Taft-Hartley Act

The Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, which is better known as the “Taft-Hartley Act,” is a federal law that governs the activities and authority of labor unions. The Act was sponsored by Senator Robert A. Taft and Representative Fred. A. Hartley, hence its name. Despite the fact that President Truman called the Act a “dangerous intrusion on free speech” that would “conflict with important principles of our democratic society,” he relied on the Act twelve times during his presidency. To explore this concept, consider the following Taft Hartley Act definition.

Definition of Taft-Hartley Act

Noun

  1. A federal law that governs the activities and power of labor unions.

Origin

1947                Congressional legislation

What is the Taft-Hartley Act

The Taft-Hartley Act is a federal law that governs the power and relations of labor unions. Labor leaders referred to the Act as the “slave-labor bill,” and President Truman openly opposed it, yet used it twelve times over the course of his presidency.

The Taft-Hartley Act amended the Wagner Act, which was an Act that prevented employers from interfering with labor unions and related protests. Historian James T. Patterson believed that those who opposed the Taft-Hartley Act were blowing the Act out of proportion. Said Patterson:

“By the 1950s most observers agreed that Taft-Hartley was no more disastrous for workers than the Wagner Act had been for employers. What ordinarily mattered most in labor relations was not government laws such as Taft-Hartley, but the relative power of unions and management in the economic marketplace. Where unions were strong they usually managed all right; when they were weak, new laws did them little additional harm.”

                             [Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1794, by James T. Patterson / © Oxford University Press, 1996]

History of the Taft-Hartley Act

In order to understand the history of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, it is important to also understand the history of the Wagner Act of 1935. The Wagner Act was, at its time, the most important labor law to ever be introduced. It gave employees the right to organize and join labor unions. It also allowed them to bargain, as a collective, with representatives, and to strike if they felt their work conditions were unfair.

The Wagner Act also established and empowered the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a federal agency that is headed up by three members who are appointed by the president. The Board’s function is to verify that certain unions represent certain employees. There were also particular labor practices that the Wagner Act forbade, which included:

  • Interference – Interfering with, or restraining employees from, exercising their right to organize as a union, and bargain as a collective, was forbidden under the Wagner Act.
  • Control – The Wagner Act prohibited attempts to either control or sway labor unions.
  • Bargaining – The Wagner Act prohibited the refusal of collective bargaining, as well as the refusal to bargain in good faith with unions.
  • Special Conditions – The encouraging or discouraging of a union membership through special conditions or employment, or via discrimination in hiring, were practices that were also prohibited under the Wagner Act.

Those who opposed the Wagner Act noted that the Act did not account for the prohibition of union practices that would be considered unfair by Congress. Similarly, there was no provision within the Act that would allow the government to either delay or stop a strike from happening when that strike could threaten national interests. This means that there was nothing in place to stop government employees from going on strike, and their refusal to work could potentially impact relations between the U.S. and other countries.

On June 23, 1947, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, a revised version of the Wagner Act, despite President Truman’s veto. It contained all of the important features of the Wagner Act, but added provisions that many considered to be “anti-labor.” Democrats referred to it as a “new guarantee of industrial slavery.”

For example, the Taft-Hartley Act allowed the President to appoint a board to investigate any disputes that could lead to a strike that would endanger the country’s health or safety. After receiving the investigators’ report, the president was then permitted to ask the Attorney General to seek an injunction to stop the strike from happening, or to prevent it from continuing. Another provision allowed for the negotiation period before a strike to be extended by 20 days as a “cooling off” period, during which there would be enough time to prevent a “national emergency strike.”

Prohibited Labor Union Practices

In addition to granting new permissions, the Taft-Hartley Act also prohibited certain labor union practices. For example, the Taft-Hartley Act prohibited:

  • Secondary Boycotts – Secondary boycotts are used to encourage employees of a secondary employer to strike against their employer, in order to get that employer to stop doing business with the employer at the center of the dispute.
  • Sympathy Strikes/Boycotts – These strikes/boycotts are attempts to influence another employer (not the union’s employer) to bargain with an unrecognized union. This practice is also referred to as “blackmail picketing.”
  • Jurisdictional Strikes/Boycotts – These strikes/boycotts are attempts to force an employer to give work to one union over another.

