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Taft-Hartley Act

Taft-Hartley Act

United States 1947


The Taft-Hartley Act was characterized by labor unions at the time of its passage as "the slave-labor law," and many of its congressional proponents thought that the law would inhibit the power of labor unions. Many historians today, however, argue that the act merely codified practices that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was implementing at the time. The passage of this law signaled a change in governmental attitudes toward labor, with real restrictions being placed upon the activities of labor unions. Secondary boycotts and the closed shop were outlawed; states were allowed to pass "right-to-work" laws, which in turn prevented unions from compelling workers that they represented from becoming members of the union; and the president was given the power to proclaim a "cooling-off" period in disputes that he deemed to be a threat to national safety or health. Perhaps most importantly, passage of the Taft-Hartley Act signaled to labor unions that they would never be considered an equal partner with government and business.


  • 1926: Britain paralyzed by a general strike.
  • 1931: Financial crisis widens in the United States and Europe, which reel from bank failures and climbing unemployment levels. In London, armies of the unemployed riot.
  • 1936: The election of a leftist Popular Front government in Spain in February precipitates an uprising by rightists under the leadership of Francisco Franco. Over the next three years, war will rage between the Loyalists and Franco's Nationalists. The Spanish Civil War will prove to be a lightning rod for the world's tensions, with the Nazis and fascists supporting the Nationalists, and the Soviets the Loyalists.
  • 1941: Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December brings the United States into the war against the Axis. Combined with the attack on the Soviet Union, which makes Stalin an unlikely ally of the Western democracies, the events of 1941 will ultimately turn the tide of the war.
  • 1946: Winston Churchill warns of an "Iron Curtain" spreading across Eastern Europe.
  • 1946: Three months after the first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in London in January, the allbut-defunct League of Nations is officially dissolved.
  • 1946: At the Nuremberg trials, twelve Nazi leaders are sentenced to death, and seven others to prison.
  • 1946: Building of the first true electronic computer, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC).
  • 1951: Six western European nations form the European Coal and Steel Community, forerunner of the European Economic Community and the later European Union.
  • 1956: Elvis Presley appears on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town, where he performs "Hound Dog" and "Love Me Tender" before a mostly female audience. Nationwide, 54 million people watch the performqnce, setting a new record.
  • 1961: President Eisenhower steps down, warning of a "military-industrial complex" in his farewell speech, and 43year-old John F. Kennedy becomes the youngest elected president in U.S. history. Three months later, he launches an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.

Event and Its Context

Workers' Rights and the National Labor Relations Act

Passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, better known as the Wagner Act, signaled a slight shift in governmental attitudes towards union organizing. In the spring and summer of 1934, more than half a million workers went out on strike, which caused Congress to seek mechanisms for greater labor stability in the United States. Such stability had long been the objective of the United States government's attitude towards labor-management relations. For much of the previous 50 years, however, the government had left this regulation to the courts, which tried to achieve this aim through court injunctions and restrictive interpretations of legislative acts, both of which benefited management in its ongoing struggle with labor.

Workers first earned the right to bargain collectively when the National Industrial Recovery Act became law in 1933; however, that act was declared unconstitutional in 1935. The Wagner Act reestablished the right of workers to collective bargaining, and it created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an administrative agency. The NLRB had two functions: to supervise union representation elections and to stop unfair labor practices on the part of employers, employees, and unions. This often meant that the NLRB decided, in the midst of conflicting claims, which union would represent workers in a particular establishment. What constituted unfair labor practices was left open-ended, but the NLRB was given the power to investigate charges and the means to encourage informal settlements, as well as to instigate quasijudicial proceedings that could be enforced by the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Strike Wave of 1945-1946

This new activist bent on the part of the state in favor of labor unions was extremely disturbing to American business leaders, as well as to Republican and conservative Democratic politicians in Washington, D.C. Not until after the end of World War II, however, was the political atmosphere conducive to amending the Wagner Act in management's favor. In 1945 and 1946 a wave of strikes occurred across the United States. The United Auto Workers struck General Motors; the United Steel Workers struck U.S. Steel; and the United Electrical Workers struck General Electric. Besides these massive work stoppages, general strikes occurred in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Oakland, California; and Stamford, Connecticut. With millions of workers and citizens affected, the strike wave had two significant results. First, probusiness forces were sufficiently frightened that they searched for common ground to restrict the power of labor. Second, workers were so discouraged that voter turnout in the 1946 congressional elections was very low. Consequently, the Republican Party took control of both the House and the Senate in 1947.

Legislative Efforts to Amend the National Labor Relations Act

In the first two weeks of the first session of the Eightieth Congress, 21 bills were introduced in the Senate, and 37 in the House, that dealt with labor unions and collective bargaining. By early February 1947, Congressman Fred Hartley (1902-1969) of New Jersey was leading hearings on four of these bills in the Committee on Education and Labor. The four bills in committee were those submitted by representatives Case of South Dakota, Hoffman of Michigan, Landis of Indiana, and Smith of Virginia. At the same time, legislative aides and representatives from business and industry, in particular members of the National Association of Manufacturers, were drafting a committee bill, H.R. 3020. H.R. 3020 was based on bills submitted by Case and Smith in 1946 to amend the Wagner Act. (These amendments had previously passed the House in 1940 but never became law.) Prominent features of H.R. 3020 included proposals to restructure the NLRB, outlaw industry-wide bargaining, grant private employers direct access to injunctive relief, and promulgate an employee "bill of rights" that would require extensive government intervention in the internal affairs of unions. Moreover, prescriptive procedures to be followed in collective bargaining were minutely outlined. Minority members of the committee from the Democratic Party protested their limited input in drafting the bill, but it passed the House by a large majority on 17 April.

