Decades after its passage, the Taft-Hartley Act still casts a shadow on labor. Unions have a future—but only if they accept some difficult realities.
On the night of June 20, 1947, President Harry Truman gave a nationwide radio address about the most pressing domestic issue facing the country: the deepening conflict between management and organized labor. Truman’s address publicly explained his veto earlier that day of the Taft-Hartley Act. Taft-Hartley (known formally as the Labor-Management Relations Act) was named after its two Republican co-sponsors: Congressman Fred Hartley of New Jersey, and Robert Taft, the powerful senator from Ohio and possible 1948 presidential candidate. The law was the consummation of a decade-long effort by Republican politicians, aided by Southern Democrats, business executives, and conservative writers to limit the power of the increasingly aggressive labor movement. The bill easily passed both houses of Congress, as an almost unanimous phalanx of Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats crushed the opposition of liberal Northern Democrats and a couple of maverick Republicans. Truman had made little effort to impede it.
Truman generally supported unions. But he also hated the idea that strong unions could disrupt the American economy and defy his wishes. An enraged Truman had recently threatened striking railway workers with conscription. He despised John L. Lewis, the bellicose, eloquent, and supremely powerful leader of the United Mine Workers of America. As the President wrote in a 1949 letter, he “wouldn’t appoint John L. Lewis dogcatcher.”
Yet Truman and his key advisers like Clark Clifford realized that they would need labor to win what was expected to be a tough election campaign the next year. Thus, the President gave a powerful speech defending unions and attacking the bill. Truman told the nation that Taft-Hartley was “a shocking piece of legislation” that “is unfair to the working people of this country. It clearly abuses the right, which millions of our citizens now enjoy, to join together and bargain with their employers for fair wages and fair working conditions. Under no circumstances could I have signed this bill.”
Senator Robert Wagner, the chief sponsor of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), was ill at the time, but he vowed that he would risk his life to cast a vote to sustain the veto if needed. It was not. The Senate easily overrode Truman’s veto, by a vote of 68-25. The next day, The New York Times front page featured a banner headline of the law’s passage, a large picture of Taft and Hartley, and no less than six articles about labor issues and strikes. Five days later, Lloyd Taft, one of Robert Taft’s four sons, got married in Cincinnati. Union pickets surrounded the church. One of the placards held aloft, addressing the groom, read: “CONGRATULATIONS TO YOU. _________________ TO YOUR OLD MAN”—the blank line conveying labor’s graphic wishes for the elder Taft.
That the Taft-Hartley Act generated such anger was not at all surprising. Unions and their allies called the act a “slave labor bill” or, in Lewis’s view, even a symptom of incipient fascism. Battles between labor and management roiled the country from coast to coast. The “labor question” generated perhaps more controversy than the debate over Obamacare has today. Republicans will have to seek to overturn Obamacare for another 20 years or so before they match labor’s determination to undo key portions of Taft-Hartley; and yet, even with its deep penetration in the workforce at the time, even at the apex of LBJ’s enormous Democratic congressional majority, labor could not repeal a comma of it.
With the long decline of the labor movement has come a parallel decline in our historical memory of its once-extraordinary influence, and of the effort to curtail that influence. Books about Truman give only passing mention to the most contentious law passed during his presidency. Taft, the son of a President and a man who might have become President himself, is barely remembered. And it is unimaginable today that a President would give a national address vociferously defending labor unions.
Ancient history? Maybe—but it’s also crucial history whose direct consequences labor and the country live with today. Taft-Hartley didn’t destroy labor. But it stopped labor dead in its tracks at a point when unions were large, growing, and confident of their economic and political power; when unions really were what The Wall Street Journal still laughably calls “big labor.” The law codified a series of legal land mines—some of which didn’t detonate for decades—that forced unions to weigh the political and economic costs of doing anything too aggressive in their efforts to grow, and, indeed, to begin fighting many rearguard actions to protect the gains they had already made. Without Taft-Hartley, it’s easy to imagine a continued increase in union density rather than a flattening followed by a gradual and then dramatic decline. Today, only 11.3 percent of American workers are unionized—and just 6.6 percent of the private sector, a level not seen since the early twentieth century.
