The Taft-Hartley Act: ‘Neutrality’ as a weapon

One of the primary tools long used to suppress labor in the United States is the Taft-Hartley Act, which became law 65 years ago next month. Specifically written to reduce the organizing power of working people to the maximum extent reasonably possible, it is sometimes overlooked that the law was passed with Democratic Party as well as Republican support.

Working people had won for themselves powerful gains during the dramatic upsurge of union organizing during the latter years of the Great Depression, and after agreeing to not conduct strikes during World War II, unions were again flexing their muscles so that their members could make up some of what was lost from the war’s pay freezes. In response, U.S. Big Business interests saw their first opportunity to begin the dismantling of the New Deal, implemented by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to massive unrest that threatened to topple the capitalist system.

Strikers march down a street in Lawrence, Massachusetts, during the 1912 “Bread and Roses” strike

Prior to the New Deal, employees had virtually no recognized rights; the struggle of workers to unionize to defend themselves against powerful corporate interests had raged for decades. Strikes would be met with mass firings and shootings by law enforcement authorities and private security forces. New Deal labor law was codified in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act. A historian at Missouri Southern State University, Steven Wagner, in an article posted on the George Mason University History News Network, emphasizes the importance of the act:

“The Wagner Act was the most important labor law in American history. It gave a major impetus to labor organizations and earned the nickname “labor’s bill of rights.” … It gave workers the right to organize and join labor unions, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to strike. It also set up the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent federal agency with three members appointed by the president, to administer the act and gave it the power to certify that a union represented a particular group of employees.

The Wagner Act also forbade employers from engaging in five types of labor practices: interfering with or restraining employees exercising their right to organize and bargain collectively; attempting to dominate or influence a labor union; refusing to bargain collectively and in “good faith” with unions representing their employees; and, finally, encouraging or discouraging union membership through any special conditions of employment or through discrimination against union or non-union members in hiring. This last provision, in effect, permitted closed and union shops (a closed shop is when an employer agrees to hire only union members and a union shop is when an employer agrees to require anyone hired to join the union).”

Following the conclusion of World War II, a wave of strikes commenced. The U.S. government’s Department of Labor history page notes that, in contrast to fears that massive unemployment would result from the millions of veterans returning from the war,

“[T]he real labor problem of the time was a massive if peaceful wave of strikes. Unions sought to make what they considered well-deserved gains after enduring wage freezes imposed during the war. Workers were also prodded by the sharp inflation, fueled by pent-up consumer demand, that followed the lifting of wartime price restrictions. Strike followed upon strike in such important sectors as railroads, coal, steel, autos and oil.”

Congress takes an anti-union stance

A combination of the Red Scare, whipped-up anti-union sentiment, and a desire by capitalists to reverse the gains of the New Deal and to purge the unions of communists and socialists, who often were the most militant union leaders, led to the introduction of numerous anti-union bills in Congress. The effort came to center on a pair of bills, one for each congressional house. According to a history of Taft-Hartley on the Labor Party USA web site:

“The anti-labor drive in Congress came to focus on two bills: The House bill was introduced by Representative Fred Hartley (R-New Jersey), a right-winger who had been friendly to Hitler Germany and imperial Japan right up to the eve of World War 2. A roughly similar bill was introduced in the Senate by Senator Robert A. Taft (R-Ohio), the ultraconservative, wealthy son of a U.S. president who had political ambitions of his own. But both bills were written by lobbyists for corporations like General Electric, Allis-Chalmers, Inland Steel, J.I. Case, and Chrysler, and the Rockefeller interests.”

Representative Hartley had a long association with the Bund, German-American organizations in Northern New Jersey that promoted Nazi Germany during the 1930s. Senator Taft distinguished himself by opposing unemployment insurance and Social Security, and joining with conservatives aligned with Herbert Hoover who made wild charges that the New Deal constituted an attempt to substitute “totalitarian tyranny” for constitutional government.

Ultimately combined into a single bill, the anti-union legislation passed both houses. Majorities of both parties voted in favor of the bill in the House of Representatives, while in the Senate, according to the Labor Party account, Republicans were unanimously in favor with Democrats evenly split, 21-21. President Harry Truman vetoed the bill, but Congress had the required two-thirds majority in both houses to override the veto and enact Taft-Hartley into law.

Despite President Truman’s need to shore up his credentials with organized labor, a desire to protect the rights of working people was not the motivation for his veto. On the contrary, he believed that Taft-Hartley would unnecessarily introduce government control into the economy. In his veto message,* Truman wrote:

“The bill taken as a whole would reverse the basic direction of our national labor policy, inject the Government into private economic affairs on an unprecedented scale, and conflict with important principles of our democratic society. Its provisions would cause more strikes, not fewer. It would contribute neither to industrial peace nor to economic stability and progress. It would be a dangerous stride in the direction of a totally managed economy. It contains seeds of discord which would plague this Nation for years to come.

At a time when we are determined to remove, as rapidly as practicable, Federal controls established during the war, this bill would involve the Government in the free processes of our economic system to a degree unprecedented in peacetime. This is a long step toward the settlement of economic issues by government dictation. It is an indication that industrial relations are to be determined in the halls of Congress, and that political power is to supplant economic power as the critical factor in labor relations.”

Further, President Truman predicated that the bill’s power to force an end to strikes or lockouts would be a dead letter:

“There is little point in putting laws on the books unless they can be executed. I have concluded that this bill would prove to be unworkable. The so-called “emergency procedure” for critical nation-wide strikes would require an immense amount of government effort but would result almost inevitably in failure. The National Labor Relations Board would be given many new tasks, and hobbled at every turn in attempting to carry them out. Unique restrictions on the Board’s procedures would so greatly increase the backlog of unsettled cases that the parties might be driven to turn in despair from peaceful procedures to economic force.”

