Seventy-five years ago, the labor movement suffered its greatest setback of the 20th Century: the Taft-Hartley Act.
Despite a valiant effort by millions of rank-and-file workers to prevent its passage, Taft-Hartley became law on June 23, 1947 when the Senate overrode President Truman’s veto. Taft-Hartley halted what had been a remarkable decade of progress for working people, tamed union militancy, and set the stage for the long decline of the U.S. labor movement. We are still feeling its effects today.
Counterattack on a Growing Labor and People’s Movement
The Taft-Hartley Act was the centerpiece of big business’s counterattack against a labor and people’s movement that had, over the previous decade, won major improvements for working people on factory floors and in the halls of Congress.
From 1936 through World War II, the new industrial unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) — UE, the United Auto Workers, the United Steelworkers, and dozens of smaller unions — had successfully organized the mass-production industries that dominated U.S. economy at the time. Like Amazon today, the huge corporations that dominated these industries — General Electric and Westinghouse in electrical manufacturing, the “Big Three” auto companies, and U.S. Steel — were engines of economic inequality. They exploited massive workforces to generate massive profits for a tiny corporate elite.
During the 1930s, workers throughout the country fought to establish “industrial” unions, which would organize all workers in a given industry, “regardless of craft, age, sex, nationality, race, creed, or political beliefs,” as the preamble to the UE constitution puts it. Against the intransigence and violence of the corporations, workers employed militant and innovative forms of struggle — which were frequently declared illegal. Famously, this was the era of the “sit-down” strike in Flint, Michigan which established the UAW in the auto industry.
Gains in the workplace were complemented by advances on the political front. In 1932, reeling from the Great Depression, voters had replaced the Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover with the Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who promised the American people a “New Deal.” But the content of the New Deal was determined less by pronouncements of politicians than by popular struggle from below, as working people and their allies demanded jobs, relief, economic security, and justice in the workplace.
Strikes, popular mobilizations, and political action through “Labor’s Non Partisan League” helped realign the Democratic Party towards the interests of working people. These struggles won enduring reforms including Social Security, the minimum wage, and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which provided for the first time a legal mechanism for workers to establish unions (at least in most of the private sector).
During World War II, the mobilization of fighting-age men to serve in the military created a labor shortage at home. While most working people supported the war effort, they were not afraid to use the leverage this labor shortage created to ensure that they were being treated fairly on the shop floor. As the war effort brought women into the workforce and created shortages, working people successfully demanded that Congress provide federally-subsidized child care and control prices, to prevent corporate price-gouging.
In his 1944 State of the Union Address, President Roosevelt outlined an ambitious agenda for expanding the New Deal with an “Economic Bill of Rights.” He proposed that all people have the right to a job, an adequate income, decent housing, medical care, security in old age, and education — and that the job of the government was to help secure these rights.
“An economic confrontation between industry and the organized rank-and-file workers”
The U.S. working class emerged from World War II well-organized and confident both on the shop floor and in the political arena — and eager to claim its share of the postwar economic recovery.
UE’s first Director of Organization, James Matles, wrote in his history of UE Them and Us:
Much pressure was building up in the shops and in the homes of working class families. At war’s end, August 1945, it was inevitable that there would be an economic confrontation between industry and the organized rank-and-file workers of the United States, squeezed almost unbearably by the constantly expanded cost of living. Industry’s attitude in that confrontation was made explicit in November 1945 at the White House Labor-Management Conference ... CIO proposals for immediate wage increases to make up the 30 percent loss in real wages and a demand for firm price controls across the board, were defeated by the combined votes of corporation executives and representatives of the AFL.
Shortly after the failure of that conference, the CIO’s “Big Three” (UE, UAW, and the Steelworkers) launched national strikes that shut down the nation’s largest mass production industries. Other unions struck as well, with close to five million workers taking part in strike action in 1945 and 1946. A number of cities, from Oakland, CA to Rochester, NY, saw short general strikes. These strikes found wide support among local working-class communities, and they established the pattern of collective bargaining that would bring a decent, “middle class” standard of living to tens of millions of working-class people in the middle decades of the 20th Century.
