What is the Taft Hartley Act?

The Taft-Hartley Act is a US Federal labor law enacted by Congress in 1947. The Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 29 U.S.C. § 401-531 better known as the Taft–Hartley Act, (80 H.R. 3020, Pub.L. 80–101, 61 Stat. 136, enacted June 23, 1947) is a United States federal law that restricts the activities and power of labor unions. The act, still effective, was sponsored by Senator Robert A. Taft and Representative Fred A. Hartley, Jr., and became law by overcoming U.S. President Harry S. Truman’s veto on June 23, 1947; labor leaders called it the “slave-labor bill”[1] while President Truman argued that it was a “dangerous intrusion on free speech”,[2] and that it would “conflict with important principles of our democratic society”.[3] Nevertheless, Truman would subsequently use it twelve times during his presidency.[4] The Taft–Hartley Act amended the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA; informally the Wagner Act), which Congress passed in 1935. The principal author of the Taft–Hartley Act was J. Mack Swigert[5] of the Cincinnati law firm Taft, Stettinius & Hollister. s stated in Section 1 (29 U.S.C. § 141), the purpose of the NLRA is:
[T]o promote the full flow of commerce, to prescribe the legitimate rights of both employees and employers in their relations affecting commerce, to provide orderly and peaceful procedures for preventing the interference by either with the legitimate rights of the other, to protect the rights of individual employees in their relations with labor organizations whose activities affect commerce, to define and proscribe practices on the part of labor and management which affect commerce and are inimical to the general welfare, and to protect the rights of the public in connection with labor disputes affecting commerce.

Although most people have probably never heard of the Taft Hartley Act, chances are this law has had some impact on their life. Widely hailed as the “slave-labor bill,” Taft Hartley effectively crippled unions and set labor relations back many years.

Passed in the late 40s, June of 1947 to be exact, this labor law made many common practices of unions illegal. It severely limited the ability of unions to strike, as well as enacted various unfair labor practices. Today, over sixty-five years later, the act is still going strong.

The many ramifications of the Taft Hartley Act are explored below. For now, though, let’s examine some of the fierce opposition Taft Hartley experienced before it was passed into law.

Opposition to the Taft Hartley Act

Before passing the Taft Hartley Act, the major employment law governing unions was the National Labor Relations Act. Commonly referred to as the Wagner Act, this labor law effectively established unions as a legal and vital part of United State’s commerce.

Passed in 1935, the Wagner Act was a landmark moment for workers in America. It allowed unions to organize, engage in collective bargaining and labor strikes, dispute unfair labor practices, and many other activities that have since been imprinted into our collective memory.

So, it’s understandable that Taft Hartley was met with widespread opposition when it began making the congressional rounds in 1947.

The National Labor Relations Board (also known as the NLRB), the governing board of unions, wasn’t the most popular organization to begin with. After Taft Hartley, they lost much of their power and were crippled.

Harry S. Truman, the President at the time, even vetoed the Taft Hartley Act. He renounced Taft Hartley as dangerous and wanted nothing to do with it. Congress overturned his veto and that, as they say, was that.

The bill took its name from its two sponsoring Congressmen – Representative Fred A. Hartley and Senator Robert A. Taft.

So, what exactly makes Taft Hartley so bad? Why was it almost universally criticized, yet still made into law? More importantly, what’s been the lasting impact of it on employment law, labor strikes, and labor relations as a whole?

Find out below!

Labor Strikes

The largest and most sweeping change brought about by Taft Hartley was its impact on labor strikes. Long considered one of the most powerful weapons in any union’s arsenal, strikes were viewed by those not involved in labor law as dangerous and un-American.

The Taft Hartley Act removed the ability of unions to strike in a number of ways. It categorized the following as unfair labor practices: jurisdictional labor strikes, wildcat labor strikes, solidarity/political strikes, and secondary boycotts.

  • A jurisdictional labor strike is when a union refuses to work because an employer has given jobs to workers outside of the union.
  • A wildcat labor strike is when the workers of a union refuse to work without first getting approval from union leadership.
  • Solidarity or political labor strikes are when a union refuses to work based on either political belief or support for another union and other workers.
  • A secondary boycott is similar to a solidarity/political strike, but extends a bit further. For example, workers could engage in a secondary boycott if they disagree with the politics of an employer’s parent company or business partners.

All of these labor strikes were outlawed or seriously crippled under Taft Hartley. Those that were left, like jurisdictional strikes, fell under the control of the National Labor Relations Board, which, in turn, could veto the entire strike.

Outlawing Union Security Clauses

After its crippling impact on labor strikes, Taft Hartley most famously removed the ability of unions to engage in labor bargaining. What this means is that things like union security clauses and closed shops were outlawed and deemed unfair labor practices.

Closed union shops and security clauses were contractual agreements for employers to hire only unions workers. Non-closed union shops, typically referred to simply as shops, are still allowed.

This part of the Taft Hartley Act also gave individual states the right to implement right-to-work laws. These are laws that make it illegal for unions to demand a certain business fire an employee for not joining a union.

Further, right-to-work laws allow states to fire an employee at any time and for any reason. In passing these laws, the government had effectively cut unions off at the knees.

Although initially this was touted as a major win for employment laws nationwide, it soon became clear this section of Taft Hartley was nothing but a classic example of an unfair labor practice.

Since the initial passing, the National Labor Relations Board has added further regulations and restrictions on union shops and what little sway unions have left.

National Labor Relations Board

While the Taft Hartley Act didn’t found the National Labor Relations Board, it did give them a decent amount of new power. For example, it made the General Counsel of the NLRB accountable to no one.

Another large change Taft Hartley brought to the National Labor Relations Board was the ability for it to file an injunction against both unions and employers.

Taft Hartley also gave power to the NLRB’s General Counsel to stop employers from suing unions for damages as a result of unfair labor practices, notably from secondary boycotts.

Communism & Anti-Union Messages

A byproduct of the Taft Hartley Act was the overwhelming anti-Communist bent it ushered in. After being passed in 1947, union officials were required to sign and file legal affidavits stating they weren’t Communists and had no affiliations with any known Communists.

Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled this to be illegal and overturned the measure in 1965. Still, for almost twenty years, unions had to undergo this strange ritual of nationalism.

Another byproduct of Taft Hartley was the power given to employers to deliver anti-union messages to workers. It’s important to note that employers weren’t allowed to use these messages to threaten or scare workers in any way.

It also gave employers the right to petition the National Labor Relations Board to see if a union was engaging in unfair labor practices, specifically if they represented the majority of its employees.

Labor Laws & Political Impact

Finally, the Taft Hartley Act changed how unions interacted with political figures. First, it severely limited the ability of unions to contribute to candidates running for federal office. In fact, it outright denied them the right at all.

It’s worth noting that Taft Hartley also denied corporations the right to contribute to federal candidates. The ban on both corporations and unions donating to candidates was loosened somewhat in early 2014 when the Supreme Court came to the decision that both can contribute to political campaigns.

Finally, the Taft Hartley Act had one more major political implication. It gave the President power to obtain injunctions against a current or potential strike if it threatened “national health or safety.”

Taft Hartley act 12
labor law/employment law 7
labor strike 11
unfair labor practices 6
NLRB/national labor relations board 9
Wagner act/national labor relations act 3
labor relations 10

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