From the Wagner Act to the Taft-Hartley Act: Some lessons
Every seat in the galleries of the U.S. Senate chamber was filled that afternoon, with hundreds of other people standing. Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan, president pro tempore of the Senate, warned the spectators that no demonstration would be tolerated. In the back of the Senate chamber, dozens of members of the House of Representatives stood watching. Everyone sensed that history was about to be made.
Moments earlier, a written appeal from the president of the United States had been read; most senators would end up rejecting it. The majority of senators would also spurn a desperate plea from one of their own colleagues who was too ill to be present. Senator Robert Wagner had made every effort to attend the session, but had finally been forbidden to travel from New York by his two doctors and the Commissioner of Hospitals of New York. A statement issued through his office urged the Senate not to take the action it was contemplating. The statement warned that the step would destroy what Senator Wagner had “so long labored to develop – industrial peace through democracy.”
Then it was time to vote. When the balloting was done, a majority of the Senate – including Senator Joe McCarthy -- had agreed to override President Harry Truman’s veto of the bill. Because members of the U.S. House of Representatives – including Congressman Richard Nixon -- had already voted to override the veto, the bill automatically became a law at 3:17 p.m. on June 23, 1947, when the presiding officer of the Senate announced the result of the Senate vote.
June 2007 marks the 60th anniversary of the passage of the worst labor law since before the Civil War -- the “Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947.” The bill was sponsored by Senator Robert A. Taft, a Republican from Ohio, the chair of the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee and Representative Fred A. Hartley, Jr., a Republican from New Jersey, the chair of the House Education and Labor Committee.
The Taft-Hartley Act has done terrible damage to workers in this country. The 60th anniversary of its passage demands that we step back and look at how this law came into being, what effect it has had, and what we can do now about the difficult situation it helped create.
Gutting the Wagner Act
There is a special irony in the fact that Senator Robert Wagner of New York was too ill to be on the Senate floor when the final vote was taken on the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. The Taft-Hartley Act represented a frontal assault on the law which Wagner guided to passage in 1935 – the National Labor Relations Act (often referred to simply as the Wagner Act.)
Before the Wagner Act was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt on July 5, 1935, a right to join a union in the workplace without reprisal did not clearly exist in the United States. The Wagner Act changed that situation.
The Wagner Act was the result of a political compromise between different forces among the wealthy which initially had diametrically opposed approaches to labor. After the Civil War, one wing of the capitalist class had been absolutely, vehemently opposed to unions. This section had vowed never to permit the unionizing of its workers and to crush the union movement by any means necessary, including violence. Another wing of the capitalists had been willing to allow unionization. This section saw legalizing unions as a step toward bringing workers into the middle class and as a way to isolate “extremists” within labor.
By the middle of the 1930s, most of the industrialists had given up their longstanding, fervent opposition to all unionization. This section of the capitalists decided to tolerate some unionization, unionization in the largest and most strategic industries in the United States. This stand was not taken out of kindness. These capitalists made a very calculated decision. Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany in 1933, and this wing of U.S. business could see the war clouds that were already darkening the skies of Europe. In 1934, a huge wave of strikes had swept the United States. By the mid-1930s, the most farsighted industrialists understood that they would never be able to produce the steel and rubber and tanks that would be needed in a world war (and that would make them huge sums of money) if the factory floors of the United States continued to be battle zones. So, these employers shrewdly moved to bring about labor peace. That’s why they allowed the Wagner Act to become law.
The Wagner Act was designed not just to tolerate unions, but to actually encourage them. It promoted the idea of industrial democracy. When he introduced the bill into the Senate, Wagner declared: “Democracy cannot work unless it is honored in the factory as well as the polling booth; [workers] cannot be truly free in body and spirit unless their freedom extends into the places where they earn their daily bread.”
The Wagner Act protected workers’ rights to bargain collectively. It established a three-member National Labor Relations Board and prohibited employers from engaging in unfair labor practices such as setting up a company union or firing or otherwise discriminating against workers who organized or joined unions.
The passage of the Wagner Act marked a temporary, limited ceasefire in a very long and bitter war between the laboring class and the capitalist class of the United States – but only a ceasefire, not a permanent peace treaty. The implementing of the Wagner Act did not mean that the class war was over in the United States. Tragically, some forces in the labor movement jumped to the conclusion that the old days of unrelenting hostility from especially the large industrialists were gone forever. These forces assumed that a new era of good will had begun. The representatives of the big industrialists had other plans.
The relative labor peace brought about by the legalizing of unions in basic industry helped to unite the country for the fight against Hitler. The Wagner Act was legislation that different wings of the capitalists were willing to support at a specific moment in history – each wing for its own opportunistic reasons. However, by the time World War II ended in 1945, the National Labor Relations Act had fulfilled its purpose (at least as far as a significant part of the industrial manufacturers was concerned.). When the auto workers, packing-house workers, steel workers, and workers in many other industries went on strike shortly after the war, some of the same capitalists who had been willing to tolerate unions during the late 1930s moved to clamp down. These forces began supporting candidates committed to restricting and even undoing the provisions of the New Deal.
