Labor has opposed Taft-Hartley for decades. Here’s why it’s time to repeal it.
by C.M. Lewis
On June 23rd, 1947, the United States Senate—following the House of Representatives—voted 68-25 to override Harry Truman’s veto and enact the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, better known as Taft-Hartley, into law.
By doing so, Congress—over the vocal objection of working Americans—set in motion a generations-long offensive by American employers against labor’s hard-won gains for American workers. Taft-Hartley has cast a long shadow over American labor relations, and one which stretches to our present moment—a moment in which less than 7% of private sector workers belong to a union, and organized labor is in a fight for its life. With high stakes and the glimmers of a resurgence of labor militancy, we should re-examine the road that led us to this point and consider how to fix the road ahead.
To begin, we must reclaim labor’s demand to repeal Taft-Hartley.
Taft-Hartley’s passage ended the twelve year experimentation with the labor regime created by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935. The NLRA was an ambitious bill that, for the first time in American history, created a (nearly) all-encompassing path to unionization for workers in the private sector. Instead of pitched battles, recognition strikes, and violent pickets, the American state would intervene in labor relations to—as the NLRA put it—“diminish the causes of labor disputes burdening or obstructing interstate and foreign commerce[.]” No longer, it was hoped, would American labor relations be among the most violent in the industrial world.
The NLRA contained things that would be envied by unions today. The original Act provided little restriction upon the rights of workers; instead, it was based on the idea that employers inherently have a power advantage: leveling the playing field would require placing restrictions on the bosses. The Act and its subsequent interpretation and administration required employers to remain neutral in union elections, allowed for unions to engage in secondary pickets and boycotts (picketing or boycotting a corporation that did business with the primary employer of striking workers), and allowed for “closed shop” agreements requiring employers to hire union members.
The Act wasn’t perfect. Like most legislation of the time, it was strongly influenced by the white supremacy permeating American society. Some of the most vulnerable and precarious workers, who were then (and are now) predominantly people of color, had their rights as workers denied. Domestic workers and agricultural workers—sectors dominated by black and Latinx workers, particularly in the South—were prohibited from using the newly made path to unionization in order to appease Jim Crow Democrats that were part of the New Deal coalition.
But it provided a baseline: a place from which millions of working Americans could, for the first time, exert power on the job and power in society with less fear of the boss. Union membership skyrocketed from approximately 10% of the workforce to 25% by the beginning of World War II, with rapid gains by unions like the United Auto Workers of America in the emerging auto industry. Strike activity increased with new organizing, as well: according to a 1986 retrospective published in the Stanford Law Review, during the first few years of the NLRA "roughly 50 percent of all strikes centered on issues of organization and union recognition.” Per a study published in The Journal of Political Economy in 1941, the vast majority of “organization strikes” were for union recognition, distantly followed by strikes over the closed shop and discrimination. By providing clear legal support for the right to organize and using state action to curb the influence of the boss, the NLRA provided power and leverage to working Americans.
It wasn’t to last, of course.
Employers were opposed to the NLRA from the start. A 1936 article in Political Science Quarterly observed that “The new labor law was received by employers with open hostility; the findings and decisions of the National Labor Relations Board and its predecessors were generally defied; and the Board and its agents tied up in litigation." Companies flatly refused to comply with the law on constitutional grounds: a question only settled in a 1937 5-4 decision in National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, affirming that labor relations fell under Congressional authority to regulate interstate commerce. Even then, American business was far from content to settle in to the new regime of labor relations.
Only the onset of World War II and the wartime no-strike pledge paused the employer offensive: an uneasy armistice that ended with the war’s conclusion. With returning GIs looking for good jobs, women in the wartime workforce seeking equal rights at work, and the end of the no-strike pledge, unions went on the offensive. Labor launched the biggest strike wave in American history, seeking secure wages and a say on the job for millions of American workers, including many newly returned from Europe and the Pacific.
Enter the Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947, or Taft-Hartley.
There was little illusion about the purpose of Taft-Hartley. As noted in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review in November of 1947, its goal was plain: "to regulate and restrict various devices through which labor makes effective the economic power-potential it has gained through organization and combination." In other words, the potential power of organized workers, ably demonstrated by the post-war strike wave, motivated bosses and their political allies to move quickly to bring American workers to heel.
