Taft and Hartley can shove it

May 31, 2016

If most union tactics can be deemed illegal under the Taft-Hartley Act, then how can workers ever succeed in fighting back? Joe Richard provides some suggestions.

CORPORATE LAWYERS and Verizon's CEO celebrated when a federal judge delivered a temporary injunction on May 10 against any of the 39,000 striking workers participating in hotel picketing in New York City.

Fortunately, they weren't celebrating for long. Despite the judge's ruling, union members won an agreement on May 27 and ended their 45-day strike.

The Verizon bosses had good reason to ask for the injunction. The strikers' tactics were working--union members had been regularly organizing "scab wake-up calls" outside of hotels hosting out-of-town scab workers as they bumbled their way through trying to break the strike. Several hotels even ejected the scabs to save their other guests from being woken up before dawn each day.

Under the May 10 injunction, Verizon union members were ordered to cease hotel picketing. The reason? In the eyes of the judge, hotel picketing is a violation of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947.

Among labor circles, the Taft-Hartley Act is ritually denounced, with a healthy amount of name-calling and swearing involved. But what is the law actually about? Why was it passed, and how has it been used?

Members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union march against Taft-Hartley
Members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union march against Taft-Hartley (Kheel Center)

IN SHORT, the Taft-Hartley Act outlawed most effective tactic available to labor unions in the U.S.

Like, for instance, sympathy strikes--when workers at one workplace go on strike to support workers in struggle at another workplace. Before 1947, they were a fairly frequent occurrence, at least in the heavily unionized core industries of the U.S. economy. Now, they're illegal under Taft-Hartley.

Taft-Hartley also specifically outlawed wildcat strikes--that is, strikes by workers that take place against the formal procedures of their unions and over the opposition of union leaders. Wildcat strikes were likewise a frequent occurrence during the Great Depression and Second World War--and a crucial way for workers to maintain their collective power on the shop floor.

The Act also outlawed jurisdictional strikes, whereby unions could call workers out on strike to establish their representation at a workplace. It also bars what are referred to legally as secondary boycotts.

Secondary boycotts are an important means for workers to exert pressure on the operations of other companies doing business with the employer that they're striking against.

Take as an example a coffee-roasting plant, where workers run the roasting operations. If the workers went on strike, and the company ran the roasting machines with scabs, the courts would consider it a secondary boycott if strikers went to the companies that buy the coffee--supermarkets, for instance--and pressure them to stop buying.

It's perfectly legal for any individual citizen to go picket a grocery store because of the kind of coffee that they sell. But if you're a union member on strike and attempting to influence what the grocery store purchases to sell, that's a secondary boycott--and it's illegal.

Taft-Hartley also came up with a list of unfair labor practices (or ULPs) that unions were legally restricted from engaging in. Previously, only employers were barred from such practices--for example, interfering in union organizing drives or certification elections--under the terms of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.

The restrictions were meant to alter the balance of power at workplaces. But under the Act, unions could be charged with ULPs, by either employers or the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) itself.

Taft-Hartley allowed individual states to pass right-to-work laws, which give "free riders" the right to enjoy the benefits of union representation without having to pay union dues or representation fees.

The Act requires unions to give employers 80 days' notice before engaging in a strike for a new union contract, and it gives the president of the United States the power to intervene in strikes that create "national emergencies" by ordering workers to return to their jobs--or to "cool off" for a period of time before going on strike.

Perhaps most infamously, the Taft-Hartley Act specifically forbade Communists and radicals from holding union office or influence within the labor movement. All officers, from the smallest local union to the highest-ranking bureaucrat, had to sign pledges forswearing membership in the Communist Party or lose access to the NLRB's election and certification process for new unions.

This provision was brutally effective in opening up left-wing unions to raids by rivals, and it almost completely wiped out radical influence in the labor movement for decades.

TAFT-HARTLEY was drafted and passed after the post-Second World War labor upsurge, which included the largest strike wave in U.S. history.

Throughout the war, workers had been squeezed by frozen wages and grueling long hours. Their unions were led by a layer of union officials who volunteered to help the federal government squeeze every ounce of production out of industrial workers for the sake of the war effort.

When it became clear that the tide had turned in the war, and that the U.S. and its allies were on their way to victory, more and more workers began taking wildcat strike actions. Once Germany surrendered and then Japan, the rising tide of strikes became a tidal wave that crashed against corporate power all across the country.

In the year after the war, more than 4 million workers in the U.S. were on strike at one point or another throughout the year, leading to a loss of 116 million working days in 1946.

The Taft-Hartley Act was conceived in this context and literally written by the lawyers of Corporate America in order to outlaw the most effective tactics used by unions over the previous 10 years to erode management's authority and increase workers' power on the shop floor.

When it was introduced in Congress, it received strong bipartisan support with a heavy majority of Democrats in the House supporting it, along with half the Democrats in the Senate.

After President Harry Truman vetoed it in order to woo labor support for his re-election campaign against Henry Wallace of the Progressive Party, Congress voted to override Truman's veto, again with strong bipartisan support. Among the Democratic "friends of labor" in the House, 106 out of 177 voted in favor, as did 20 out of 42 Democrats in the Senate.

Despite vetoing the law, Truman would go on to invoke it on 12 separate occasions against strikes in the coming five years. And the labor movement has been stuck with Taft-Hartley ever since.

But this isn't to say that unions in the U.S. have no effective tools at their disposal. Most union tactics--even the very existence of unions in the first place--were treated as illegal by bosses, the government and the courts. While there can be very real consequences for violations of the law--and Taft-Hartley in particular--there have been plenty of instances in which unions defied the law and won.

One of the major determining factors in whether unions can succeed in this defiance is the level of working-class militancy and the balance of class forces in any particular context. The relatively recent development of public-sector unionism in the U.S. happened mostly through the use of illegal public-sector strikes. The Chicago Teachers Union went out on a legally questionable one-day political strike on April of this year.

And in the private sector, during periods of working-class upsurge and political turmoil, unions have been able to flaunt the law and build their own power over the opposition of even the president himself.

We would do well to remember the wisdom of a West Virginia coal miner during the 1977-78 United Mine Workers strike, when President Jimmy Carter got an injunction against the strike and ordered miners to return to work: "Taft can mine it, Hartley can haul it, and Carter can shove it!"

Further Reading

From the archives