In the 1946 mid-term election, the Republican Party won control of both houses of Congress. Many of the new Republican members of Congress were arch-conservatives. Their first target was the Wagner Act. In this effort, they had the support of a big section of the Democratic caucus in Congress – particularly the Southern Democrats (or “Dixiecrats.”)
The bill which Taft and Hartley pushed through Congress gutted the National Labor Relations Act. Their proposal was so outrageous that even President Harry Truman – a conservative Democrat – described it as a “slave labor bill.”
Provisions of Taft-Hartley
The Taft-Hartley Act bans the closed shop, the situation in which an employer agrees to hire only union members. It permits states to outlaw the union shop. This led directly to numerous states – especially in the South – becoming “right to work” states. The sharp decline in union membership around the country over the last 60 years can be traced back directly to the passage of Taft-Hartley.
The Taft-Hartley Act also allows the president of the United States to intervene to stop any strike which might lead to a “national emergency.” The law allows the president to impose an 80-day “cooling-off” period on both sides in such a dispute. The Taft-Hartley Act also prohibits secondary boycotts, sympathy strikes or boycotts, and jurisdictional strikes and boycotts.
The Taft-Hartley law required all union officers to file a non-communist affidavit and take an oath pledging that they were not communists. (The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1965 that these provisions were unconstitutional.)
The Taft-Hartley Act also imposes all sorts of onerous requirements on unions to report their expenses and activities to the government. It contains provisions making it much easier for anti-union elements within a bargaining unit to decertify their union as the workers’ representative.
What grim lessons should we learn on this 60th anniversary of Taft-Hartley?
First, the passage of Taft-Hartley shows that what is given to labor by others can also be taken away. The same institution which granted labor certain limited rights in 1935 took those rights away in 1947. Unlike other countries where the legalization of unions was won as a result of massive struggle from below – even revolution -- and then enshrined permanently in the country’s constitution, labor rights in the United States were handed down from above. (This handing-down from above was in response to actions from below, to be sure, but the rights were still handed down from above.) This made the granting of labor rights in the United States very different from the way those rights were secured in other countries – such as in Mexico, where labor rights were included in the Mexican constitution which emerged out of the Revolution of 1910.
Second, the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act shows that labor must always preserve its political independence. After a Democratic president vetoed the Taft-Hartley bill, only 71 Democrats in the House of Representatives voted to sustain his veto, while 106 Democrats in the House voted to override it. In the Senate, 22 Democrats voted to sustain Truman’s veto and 20 Democrats voted to override it. The Democrats bear as much responsibility for Taft-Hartley as they do for NAFTA.
Third, labor has to face the question of the South’s role in American life. Almost the entire Southern delegation in the U.S. Senate voted for the Taft-Hartley Act. Without their support, the measure would never have become law. (This delegation included some of the worst figures ever to inhabit Congress, such as Senator James Eastland of Mississippi.)
In a sense, Taft-Hartley was the Confederacy’s revenge. Taft-Hartley passed because in 1947 African-Americans in the South were still denied the right to vote. Almost all of the members of Congress from the “Solid South” were staunchly anti-union. Some of them stated explicitly that they wanted to restrict union organizing drives in the South because those drives would inevitably set the stage for integration.
Today, the South remains the least unionized part of the United States. Just as the “Dixiecrats” were able to hold this country hostage in 1947, so today, the extreme conservatism of many Southern politicians forms the foundation for the worst anti-working class actions of the U.S. government.
Fourth, labor has to stand up to witch-hunts and fear-mongering. Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon were both first elected to Congress in 1946, and their brand of fear-mongering was already underway by 1947. The supporters of the Taft-Hartley Act exploited the public’s anxiety to promote fear: fear of the unions, the communists, and the Soviet Union. Much of organized labor failed to stand up to this in 1947, and the union movement paid a big price for that.
Especially since 9/11, we have seen our own examples of witch-hunts and fear-mongering. The effects of Taft-Hartley are still being felt 60 years after its passage; how long will the effects of the anti-democratic measures being pushed today be felt if labor does not do its utmost to oppose them?
Fifth, labor has to respond to a new situation with new thinking. In 1947, labor tended to play defense. It tried to simply hold on to what had been won during the Roosevelt years. This did not work in 1947 when the entire world was changing. It will not work now at a time when the world is going through even more profound changes.
Several of the key parts of the Taft-Hartley Act – the “right to work” provision, the anti-communist affidavit, the cooling-off period, the decertification provision – are cleverly designed to put labor on the moral defensive.
Labor’s message ought to echo that of Eleanor Roosevelt. Commenting on the Taft-Hartley Act, she wrote: “[I]nstead of clamping down on the labor movement, Americans ‘should be extremely grateful to unions.’ ” We can be proud that she made that comment in the Sept. 1, 1950 edition of The Advance, the newspaper of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, one of UNITE HERE’s predecessors.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s words were true in 1950 – and they are just as true now. We have to get off the defensive, get on the offensive, and stay there.
The articles on this page are written by Chris Mahin for the Education and Mobilization Department of the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of UNITE HERE and originally appeared on the Joint Board’s website.
Special thanks to Brother Mahin for allowing the Pennsylvania Federation access to his writings.