As Matles wrote, “The solidarity of workers and their allies among the people gave industry pause, to put it mildly.” Industry was not about to let this kind of working-class power continue.
The Corporations Strike Back
Fred Wright cartoon likening Taft-Hartley to Hitler's efforts to smah unions, from the UE NEWS.
In 1946, the Republican Party retook control of Congress, amidst an unprecedented advertising blitz by the National Association of Manufacturers and other employer groups designed to convince people that “communists” lurked everywhere and that price controls (approved of by 75% of Americans earlier that year) were “un-American.” Unions were the next “un-American” institution in their sights.
GE CEO Charles E. Wilson spoke for all of corporate America when he declared in 1946 that “The problems of the United States can be ... summed up in two words: Russia abroad, labor at home.” Breaking labor’s power was central to their project of restoring corporate control of society, and legislation introduced by Congressman Fred Hartley and Senator Robert Taft was their weapon of choice.
Recognizing that the public would not accept a wholesale repeal of the NLRA, these wealthy and influential corporations instead sought to portray unions as too powerful and “communist-dominated.” They described their legislation as an even-handed effort to “correct abuses” and restore balance between workers and bosses.
The nation’s union members saw through this. They recognized that a bill which put restrictions on labor’s most effective tools, made unions financially liable for strikes initiated by the rank-and-file, allowed states to enact so-called “right to work” laws to weaken unions, and required that elected union leaders sign loyalty oaths, was not a restoration of balance, but instead was a “slave-labor bill” designed to break their unions’ power.
Millions of workers signed petitions and postcards opposing Taft-Hartley. CIO delegations — including many rank-and-file members who were Republican voters unhappy about the men they had voted for attacking their unions — visited the nation’s capital. And many in the labor movement agitated for action that would take the fight directly to corporations.
In April of 1947, CIO unions in Iowa declared a “labor holiday” on Monday, April 21, as the state legislature was considering a “right to work” bill. Tens of thousands of workers rallied at the state capitol while the packing houses and farm equipment factories stood idle. UE Director of Organization Matles recalled, “In 1947 while the Taft-Hartley bill was before Congress, the three officers ... went into the CIO Executive Board, and we had the unmitigated gall to propose, while the bill was still going through Congress, that the CIO recommend to all affiliated unions that they take the referendum to shut it down. Take a vote first. Do it in a democratic way but shut down every plant in the country.”
“A constant, day by day fight”
Despite opposition from the rank and file of the labor movement, the bill passed Congress with significant support from Democrats. Democratic President Harry Truman vetoed the bill, calling it a “dangerous intrusion on free speech,” but enough Democrats joined with Republicans to override his veto.
In an editorial following the bill’s passage called “How We Must Fight,” the UE NEWS outlined a struggle “on two broad fronts”:
- We must carry on in the shops and in the local unions a constant, day by day fight to close and unite our ranks as a union for the protection and enforcement of our collective bargaining contacts.
- We must ... [carry] forward the broadest possible battle on the political front, not only for the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, but to break the grip of reaction on the policies of government and to move forward along the path whose beginnings were outlined in the Economic Bill of Rights by President Roosevelt.
The editorial further noted that “the Democratic failure [to sustain Truman’s veto] makes the question of third party one that the labor movement will have to consider.”
While most of the labor movement mouthed agreement with these sentiments, behind the scenes too many labor leaders quietly made their peace with Taft-Hartley. As historian George Lipsitz describes in his study of labor and culture in the 1940s, Rainbow at Midnight, many CIO leaders who were more concerned with amassing union treasuries than aggressive struggle against the employer saw in Taft-Hartley’s prohibition of “wildcat” strikes an opportunity to discipline an unruly rank and file.
Even worse, some saw it as an opportunity to raid other unions. Although all of the CIO unions initially took a principled stand against signing the Taft-Hartley loyalty oath, UAW President Walter Reuther broke ranks in order to attack the smaller and more militant Farm Equipment Workers (FE). Since FE leaders had refused to sign the oath, their union was unable to appear on the NLRB ballot when the UAW raided their largest local in 1948 — and as a consequence they immediately lost a quarter of their membership. The UAW also began raiding UE, and soon other CIO unions joined in the raiding.