These amendments made throughout the history of the Taft-Hartley Act led, in several states, to the passage of what are known as “right-to-work” laws.

Effects of the Taft-Hartley Act

The effects of the Taft-Hartley Act were considered to be both negative and immediate. This was especially true for unions who were struggling to organize in the South. Two of the main unions who were struggling to organize in the South, and who felt the effects of the Taft-Hartley Act, were the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA), and the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA).

A year before the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) was working on Operation Dixie. Operation Dixie was an ambitious effort to unionize Southern workers that cost the CIO over $2 million. The leaders of the CIO believed that if they could unionize the largest industrial sector in the South – the cotton textile workers – then they could effectively organize the entire region.

Both the ACWA and TWUA participated in the effort, contributing funds and over 200 organizers. However, failure of Operation Dixie was one of the major effects of the Taft-Hartley Act. When the campaign finally ended in 1953, only 15% of Southern textile workers had been effectively unionized.

Taft-Hartley Act Example Involving the Steel Industry

In 1950, North Korean troops invaded the Republic of Korea during the Korean War, in which the United States was involved. President Truman reacted by sending troops to South Korea without first asking Congress to declare war on North Korea. Needless to say, this was not the best time for something to happen that could potentially jeopardize the nation’s defenses. Unfortunately, this situation became a bad example of the Taft-Hartley Act being ignored, when it could have served as a far less severe remedy than the one that was chosen.

During World War II, the government implemented price controls in an effort to prevent shortages and inflation during wartime. Truman did not implement price controls during the Korean War, instead creating the Wage Stabilization Board. The function of the Wage Stabilization Board was to make recommendations on the controlling of wages, and then to implement those changes while avoiding labor disputes. The United Steel Workers of America (USWA) – representing the nation’s major steel producers – responded by threatening to strike.

The steel industry rejected the wage increases that were proposed by the Board unless the Board permitted greater price increases than the government was ready to grant. Truman and his administration believed that a strike of any length of time could potentially have severe results, both for defense contractors, and for the country’s economy as a whole.

Unable to find a happy medium between the industry and the union, Truman decided to issue an Executive Order seizing most of the steel mills. The order directed that the Secretary of Commerce would then manage the plants so that they would still continue to run, but at the government’s direction.

The Order was not based on law, but was instead invoked solely upon the powers granted to the President by the U.S. Constitution. The Secretary of Commerce issued the order to seize the steel mills and directed the presidents of the mills to operate them as operating managers for the government. Truman reported the situation back to Congress, but Congress did not take action, as it had provided measures for dealing with similar situations and, would not authorize the governmental seizure of property to settle a labor dispute.

The steel companies then sued the Secretary of Commerce, asking for a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief. The Court granted a preliminary injunction, and the Court of Appeals stayed the lower court’s decision.

Instead of seizing the plants, Truman could have invoked the emergency provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act, which would have worked to prevent the union from striking in the first place. The administration rejected that option, however, due to the fact that the administration openly despised the Act, which had passed despite Truman’s veto five years prior. Further, the administration saw the industry as a whole as being the cause of the problem, not the union.

The steelworkers preferred that the government seize the plants, rather than facing an injunction against them per the Taft-Hartley Act. This did not result in them being any less surprised, however, that Truman did not in fact use the remedies available to him via the Taft-Hartley Act in seeking a national emergency injunction against them.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Declaratory Judgment – A judgement made by a court determining certain rights of a party without ordering any action to be taken, or ordering any damages.
  • Injunction – A court order preventing an individual or entity from beginning or continuing an action.
  • Labor Strike – A collective, organized cessation of work by employees seeking better working conditions, or higher wages.
  • Labor Union – An organized association of workers formed to protect and further the rights and interests of its members.

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