Open World Conference of Workers

In Defense of Trade Union Independence & Democratic Rights


The Taft-Hartley Act:

Why the 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 standards.

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 precisely that.

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.

Anti-Communist Oath

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 degrading.

The Supreme Court later declared this provision of Taft-Hartley unconstitutional.


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 Labor Party.)

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