UE, FE, and other unions that were being subjected to raids appealed to the CIO to intervene, but to no avail, and in 1949 UE suspended dues payments to the CIO. At their 1949 convention the CIO expelled UE and FE under charges of “communist domination”; they would expel nine other unions, including the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) the following year. While UE and the other expelled unions carried out the day to day fight to enforce their contracts as best they could, this disunity in the labor movement was a death knell for the broader political fight to repeal Taft-Hartley and advance economic rights.
“Their muscles, wearied by the ever-increasing speed-up, told of the law.”
The loyalty act provisions of Taft-Hartley turned most of the U.S. labor movement into a compliant “junior partner” to corporate America, one that would fight for higher wages and benefits for its members but not question the broader direction of society. The bill’s other provisions established a restrictive legal framework that has hindered working-class advances for the past three-quarters of a century, and which too much of the labor movement has come to accept as simply the way things are.
Prior to Taft-Hartley, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) would frequently certify unions based on a procedure now widely known as “card check” — after verifying that a majority of workers have joined the union, the NLRB would require their employer to bargain with them. Taft-Hartley gave employers the option of demanding an election, leading to the long, drawn-out process workers have to go through today.
It also enshrined in law employer’s right to oppose the union — the original NLRA had required employer neutrality during a union organizing drive. Together with the provision allowing employers to request (and litigate the outcomes of) elections, this gave rise in the 1970s to the modern union-busting industry.
In addition to crippling the labor movement’s ability to organize new workers, Taft-Hartley put sharp restrictions on the ability of organized workers to engage in struggle against their employers. As Richard Boyer and Herbert Morais wrote in Labor’s Untold Story, after the passage of the law “an employer could break a strike through injunctions against picketing and other standard strike procedure. He could refuse to bargain collectively, even by shutting down his plant to prevent negotiations. He could destroy union treasuries by suit … [and] circumvent union democracy by charging any effective trade unionist with being a Communist.”
Of the effect on workers in the immediate aftermath of the bill’s passage, Boyer and Morais wrote, “As the cost of living rose to an all-time high some 16,000,000 trade unionists daily felt the law in their pockets and sometimes in their bellies. Their muscles, wearied by the ever-increasing speed-up, which always follows weakened unions, also told of the law.”
The Legacy of Taft-Hartley
As described in the UE booklet “Them and Us Unionism,” following the passage of Taft-Hartley:
The mainstream of the labor movement embraced the idea that workers and bosses share common interests, became even more tightly joined at the hip with the Democratic Party, and ceded the right to make all decisions about the economy and foreign policy to employers and the government.
When the employers ditched any pretense of a “labor-management accord” and launched all-out attacks on the labor movement in the 1970s and 80s, the mainstream of the labor movement had little idea how to respond. Without an accurate analysis of capitalism, or the ability to formulate an alternative vision, unions were unable to respond effectively or build public support for any kind of fightback. The only response many union leaders could muster was to offer deeper concessions.
The legacy of Taft-Hartley can be seen not only in the timidity of much of the U.S. labor movement, it can also be seen in the eagerness of the government to intervene in labor disputes on the side of employers, such as when President George W. Bush invoked the legislation during the 2002 lockout of ILWU members by their employers. Or the injunction issued against UE Local 506 during their 2019 strike against Wabtec — an injunction that is still in effect.
Taft-Hartley’s long shadow is also present in the unwillingness of the government to enforce labor law against employers. Before Taft-Hartley, the mission of the NLRB was unambiguously to protect workers rights, and for the most part the board acted relatively swiftly to enforce the law. Now, the board allows employers to drag out organizing campaigns into endless legal battles, even going so far as to overturn its own elections based on frivolous company charges.
In recent years a new militancy has emerged among the working class, especially among younger workers — a militancy that was on display as 4,000 trade unionists gathered at the Labor Notes conference in Chicago this past weekend. If it continues, this new militancy will almost certainly put our labor movement on a collision course with the legal framework established in large part by Taft-Hartley, and perhaps, after three-quarters of a century, labor will once again be prepared to lead a society-wide fight for economic rights for all.