1947 Taft-Hartley Act; Dog Whistle Politics?
It was 70 years ago when Congress overturned President Harry S. Truman’s veto of the Taft-Hartley Act. At the time, Truman described the bill as “the slave labor bill.” To this day, many union members agree with that characterization.
The accusations made by folks against the Act remain that the Republican-controlled Congress employed Southern Dems (code for racist Democrats) to support the Act as it maintained the racial segregation status quo.
Advocates for the Act cited that the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) went too far empowering unions against their employers. The debate on this matter rages to this day.
What is otherwise known as the Wagner Act, the NLRA was the first attempt to protect union workers from discrimination. The NLRA, passed in 1935, protected the right for laborers to organize in trade unions.
“Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection”
The goal of the Act was to encourage collective bargaining, ensuring better work conditions for employees, which would ultimately benefit employers. This was not, however, the way employers saw things.
The idea of happy employees making for a successful business isn’t exactly news, but employers of that time couldn’t see past the infringement on their rights to do business how they pleased.
An act such as this was a violation of the free market. The Republican party viewed the Act as a threat to freedom, calling it socialist in nature. Fights over the Act made it to the Supreme Court
As they sold it, the 1947 Act devised by Senator Robert A. Taft (Ohio) and Representative Fred A. Hartley, Jr, was to protect employees from having to join unions if they didn’t wish to.
They termed the concept “closed shops,” which was what happened when unions forced workers to join. The Act also forced unions to give 60 days notice of strikes, and undermined their power to strike with a federal injunction when the strike might imperil national health or safety. It also required union leaders to take oaths that they were not communists.
A vocal advocate for labor unions, Eleanor Roosevelt said of Taft-Hartley, “Instead of clamping down on the labor movement, Americans should be extremely grateful to unions.”
Congress was not moved to agree with her or the president. They passed the Act anyway.
For employers, the complaint list against Taft-Hartley was short. They would argue it didn’t go far enough to dismantle the socialist unions. For unions, it signaled the loss of bargaining power.
For black workers, especially in the south, it meant a disruption to pending union efforts such as the cotton industry. In 1946, an operation to unionize the cotton industry began in the south. By the time Taft-Hartley passed, only 15 percent of Southern textile workers had organized.
The new Act put the brakes on their efforts so much that it would take almost another 20 years before they could recover what they started in the ’40s.
On one side of the coin, since the passing of this Act, unions lost much of their collective bargaining power. This is not a happy point for unions. On the employer side, the Act righted the imbalance of power afforded by the Wagner Act.
Regardless of how either side feels, Taft-Hartley stands to this day. Voices on the left, like Ralph Nader still speak about repealing Taft-Hartley, but it’s unlikely any time soon. Taft-Hartley has passed the test of time at this point, surviving decades of change.