American Labor Movement Called it a "Slave Labor Bill"
By Jerry Gordon *
On June 23, 1947, the U.S. Senate joined the House of Representatives
in voting to override President Truman's veto of the Taft-Hartley Act.
Thus became law the most repressive piece of anti-labor legislation in
this country's history.
The enactment of Taft-Hartley followed a tremendous post-World War II
upsurge by union workers all across the country. During the war years,
workers had experienced a drastic decline in their living standards as a
result of a government-imposed wage freeze, despite steeply rising living
costs. Moreover, workers had been subjected to long hours, intensified
speed-up and poor working conditions. Meanwhile the corporations were
making profits hand over fist. The end of the war in 1945 found workers
determined to win wage increases and improve their conditions. A massive
strike wave erupted, and during 1945-46 over five million workers walked
off their jobs in a whole range of industries, including auto, steel and
steel fabricating, packinghouse, electrical equipment, coal, rail,
maritime, communications, machine tools and transit.
The ruling circles in the U.S. decided it was time to crack down on the
labor movement and throttle the rising tide of discontent. The result was
Taft-Hartley, which was passed by politicians from both establishment
parties. The House vote was 331-83, with Democrats voting 106-71 in favor
of the measure. The Senate passed the measure by a 68-25 margin, with 20
Democrats voting to override the veto and 22 voting to uphold it. Thus a
majority of Democrats in Congress voted to join the Republicans in
approving a measure the labor movement characterized as a "slave
labor bill." As for Democratic President Truman, he did little or
nothing to galvanize support for upholding his veto.
This paper will examine the major facets of Taft-Hartley and how this
legislation undermined and weakened the labor movement, making it far more
difficult to organize the unorganized and protect workers' living
Injunctions to Break and Prevent Strikes
The original National Labor Relations Act, called the Wagner Act, was
adopted by Congress in 1935. This law enumerated a number of employer
unfair labor practices with nothing directed against labor organizations.
The Taft-Hartley Act changed this with a number of Draconian unfair labor
practices targeting unions and prohibiting them and their members from
conduct that would "threaten," "restrain," or
"coerce" other employees and employers in the exercise of their
rights. Taft-Hartley thus made it far easier for courts to issue
injunctions banning mass picketing during strikes and reducing the number
of pickets to a token few. This, in turn, made it much easier for scabs
and strike breakers to cross picket lines of striking workers.
The Act also empowered the President to set up a fact-finding board to
inquire into any strike which the President deemed to affect the national
health and safety. Upon receiving the board's report, the President can
seek a federal court injunction to make the strike illegal for a
"cooling off" period of 80 days.
Outlawing Secondary Strikes and Boycotts
Unions' strategy for winning strikes has historically been to cut off
business of the struck employer by spreading the strike to that employer's
suppliers and customers. Taft-Hartley largely put an end to that practice
by prohibiting secondary strikes and boycotts.
Here's how it worked: Prior to Taft-Hartley, if a union struck the Heinz
Ketchup Company and the Kroger supermarket chain insisted on continuing to
sell the struck product, the union could picket Kroger stores and urge
customers to shop elsewhere. Kroger employees might also decide to honor
the picket lines and refuse to work. So as the price of continuing to sell
Heinz Ketchup increased, Kroger could face a tremendous loss of profits
and even have some of its operations shut down or at least curtailed.
Faced with this, Kroger might have decided its best course was simply to
sell other brands of ketchup, not the Heinz brand. This obviously was a
powerful weapon helping the Heinz workers to win their strike.
Taft-Hartley took away this weapon. It made secondary strikes and boycott
actions directed against suppliers and customers of a struck company
illegal. So in the situation described above, a union that today goes on
strike against Heinz Ketchup can request that Kroger not carry the Heinz
product, but if Kroger persists in doing so, all the union can do is urge
customers going into Kroger not to buy the struck product. The union
cannot ask customers not to shop at Kroger, nor can it encourage any
Kroger employee to stay off the job. Taft-Hartley has made this illegal.
Authorizing States to Outlaw Union Shop Agreements
Taft-Hartley also contains a misnamed "right-to-work"
provision. This enables states to pass legislation prohibiting union shop
agreements. Some 20 states, mostly in the South and West, have done
A union shop agreement specifies that all workers in a workplace where the
union has been voted in (or otherwise been recognized by the employer
after demonstrating majority support) must belong to the union as a
condition of employment. Under federal law, the union is required to
represent all the workers in a given unit, so it is only fair and right
that all employees in the workplace contribute to the cost of maintaining
the union by paying union dues. After all, every worke in the unit
receives the pay increases and benefit improvements negotiated by the
union. And any worker can be fired unjustly, which forces the union to
file a grievance, often spending thousands of dollars from the union's
treasury to win back that worker's job. Workers wishing to avail
themselves of the union's grievance procedure should surely contribute to
paying their fair share so that the union can protect the rights of all
workers the costs.
