be asserted that when the NRA is engaged in compelling employers to observe strictly the provisions of Section 7-a, it should, in dealing with its own employees, carry out the purposes of that section with even more scrupulous care than might be expected of ordinary employees.”

The NRA was passed in order to stimulate industrial recovery from deflation that occurred during the Great Depression. It was later found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court and its labor provisions were replaced by the basis for current law, the Wagner Act, in 1935.

The picketing of the Commerce Department was not without controversy.

Claude Babcock, the national president of AFGE, later said that picketing of government offices by government employees “borders closely on treason.” He continued, “While there is no doubt that the use of such forceful methods was instrumental in securing Donovan’s reinstatement, in that it directed public attention to Gen. Hugh S. Johnson’s unjustifiable conduct in firing him, a continuance of picketing would have drawn heavy public criticism upon the government employees taking such action.”

The conservative nature of the AFGE led to a number of AFGE locals affiliating with the United Federal Workers, CIO formed in 1937.

The 1978 Federal Labor Relations Act is the current law governing federal employees and his patterned after the provisions of the Wagner Act, except that strikes and other concerted activities that interfere with work are prohibited. Informational picketing by employees on non-work time is permitted.
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