This year marks the 55th anniversary of the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, one of the great blows to American democracy.
The Act, which was drafted by employers, fundamentally infringed on workers’ human rights. Legally, it impeded employees’ right to join together in labor unions, it undermined the power of unions to represent workers’ interests effectively, and it authorized an array of anti-union activities by employers.
Taft-Hartley undermined much of the gains achieved with passage of the National Labor Relations Act, which had been enacted to narrow the gap between employer and employee power and introduce a measure of democracy into the workplace, and to stimulate wages and the national economy.
Among its key provisions, Taft-Hartley:
Established the “right” of management to campaign against a union organizing drive.
Required that election hearings on matters of dispute be held before a union recognition election, thus delaying the election. Delay virtually always benefits management, giving the employer time to threaten and coerce workers into rejecting the union.
Authorized states to enact so-called right-to-work laws. These laws undermine the ability to build effective unions by restricting union security clauses and creating a free-rider problem — workers can enjoy the benefits of union membership without actually joining the union or paying union dues. Right-to-work laws increase employer leverage to resist unions and vastly decrease union membership, thus dramatically diminishing unions’ bargaining power.
Defined “employee” for purpose of the Act as excluding supervisors and independent contractors. This diminished the pool of workers eligible to be unionized. The exclusion of supervisors from union organizing activity meant they would be used as management’s “front line” in anti-organizing efforts.
Permitted employers to petition for a union certification election, thus undermining the ability of workers and unions to control the timing of an election.
Prohibited secondary boycotts — boycotts directed to encourage neutral employers to pressure the employer with which the union has a dispute. Secondary boycotts had been one of organized labor’s most potent tools, for organizing, negotiating and dispute settlement.
The political damage of Taft-Hartley was just as severe. The Act sent a message to employers: It was OK to bust unions and deny workers their rights to collectively bargain.
In short, Taft-Hartley solidified employer control in the workplace, with ramifications that are more severe today than ever. Union membership is at historic lows, employer violations of labor rights are routine, and illegal firings of union supporters in labor organizing drives are at epidemic levels. The reduction in the ranks of organized labor has both diminished living standards for the vast majority of working people, and denied them the experience of participating in vibrant democratic institutions, with damaging effects for our broader civic culture.
We join together to call for the repeal of Taft-Hartley, as one important step in restoring workers’ right to organize into unions and in revitalizing American democracy.
Tony Mazzocchi, National Organizer, Labor Party
Bruce J. Klipple, Secretary-Treasurer, United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America
Kay McVay, RN, President, California Nurses Association
Thomas Geoghegan, attorney, author, Which Side Are You On?