Taft-Hartley: A Workers' Nightmare 

ups-jkcondyles/iv UPS workers rallied in New Jersey on Aug. 13, a week before they won their strike. Without intervention, the Teamster members were able to win a decent contract. But under the Taft-Hartley Act, President Clinton could have ordered the strikers back to work and sabotaged their fight. In fact, he was urged to do so by everyone from UPS management to Newt Gingrich. No politician should be allowed to rob workers of their most powerful weapon against employers.

Photo: ŠJ.K. Condyles

Republicans and spineless Democrats dominated the Congress. In the White House sat a Democratic president who identified more with business than with labor. The mood was aggressively anti-worker. Legislators stomped around calling for laws to reign in "big labor." In fact, over 200 anti-labor bills were pending in Congress. It was fifty years ago: 1947.

The anti-labor drive in Congress came to focus on two bills: The House bill was introduced by Rep. Fred Hartley (R-NJ), a right-winger who had been friendly to Hitler Germany and imperial Japan right up to the eve of World War 2. A roughly similar bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Robert A. Taft (R-Ohio), the ultraconservative, wealthy son of a U.S. president who had political ambitions of his own. But both bills were written by lobbyists for corporations like General Electric, Allis-Chalmers, Inland Steel, J.I. Case, and Chrysler, and the Rockefeller interests.


The measures were a workers' nightmare: They restored anti-strike injunctions; limited labor's ability to mass picket; prohibited secondary boycotts; restricted political contributions by unions; outlawed welfare funds not jointly controlled by management; authorized employer interference in organizing; denied "economic" strikers the right to vote in representation elections; allowed bosses to fire workers for some types of union activity; outlawed the closed shop, and authorized states to ban the union shop; opened union treasuries to raids through lawsuits; and interfered in internal union politics by requiring officers to sign affidavits that they were not "communists."

It was no surprise that corporations were out to get the unions: In a little more than a decade, the number of union members in the U.S. had grown from less than 4 million to some 15 million. Labor had flexed its muscles soon after World War 2 ended in 1945 with a series of strikes aimed at dramatically increasing living standards for industrial workers. Electrical, oil, steel, auto, rubber, and packinghouse workers, among others, went on strike simultaneously, bringing the U.S. to the verge of a general strike in basic industry. Their successful job actions modestly redistributed the corporations' bloated war-time profits.


In response, corporations were mounting an attack on New Deal legislation that had given workers some of their newfound strength. Big business also employed the Cold War to whip up a "red scare" that wreaked internal havoc in unions across the country. C.E. Wilson, head of General Electric, frankly declared the Cold War had two targets: labor at home, and the Soviet Union abroad.

In April 1947, the CIO organized a "Defend Labor" month, urging mass actions, plant-gate rallies, and an all-out campaign to get resolutions, letters and telegrams sent to Washington to counter Taft-Hartley and the whole labor assault. Sixty members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) spent a frustrating two days trying to convince members of Congress that any of the 200-plus anti-labor bills would be disastrous. They didn't get a good reception: Taft refused to meet with them. Indiana's Sen. Homer Capehart, a manufacturer employing UE members, told the union delegation he was "against big business, big unions, and big government. But I'll start on big unions."

On April 17, the House passed the Hartley bill. And on May 13, 1947, the Senate voted 68-21 to adopt the Taft bill. Democrats were split exactly 50-50, with 21 voting for, and 21 against.

Heavy pressure convinced President Harry Truman to veto the bill at the last minute. But in a move Bill Clinton must have studied, he did little to influence the override vote that followed. Both House and Senate voted to override the veto.


Taft-Hartley has been labor's ball and chain ever since. Early on, labor made a bid at resisting the law. UE, the Steelworkers, and other CIO unions pledged not to cooperate with the new Taft-Hartley Labor Board. CIO president Philip Murray and Mineworkers president John L. Lewis vowed they would not sign the measure's red-scare affidavit. But within a few years, unions were forced to submit.

In 1953, U.S. News and World Report could ask, "Are Unions Slipping? No Growth in Six Years." In 1946, the CIO's membership had been 6.3 million; by 1954, it was 4.6 million. Overall, union membership fell from 33.7 percent of the labor force in 1947 to 31.5 percent in 1950. Although union membership began rising slowly to reach a post-war high of 34.7 percent in 1954, that was followed by a steady decline, aided heavily by the employer tools supplied by Taft-Hartley. Under the legislation, employers can get in the way of almost every union activity -- from organizing the shop to going on strike to mobilizing community support for a campaign.


With the Democratic Party moving ever rightward, repeal of Taft-Hartley has stayed on labor's back burner. An effort to get part of the bill repealed during the Carter administration failed miserably -- despite a large Democratic majority in both houses. The return of a Democratic President and Democrat-controlled Congress in 1992-94 did not raise real hope of repealing Taft-Hartley. And yet American workers -- both the organized and the unorganized -- unwittingly suffer the effects of Taft-Hartley every working day.

-- Peter Gilmore

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