The Taft-Hartley Act Revisited

The most effective anti-poverty program ever invented was the labor union.

— George Meany

There are three important things that need to be remembered about the 1947 Labor-Management Relations Act — commonly known as the “Taft-Hartley Act,” after its congressional sponsors, Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, and House Representative Fred Hartley of New Jersey.

First, even though political pundits and social commentators continue to talk — 60-odd years after the fact — about how Taft-Hartley was a necessary corrective, an antidote to runaway union excesses, a move that had to made to preserve the economic health of the nation, the legislation was far more toxic and insidious than these “reasonable response” accounts make it out to be.

Taft-Hartley was the naked attempt to neutralize America’s unions by revoking key provisions of the landmark 1935 National Labor Relations Act (commonly known as the “Wagner Act,” after its sponsor, New York Senator Robert Wagner), the act that legitimized a union’s right to strike, engage in collective bargaining, and serve as the workers’ sole representative.

Make no mistake, the vitality of the post-World War II labor movement was staggering — so staggering, in fact, that the federal government and America’s leading corporations were in a state of panic. It’s no exaggeration to say that never in our history had organized labor come so close to becoming an equal partner in the national economy than in the years directly following the war.

Not only were unions full of confidence and buoyed by the support of a sympathetic public, they were fearless. In 1946, the year before Taft-Hartley became law, five million people had taken part in strikes. Five million people had put down their tools or shut off their machines to hit the bricks, to protest the fortunes made by war profiteers, to protest the picayune wages being offered union members.

However, even though the working class was clearly on the ascendancy and the road ahead appeared wide-open, there were storm clouds gathering on the horizon. The realization that working men and women were now wielding genuine power —power that translated into independent political and economic clout — was scaring the wits out of the Establishment. It was that fear that precipitated the legislation.

Second, the Taft-Hartley Act did precisely what it set out to do. It crippled the labor movement. Among other things, it outlawed wildcat strikes, jurisdictional strikes, solidarity strikes, secondary boycotts and secondary picketing; and, in an odd footnote, it required union leaders to take an oath that they weren’t Communists (as if anyone who sided with the working class was a suspected Commie).

Taft-Hartley prolonged the union certification process; it gave the federal government the right to issue strike injunctions; it expressly excluded supervisors from union membership and collective bargaining; and it severely weakened the union security clause (language under which joining a union was a condition of employment).

By lengthening the certification process, management could now stall; with injunction power, the feds could now squelch any large-scale strike; by excluding supervision, bosses could now reclassify workers as “supervisors,” thereby exempting them from union membership; and by de-fanging the security clause, 22 states now have right-to-work laws — five of which (Arkansas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Kansas and Florida) are embedded in state constitutions.

The third thing to remember about Taft-Hartley is that, while it became the law of the land despite the veto of President Harry Truman, it was congressional Democrats who assured its passage. Liberals and progressives like to place the blame on anti-union Republicans, but it was the Democrats, themselves, who pushed it across the finish line.

Fact: A majority of the Democrats in congress voted to override Truman’s veto. While many were Southerners (“Dixiecrats”), many were not. Had the Democrats simply supported their president — had they provided working people with the economic equivalent of the same privileges guaranteed to citizens under the Bill of Rights — Taft-Hartley would not have become law.

All of which raises a question: If American voters were given the choice, how would they choose to be governed? Would they prefer that Big Business — with the blessings of a corporate-oriented government — dictated our domestic and foreign affairs? Or would they prefer giving working men and women an equal voice in determining policy?

We can argue all we like about the practicality of regular citizens making national policy, but one thing can’t be disputed: If regular citizens had been running the show, they never would have abandoned our manufacturing base. They never would have agreed to enrich international oligarchies at the expense of the American economy..

Taking the greatest manufacturing power in the history of the world and dismantling it — relegating it to the role of industrial “spectator” — is something that working people would never allow to happen. Never. Only the U.S. Congress would see the wisdom in pissing away something that took 150 years to build.

David Macaray is a playwright and author, whose latest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows: Weird Adventures in India: Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims When the Peace Corps was New. Everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. He can be reached at: Read other articles by David.

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  1. MylesH said on July 27th, 2010 at 3:48pm #

    Let’s all remember that to this day, no one can name any ‘serious’ presidential candidate (Democrat, of course) that calls for its repeal as part of its platform. None comes to mind. I’ve written to their party bureaucracy asking for such info and never received a reply. Perhaps the answer was obvious.
    Myles Hoenig