The president’s concerns were apparently short-lived, as he would invoke Taft-Hartley’s emergency powers ten times, more than any subsequent president.

A broad-based attack on union solidarity

The scope of Taft-Hartley was (and remains) sweeping. It prohibited jurisdictional, wildcat, solidarity or political strikes; restricted political contributions by unions; outlawed welfare funds not jointly controlled by management; authorized employer interference in organizing; outlawed the closed shop; authorized states to pass laws outlawing union shops; and ramped up the Red Scare by requiring union officials to sign affidavits that they were not communists.

The practical effect of the Taft-Hartley Act contradicts its loftily claimed neutrality, as for instance in its second paragraph:

“It is the purpose and policy of this Act, in order to promote the full flow of commerce, to prescribe the legitimate rights of both employees and employers in their relations affecting commerce, to provide orderly and peaceful procedures for preventing the interference by either with the legitimate rights of the other, to protect the rights of individual employees in their relations with labor organizations whose activities affect commerce … and to protect the rights of the public in connection with labor disputes affecting commerce.”

All the new rules put into place by the act were directed against employees, despite the neutral-sounding language. Proponents of the act claimed it was a response to the Wagner Act primarily circumscribing management, but such circumscription was the point: Employees had possessed no rights, and the 1935 act was intended as rectification. Taft-Hartley was an attempt to take back as many of those hard-won rights as possible.

Under the impact of the law, union membership has declined from about 35 percent in 1954 to less than 12 percent today. Frequently, attention is drawn to the fact that union membership was highest during the post-war boom period that extended through the 1950s and 1960s, a time when working people enjoyed more prosperity than before or since. The lowest levels of union membership since the early days of the Great Depression have coincided with the greatest inequality and the worst economic crisis since then. These basic facts are inseparable — as more capital is accumulated by fewer capitalists, more power to affect all aspects of society is accumulated.

Working people don’t have the organizational strength to combat the control over the economy, the tight grip over the legislative process and the domination of the mass media possessed by capitalists and their top-down corporations. Without a doubt, abolishing Taft-Hartley and ending the draconian roadblocks put in front of union drives would be of significant benefit to working people in the United States.

Tilting the scales in favor of bosses

The one-sidedness of union-certification elections was summarized well by an organizer (I regret I can recall neither name nor specific circumstance) imagining a political election being conducted under the same rules: Imagine a congressional election in which the incumbent could require voters to listen to his or her speeches, could ban any material promoting the challenger, and in which the challenger could not set foot in the election district but instead had to stand on the border handing out fliers to people passing by.

Yet, as desirable as much increased employee organization and fair labor laws would be, ultimately that would only ameliorate the exploitation of working people, and newly won gains would soon come under attack, again forcing working people into defensive postures. There are parallels here with Keynesian economic theory.

Keynesianism, simply put, is the belief that capitalism is unstable and requires government intervention in the economy when private enterprise is unable or unwilling to spend enough to lift it out of a slump. To be fair, government spending — the New Deal, the immense effort to win World War II, the Marshall Plan and a significant state sector in European economies — did indeed lift living standards in the advanced capitalist countries of the North. That economic theory, and the much higher union membership, tend to be intertwined with a certain nostalgia for the quarter-century boom following World War II. But, as I have previously argued, we are in different times.

The U.S. post-war boom was predicated on the country having a strong industrial base and for there being large areas of the planet into which the capitalist system could expand. Neither is the case today. For the first time since the Great Depression, we are enduring a structural crisis of capitalism, and the conditions that led the world out of it simply don’t exist today. There are no mass anti-capitalist movements remotely comparable to those of the 1930s, the advanced capitalist countries have largely hollowed-out industrial bases, there are very few places not already integrated into the world capitalist system, the power of capitalists is stronger and far more globalized, and those capitalists have set in motion an all-out race to the bottom.

Then add to that list the environmental crisis, looming shortages of natural resources as they are madly plundered, and increasing disruptions to agriculture from global warming. Moreover, there is the massive public and private debt piled up that can’t possibly be paid back (which didn’t exist in the 1930s). That structural debt is the leverage for capitalists, in particularly financiers, to impose austerity. Ever more for them, less for us. If more pain and more austerity is all that is coming to us, then a change of system, rather than an amelioration of that system, should be on the agenda.

In President Truman’s message to Congress when he vetoed Taft-Hartley, he gave as a crucial reason for his opposition that, under the act, “political power is to supplant economic power as the critical factor in labor relations.” Note that Truman wished “economic power” to remain decisive in labor relations. Truman had nothing to fear; economic power remained firmly in the seat. “Political power” continued to be wielded as a source of force on behalf of dominant “economic power,” as it does today.

That economic power, needless to say, is held tightly by capitalists. It can not be otherwise. Better labor laws would be of enormous benefit for working people, but gains are always temporary and taken back. Economic power is always wielded by those with the biggest piles of capital in a capitalist system and always will be, no matter what ameliorative laws are passed.

* Text posted on the University of California at Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project.

4 comments on “The Taft-Hartley Act: ‘Neutrality’ as a weapon

  1. Alcuin says:

    Interesting article – came here from Carl Davidson’s place. I knew about Taft-Hartley as a union-busting tool, but didn’t know the details. Thanks for writing this post.

    • You’re welcome! I hadn’t known the details, either, which was my motivation for writing the post.

      • Alcuin says:

        I’ve read your February and March posts and am most impressed. You deserve a wider audience and I’m doing my best to let folks know that yours is a “must-read” blog. You make it easy to “connect the dots”.

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