Last year marked the 70th anniversary of the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, also known as the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, which proved to be the most detrimental legislation to the US labor movement.
Although the Republican Party had control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate for just four years (1947-49 and 1953-55) between 1933-1981, they forcibly ravaged the opposition party, eliminating their principal funding resource. In 1947, after the 80th Congress was sworn in, the newly minted Republican majority swiftly got to work for the corporations, mauling the Wagner Act, and plunging the Taft-Hartley Act down the throats of working Americans, unflinchingly overriding a veto from then-President Harry Truman. The legislation, sponsored by Robert Taft and Fred Hartley, was written at the behest of corporate interests and proved to be an insurmountable obstacle for organized labor to overcome.
The legislation contained six amendments. According to U-S-History.com, each of the amendments are summed up as follows:
- It allows the president to appoint a board of inquiry to investigate union disputes when he believes a strike would endanger national health or safety, and obtain an 80-day injunction to stop the continuation of a strike.
- It declares all closed shops illegal.
- It permits union shops only after a majority of the employees vote for them.
- It forbids jurisdictional strikes and secondary boycotts.
- It ends the check-off system whereby the employer collects union dues.
- It forbids unions from contributing to political campaigns.
The legislation enacted what is referred to as “right-to-work laws.” In reality, such laws inhibit workers ability to organize for better pay and benefits, as it creates a “free-rider” problem. This allows individuals to avoid paying union dues, while retaining all benefits accrued via union-negotiated contracts. As of today, the majority of states in the US are regarded as “right-to-work” states, 28 in total. In addition, studies have continually concluded these states produce lower wages, relative to states without such laws.
Workers of union employers no longer had a requirement to join the union, yet were able to profit from the benefits amassed via collective bargaining, in which the union and its members had scrapped for. Currently, Republicans in Congress are discussing the idea of a national “right-to-work” law, which would likely result in the liquidation of organized labor in the country.
A chief concern of the bill was the altering of the “employee”, which now excluded both the supervisor and independent contractor. Not only did this limit the pool of prospective union members, but it would have long-lasting, polarizing effects on opposing ends of the business hierarchy. A conspicuous example of the effect of this amendment is evident in the company FedEx, in which essentially every employee of the company is an independent contractor. This permits the company to withhold from the employees certain, if not all, of the companies benefits. Thus, enabling FedEx and companies like it, to cut the legs out from a US Postal Service whose union employees enjoy strong pay and benefits.
Possibly the most devastating amendment of the legislation was the prohibition of secondary boycotts, which prevented companies that weren’t directly involved with the company in question, from refusing to cooperate or conduct business with that specific company. Effectively this allows the business community to organize and conspire against the working class, while preventing the workers and unions from organizing in a similar fashion.
Additionally, the Taft-Hartley Act granted the employer the “free speech clause”, which gave management the “right” to organize and campaign against the union, thereby eliminating all pretenses of neutrality.
A topic rarely discussed in modern labor relations was the prohibition of current or former members of the Communist Party from holding office within a labor union. Although amended in 1965, after the amendment was deemed unconstitutional, many working-class Americans are unaware of how essential communists were in organizing and pushing the left for much of the 20th century. As Noam Chomsky so brilliantly pointed out, “No one wants to say it anymore, but the Communist Party was the spearhead for labor and civil-rights organizing.”
Many in the Democratic Party cheered and actively joined in on the witch-hunt against communists, doing so without comprehending they did at their own peril. The party was now vulnerable in a myriad of ways they previously were not, as they occupied the farthest left ideology within the mainstream political arena. Eventually, the erosion and abandonment of the traditional left, culminated in the party’s capitulation on pillars of their 20th-century liberalism, forming what seems to be the neoliberal ideology of the party today, the party that passed NAFTA, and championed the TPP until the bitter end.
At the time of its passage, union critics would refer to the legislation as the “slave-wage bill.” As citizens assess the modern realities of America today, many have come to realize the devastating effect that union-busting bills like Taft-Hartley have had on an increasingly assailable working class. Near the time of the bills passage, union membership across the country hit an all-time high, just above 35%. In 2016, the US recorded the lowest all-time percentage of union membership since the statistic has been tracked. Astoundingly, wage stagnation is directly tied to union membership, thus presenting a clear illustration as to the importance of unions, particularly robust private sector union membership.
The repeal of Taft-Hartley would be a vital, and long overdue step in restoring worker rights. With the reignition of the Poor People’s Campaign by Rev. Barber, in addition to Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15, and Medicare-For-All movements, the basis for coalition building on the left is dense. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a fierce defender of labor, recently authored a bill known as the ‘Protecting Workers and Improving Labor Standards Act’. If passed, the bill would nationally repeal “right-to-work” laws, and would without a doubt be the most significant victory for organized labor in the 21st century. Americans on all sides of the political spectrum must demand that their congressional representatives and senators vote for a full repeal of Taft-Hartley. If so, big money interests will be reeling, and placed on the defensive for the first time in half-a-century. The repeal of Taft-Hartley would reinvigorate not just the social left, but the economic left, formulating a certain strategy for electoral success for the middle, working, and impoverished classes.