What is the relevance of all this to today? Well, Taft-Hartley isn’t going anywhere. Its land mines still detonate. And it still defines the legal and political context in which labor must operate as it tries to map out a strategy for the future. An aggressive organizing strategy, of the sort labor attempted when John Sweeney took the helm of the AFL-CIO, just doesn’t work because the smart union strategists can’t compensate for a mostly (though not entirely) uninterested working class. But labor can, without undertaking lengthy and expensive campaigns to organize new sectors, work to buttress the areas in which it is already strong, extend its alliances with other progressive groups, and even train the worker leaders of tomorrow. I call this “Fortress Unionism,” and I believe it’s labor’s best play until the day arrives, if it ever does, when the workers themselves militantly signal that they want unions.
The Power of Postwar Unions
It is difficult for a reader today to grasp how big a deal the labor movement was in postwar America—how much people, in support or opposition to unions, deeply cared about them. To understand this passion, we need to recall how rapidly unions had grown, and how often they undertook strikes. Contrasting the diminished strength of today’s labor movement against the stunning power of its postwar antecedent is thus necessary (and fascinating) so that we can also understand why, and in what precise ways, the most powerful sectors of the American polity sought to cut unions down to size.
In just the decade after the NLRA passed in 1935, union membership quadrupled from almost 3.6 million to more than 14.3 million workers. During this period, American labor dominated the daily life of much of the nation and drew the obsessive concern of politicians and the press. Even some Southern states had union membership percentages in the high teens—statewide numbers that would be among the highest in the nation today but were among the smallest then. In a six-month period in 1937 alone—the year of the great sit-down strike at General Motors (GM) in Flint, Michigan—the CIO signed up two million workers in a nation with a population of about 130 million.
After a brief lull at the start of the 1940s, union membership rose meteorically during World War II. A month after Pearl Harbor, union leaders met with President Roosevelt and agreed to a no-strike pledge; in return, the unions received compulsory government arbitration of disputes. As the war dragged on, workers (if not always with their union’s consent) violated the no-strike pledge, but the government’s all-powerful War Labor Board squeezed employers to quickly approve union organizing and contract demands. Thus union membership grew even larger.
At war’s end, nonunion and union workers feared that the end of war-driven production that had halted the Depression would result in a return to high unemployment. Workers also worried about increased inflation as Truman considered ending wartime wage and price controls. With the loss of constant overtime, take-home pay in several sectors declined by 30 percent. Economic observers—and, according to polls, the American people—believed that a postwar America might return to Depression conditions.
The American labor movement responded to these uncertainties with the greatest strike wave in the history of the United States. It started almost immediately after the war and continued right through 1946. Clerical workers walked out at the citadel of capitalism, the New York Stock Exchange. About 68,000 textile workers struck in the East, while 35,000 oil-refinery workers struck across seven states. In the Northwest, 40,000 lumber workers struck. In the Midwest, it was 70,000 Teamsters. In Oakland, a strike that started at the loading docks of two downtown department stores spread quickly to include 100,000 workers who effectively halted the city’s commerce and services for two days—the most dramatic general strike of several during the period.
At the end of 1945 and into 1946, 225,000 autoworkers struck GM—this was the great 113-day strike the brilliant leader of the United Auto Workers (UAW), Walter Reuther, used as an effort to bring European style co-determination to American labor-management relations. In spring 1946, 350,000 of Lewis’s mineworkers struck. Some 750,000 steelworkers struck for 25 days, the most workers ever engaged in a single work action. At one point, 1.6 to 1.8 million workers were on strike simultaneously.