But Taft-Hartley says a state can bar that. In "right-to-work"
states, a worker can accept all the wage increases and benefit
improvements negotiated by the union, as well utilize the union's
grievance procedure, but never belong to the union or pay any dues toward
its upkeep. This is simply another device imposed by government to divide
workers and weaken the union.
Closed Shop Outlawed
Taft-Hartley also outlawed the closed shop. A closed shop agreement
obligated an employer to hire only workers who are already union members.
This was of particular importance to the building trades unions, which
sought to ensure that all construction be done by union labor and that
building trades workers receive good wages standardized throughout the
industry. So under a closed shop, employers who needed workers got them
through the union.
Taft-Hartley made that practice illegal. Union workers today are faced
with the threat of non-union contractors who employ non-union workers at
lower wages and less benefits, and drive down industry standards. This has
the added benefit for the employers of pitting union workers against
non-union workers and dividing the workforce.
Strikes by Federal Employees Outlawed
The Taft-Hartley Act prohibited strikes by federal government
employees or workers in government-owned corporations. Even if federal
workers are paid poverty level wages or toil under unbearable working
conditions, they are forced to stay on the job. If they dare to strike,
they can expect to face harsh sanctions.
A dramatic example of this occurred in 1981 when the Professional Air
Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) struck. The workers were fired --
some were hauled away in ball-and-chain to serve prison sentences -- and
PATCO was destroyed. This was government strike-breaking and union-busting
at its worst.
Contributions by Unions to Candidates for Federal Office Outlawed
As a further step to weaken unions and limit their political power,
Taft-Hartley made it illegal for unions to contribute any money from their
treasuries to candidates for federal office.
Of course, a union can still collect money from individual members given
on a voluntary basis and contribute to a candidate for federal office. But
many unions have substantial treasuries and could, if it were not illegal,
contribute larger sums in furtherance of their program to elect people to
office who support a workers' agenda.
Damage Suits Against Unions
Taft-Hartley permits employers to file damage suits against unions for
breach of contract. Because the American legal system is not kind to
unions and the workers they represent, a union that fights hard for its
members can find itself in court, defending unsuccessfully against a
damage suit for millions of dollars. Such an award was issued recently
against the American Airline pilots union after pilots called in sick at a
time when they could not get a decent contract.
This legal weapon, which enables the corporations to sue unions for
damages is intimidating and dangerous. It is another device to discourage
unions from taking strong actions in defense of their members to protect
living standards and working conditions.
Taft-Hartley required officers of local, national, and international
unions to file an affidavit swearing they were not members of the
Communist Party and did not support any organization advocating the
overthrow of the government by force or any "unconstitutional"
means. Even rabidly anti-communist union leaders opposed this measure
because they saw it as another unwarranted government intrusion into
unions' internal affairs, and because they recoiled at the idea of being
forced to swear out the affidavits, which they regarded as insulting and
The Supreme Court later declared this provision of Taft-Hartley
The negative effects of Taft-Hartley upon the ability of unions to
organize, bargain collectively and strike have been devastating. In fact,
this Act profoundly affect the relationship of forces between management
and workers to the detriment of the organized labor movement.
Moreover, the situation was compounded when Congress passed the
Landrum-Griffin Act in 1959. This Act further barred union solidarity
actions when it prohibited unions from negotiating "hot cargo"
agreements, thus forcing union workers to either handle and process scab
products from other work places that are on strike or face discharge. In
addition, Landrum-Griffin gave the government unprecedented oversight and
control over internal union affairs, dictating the conduct of elections
and the handling of finances. And the government has in recent years
expanded its control over unions in the U.S. by ruling off the ballot in
union elections candidates who had never even been indicted or convicted
of any crime.
In the aftermath of Taft-Hartley, the labor movement made its repeal an
overriding priority. But as time went by and the so-called friends of
labor in both the Democratic and Republican parties made clear that
Taft-Hartley was staying on the books, union leaders adapted to it, and
the cry for its repeal became muted. The Labor Party, formed in 1996,
called for a labor bill of rights which included the repeal of
Taft-Hartley and all other anti-labor legislation. Ralph Nader called for
repeal of Taft-Hartley in his 2000 presidential bid.
From time-to-time, piecemeal measures to restore al least some of labor's
rights, such as barring the hiring of permanent replacements when workers
strike, and allowing common situs picketing, have been introduced in
Congress. But to date nothing has come of these.
It is clear that American workers will have their rights protected only
when they exert their collective muscle.
(Jerry Gordon is a retired official of the United Food and Commercial
Workers union in the Midwest. He is currently the chair of the Ohio State
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