Taft-Hartley did away with the idea that the boss has the advantage and introduced a slew of restrictions on workers under the guise of “fairness.” For the first time, “employer free speech”—in reality, the right to utilize their bully pulpit to oppose unionization—entered into law. Unfair labor practices, once restricted to employers, were extended to workers as well. The Act banned secondary strikes and boycotts, banned closed shops (which allowed significant union control over hiring), removed union eligibility for supervisors (like foremen), allowed the President to halt strikes deemed to be harmful to national interest, sharply restricted union campaign political expenditures, and required all union officers to file affidavits stating that they did not support and were not affiliated with the Communist Party.
In other words, the Republican Congress took one look at the political power displayed by organized labor and working Americans in the post-war strike wave and kneecapped it.
The ramifications of Taft-Hartley have been wide-reaching. Decades of case law that progressively curbed the rights of workers were built on Taft-Hartley’s back, and expanded public sector bargaining rights in the 1960s and 1970s were largely modeled on the Taft-Hartley regime (or structured even more restrictively). The NLRA—labor’s “Magna Carta”—is no longer recognizable as what labor hoped it would be: a permanent power shift toward American workers and away from the vested interests that crashed the American economy, sinking the world into a global depression.
Decades of attempts to repeal or amend Taft-Hartley have been unsuccessful. Truman never made good on his promise to repeal it, and no subsequent President—even those elected because of union money and union votes—ever obliged to do so. Over time, labor’s demands have moderated from full repeal of Taft-Hartley, instead prioritizing minor “fixes” intended to increase union density. But even those moderate measures—recently, the Employee Free Choice Act in 2009—failed, thanks to opposition from neoliberal Democrats like Dianne Feinstein and strife within the labor movement itself.
Senator Bernie Sanders has offered the most recent attempt to unrig American labor relations in the form of the “Workplace Democracy Act”—impressive legislation that goes well beyond the Employee Free Choice Act and repeals crucial sections of Taft-Hartley. The bill is the gold standard of current legislation addressing American labor relations, and no other Presidential candidate—or any politician in recent memory—has offered anything comparable. But it, too, stops short of full repeal, leaving intact significant problems—such as weak penalties against employers that violate the law, the “bothsidesism” of applying equal regulation of unfair labor practices to employers and workers, and the power of the President to enjoin strikes (most recently exercised by George W. Bush against longshore workers). We should dread the moment someone tells Donald Trump that he can order a strike’s end.
In candor, the damage caused by Taft-Hartley won’t be fully undone by repeal. Employer “free speech” has entered into constitutional law, and in many states the concepts of Taft-Hartley have been codified into public sector labor relations. The bosses can be expected to fight repeal—and well after repeal—with every weapon in their arsenal; they’ve fought hard against far less. They realize the stakes presented by strengthening organized labor’s ability to fight for American workers. In some ways, some of the evils are already out of Pandora’s Box.
For the first time in decades, however, we are living in the midst of a strike wave. Much of it is the consequence of decades of deteriorating labor conditions, skyrocketing inequality, a frayed social safety net, and unaccountable plutocrats and their political allies that hoard wealth at the expense of working families. It is also the consequence of increased expectations: the 2012 Chicago Teachers’ Union strike, the 2015 Verizon Strike, the 2015 Seattle Education Association Strike, and the post-2016 resurgence of the strike weapon—especially in West Virginia and the historic United Teachers’ of Los Angeles strike in January—have created the expectation that we can fight for more and win it. Rather than settling for the scraps left by capital, working people should demand the value of their labor.
At this moment, more than any other, we need bold demands that push the boundaries of what’s considered politically feasible. We need to expand organizing rights to domestic and agricultural workers, and all workers should be secure in their organizing rights whether documented or undocumented. We need to demand an easier path to union recognition and a first contract, and we need an end to boss retaliation. We need more secure federal sector union rights for government workers, and we need an end to anti-worker “Right-to-Work” laws.
Fighting back against rigged laws and leveling the playing field between bosses and American workers starts with finally sending Taft-Hartley to the pearly gates.
C.M. Lewis is a union staffer in Central Pennsylvania, a member of the Strikewave editorial collective, and a member of UAW Local 1981. The views expressed are his own.