All in all, about 10 percent of the entire American workforce withheld their labor in 1946. There were about 5,000 separate work stoppages involving about 4.6 million workers. This is over six times the number of workers involved in work stoppages over the entire eight-year period from 2005 to 2012, according to figures from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, this at a time when the country had about one-third of the current nonagricultural workforce. To imagine this kind of union militancy today is to imagine 14 million workers striking in a single year.
Republicans ran hard against the strike wave during the 1946 midterm elections under the slogan “Had enough?” The GOP won substantial majorities in both houses and, with the support of Democratic conservatives in the South, moved to pass a new labor restriction bill. While Truman suggested mild changes in labor law, and proposed a labor-management commission, the leaders of America’s unions unconditionally opposed any and all limitations. This proved to be a strategic mistake, as the midterm election demonstrated that, even as the strike wave proved labor’s power (or perhaps because the strike wave proved labor’s power), it did not command sufficient support for maintaining the status quo. Leaders in the news media (including the publishers of almost every major newspaper), the business community, the Federal Reserve Board, the Republican Party, small businesses, and large corporations alike shared a determination to roll back union advances.
Thus the paradox that at the high-water mark of its power and size, the labor movement generated an even more powerful backlash from the nation’s power elite, which was augmented by an obsessive determination from the white South to make its region as union-free as possible. Southern elites, led by their nearly unified bloc in both houses of Congress, feared an ongoing alliance between labor and the first signs of a sustained African-American civil-rights movement, fueled by the return from the war of African-American soldiers newly emboldened to seek justice. The CIO, observing the same phenomenon, hopefully launched “Operation Dixie” in 1946, a well-funded effort to organize throughout 12 Southern states. Southern elites ruthlessly race-baited, red-baited, and intimidated poor black and white workers. Operation Dixie failed dismally, only making the Southern bloc more determined to stop unions in the region. Ira Katznelson, the great historian and political scientist, has called this implacable opposition of the South to African-American rights and the labor movement “the Southern cage.”
The Effects of Taft-Hartley
Congress held several months of hearings on the Taft-Hartley bill that were dominated by a cast of business leaders. Though the reputation of America’s executives had been battered by the Depression, they regained much of their standing by contributing to the war effort, and pleaded effectively for an end to constant commercial disruptions. Taft shrewdly played good cop to Hartley’s bad cop. The Hartley bill that came out of the House was more onerous than Taft’s Senate version. Hartley’s bill would have banned industry-wide bargaining. That would have immediately affected the national contracts that large unions like the Auto Workers and Steelworkers sought from the biggest companies in their sectors. Hartley’s bill would also have banned the union shop nationally (rather than leave it to the states, as the enacted legislation ultimately did). By modifying the bill somewhat, Taft protected it from a coalition of a small number of Republican iconoclasts joining with Democratic liberals who tried but failed to sustain Truman’s veto.
Many scholars have noted that, for the most part, Taft-Hartley did not do the frightening things that unions feared, thus disappointing its business supporters. The law merely codified case and administrative law precedents rather than introduce dramatic new transformations. Union membership dipped a tiny bit, but stayed close to its postwar high for another 20 years or so. These analyses capture part of the truth, but miss the larger point about the bill’s significance. The NLRA had been passed with the explicit goal of increasing unionization and with the understanding that unions were the democratic institutions of working-class self-organization. Taft-Hartley conceived of unions much differently, as merely a large special interest, dangerous to prosperity and stability if left unchecked. Taft-Hartley thus stands as a benchmark for labor’s inability to gain the respectful acceptance of the nation’s cultural, economic, and political elite. The bill cordoned off an aggressive, confident labor movement and enabled its subsequent decimation. To paraphrase the British historian Eric Hobsbawm’s famous 1978 line about the British labor movement, Taft-Hartley (and the almost simultaneous failure of Operation Dixie) halted the forward march of labor in America.
There are many provisions of Taft-Hartley, and the law’s scholars have argued about what the most significant ones are. I list below those that, in my view, had the most far-reaching impact:
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