The law that poisoned labor: Taft-Hartley turns 75


It’s hard to exaggerate the panic and fury in the pages of this newspaper—and throughout the American labor movement—as the most anti-labor law in U.S. history was debated and passed in Congress 75 years ago.

The Taft-Hartley act—named for its sponsors Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio and Rep. Fred Hartley, Jr. of New Jersey—was “an executioner‘s knife held at the throat of every worker and every union in our country,” declared the executive council of the American Federation of Labor as the law headed for passage. Taft himself admitted that the objective of his bill was to “weaken the power of labor unions,” and Hartley said its purpose was “to break unions down to the local level.” 

Taft and Hartley were Republicans, and their party had taken control of the House and Senate in the 1946 elections amid a growing anti-Communist red scare and an unprecedented wave of strikes.

In the 12 years since the 1935 passage of the union-friendly National Labor Relations Act, union membership had soared to over 34% of private sector workers. Reacting to economic turmoil following the end of World War Two, it’s estimated that 5 million American workers went on strike in 1945 and 1946, close to a tenth of the total work force. 

The employer class prepared to strike back, with bills full of proposals written explicitly by business groups like the National Association of Manufacturers—a practice that was rare back then in Congress.

June 24, 1947— After a shift at the Castle Shannon Coal Company mine in Coverdale, Penn., miner Steve Audler reacts to the news that Congress had overridden President Truman’s veto of the Taft Hartley Act.

The Taft-Hartley bill passed the House and Senate on June 4 and 5, 1947, but was vetoed by President Harry Truman on June 20. But backers had the necessary two-thirds support, and they overrode his veto 68-25 in the Senate and 331-83 in the House. It became law on June 23, 1947.

Taft-Hartley proved to be a slow-acting poison. It brought 12 years of explosive union growth to a sudden end, and it contributed to what has now been a 75-year decline.

The American Federation of Labor, and later the merged AFL-CIO, declared repealing Taft-Hartley the number one priority. They came close to  repealing parts of it in the 1960s and 1970s, but never succeeded. 

That effort continues to this day. The PRO Act, a bill that has twice passed the U.S. House, is stalled in the Senate. If it ever passes, it would undo much of Taft-Hartley and restore the rights and freedoms American union members had during a 12-year heyday.

Just some of what the anti-union Taft-Hartley law did

Taft-Hartley aimed to strangle solidarity, divide workers, and weaken their unions.

  • Outlaw secondary boycotts and strikes: Under Taft-Hartley, workers can only pressure their own employer. Unions can face a federal court injunction if one group of workers strikes to support another. Truckers can’t refuse shipping to struck locations. Workers can’t refuse to handle goods produced by strikebreakers.
  • Outlaw jurisdictional and wildcat strikes: Unions risk fines if members go on strike to get an employer to assign work to one union instead of another, or if they strike without union authorization or in violation of a contract. 
  • Segregate professional employees  Under Taft-Hartley, professional employees can’t be in same bargaining unit as nonprofessional employees, unless the professional employees vote separately to be in it.
  • Exclude supervisors: Before Taft-Hartley, frontline managers were often part of the union too.
  • Weaken industry-wide bargaining  The law bars unions from pressuring employers to bargain as part of an employer group.
  • Outlaw the closed shop: Before Taft-Hartley, a key union goal was the closed shop, in which employers agreed to hire only union members. 
  • Enable “right-to-work” laws: Taft-Hartley let states pass laws barring union contracts that require workers to pay union dues; 28 states have done so, weakening unions in much of the country.
  • Allow captive audience meetings: Before Taft-Hartley, employers had no legal voice when it came to workers’ decision about unionizing. Thanks to Taft-Hartley, they can require workers to listen to anti-union harangues on paid time. Almost nothing is more demoralizing to a union campaign.
  • incite purges and raids: Taft-Hartley required union leaders to sign affidavits that they weren’t members of the Communist Party. That led to the expulsion of many of the most dedicated union organizers, and of whole unions. The CIO labor federation ejected 11 communist-led unions, totalling over 1 million workers, and then “raided” those unions seeking to get members to leave.
  • Rob unions of financial power: Taft-Hartley barred employer contributions to health, welfare or benefit funds if those funds were controlled by the union. That’s why all such union benefits funds today are overseen by equal numbers of employer and union trustees.
  • Set time limits on justice: When employers break the law, workers get no remedy if they don’t file unfair labor charges within 6 months.
  • Give the president power to halt strikes: It’s rarely been used, but when an industry-wide strike threatens to “imperil national health and safety,” the president can order strikers back to work.

    Striking miners at Richeville, Penn. protest the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act June 25, 1947.


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