In the Senate the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare began hearings in late January on two bills introduced by Senator Joseph Ball (1905-1993) of Minnesota. Parts of Ball's two bills were incorporated into the committee bill, S.R. 1126, but the committee bill did not incorporate all of Ball's key provisions. Consequently, Ball and committee chair Robert A. Taft (18891-1953) of Ohio, along with two other members of the committee, recommended amendments to the committee bill during the floor debate, two of which were accepted. The Senate version of the bill, which according to most observers was far less severe than the House version, was passed on 14 May. A considerable amount of publicity appeared calling on the House manager to retreat from some of the more extreme provisions, which might prevent passage of the needed legislation, since any resultant legislation needed to be approved by President Truman or be able to prevail over his veto.

Provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act

Unlike the Wagner Act that it modified, the Taft-Hartley Act was an omnibus bill of four titles. Title I contained most of the modifications to the Wagner Act. It changed the administrative structure of the National Labor Relations Board, as well as some of the procedures of the board as it was described in the Wagner Act. Taft-Hartley changed the definition of "employee" to exclude supervisors (in response to management fears over the proliferation of foremen's unions in the postwar period), and emphasized the rights of employees to decline to participate in collective activity. Title I also attempted to define "good faith" in collective bargaining, and therefore what would constitute an unfair labor practice, and it required both parties to give notice of any intention to terminate or modify their contract. Section 9 of Title I required unions to register with the secretary of labor and to file annual financial reports. Moreover, all officers of unions were required to sign affidavits proclaiming that they were not members of the Communist Party in order to use any of the NLRB apparatus. (This provision is the only part of the Taft-Hartley Act to be eventually overturned, owing to its blatant unconstitutionality.) Finally, Title I restricted state jurisdiction over labor relations except in union security matters, and it banned the closed shop (which required that employees in an establishment belong to the union before they could be hired to work there) within the area of federal jurisdiction. It also required the majority of employees in a unit to approve any attempt to negotiate a union-shop contract.

Title II endorsed enhanced federal aid to conciliation, mediation, and voluntary arbitration, encouraged labor and management to develop grievance procedures for the settlement of disputes, and outlined procedures for the restraint of strikes considered to present a threat to the national interest. Title III declared certain categories of union and employer behavior illegal and established procedures to regulate union welfare funds, to facilitate private suits for damages arising from breach of contract, and to restrict political fund expenditures by unions. Finally, Title IV provided for joint committees of Congress to study and produce reports on problems affecting friendly labor relations and productivity.

Passage of Taft-Hartley caused a firestorm of protest among both leaders and the rank and file in the labor movement. Massive rallies were held in a number of cities in opposition to the law, including the UAW stronghold of Detroit, where a rally organized by the UAW was attended by approximately 200,000 workers. Most of the unions failed to capitalize upon the willingness of their members to protest the passage of this piece of legislation and transform it into an effective political action. In the face of this massive grassroots protest, however, President Truman promptly vetoed the bill.

President Truman's Position on Taft-Hartley

Truman had done very little work with Congress to try to work against passage of antilabor legislation, however. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) led "Operation Dixie," the attempt to organize both black and white workers in the South. "Operation Dixie" so frightened segregationist Democrats in the region that they had joined the resurgent Republican Party to pass Taft-Hartley. Truman had very little influence over these recalcitrant Democrats in either legislative body, and he chose to expend none of it in attempting to convince members not to override his veto of the bill, which was accomplished on 23 June 1947. Truman's opposition to Taft-Hartley seems to have been mere political expediency, since he did not hesitate to use the emergency powers granted to him against the United Mine Workers when they walked out on strike in October 1947. He had also threatened to nationalize the steel industry temporarily in 1946 in order to end the strike by the United Steelworkers Union. Like many other liberals of the time, Truman seems to have believed that the labor movement had grown too powerful and needed some restrictions.

Union Actions in the Wake of Taft-Hartley

Although most union leaders in the CIO initially resisted Taft-Hartley, leaders of larger unions quickly realized that parts of the new law could be used to their advantage. They used the noncommunist clause to rid labor unions of Communist Party members, insisting that all local leaders make the pledge, resign their positions, or leave the CIO umbrella. Many CIO unions had members who were communists, and these members were often found in leadership positions, not only because of the cell structure of the Communist Party but also because they were often dedicated, hard-working union members. Some of these unions—most prominently the United Electrical Workers—did in fact leave the CIO over this issue. The CIO then formed rival unions and undertook organizing "raids" to steal these members back. These efforts meant that much less time and money was spent trying to organize unorganized workers, however, and promptly killed much of the momentum in those organizing drives. This backlash particularly affected the CIO, which saw its numbers quickly stagnate; by 1955 the CIO merged with the AFL, and the industrial unions of the CIO rapidly became junior partners in the craft-union-oriented organization.

While in many ways Taft-Hartley simply codified the direction that the labor movement was headed, it still had a debilitating effect on the movement. Except where unions like the United Mine Workers were able to negotiate contract language stating otherwise, Taft-Hartley effectively outlawed the wildcat strike, one that is not authorized by either national or international officers. This in turn led unions to discipline members who participated in wildcat strikes, even if those strikes were caused by failure of management to live up to certain conditions of a contract. In practice, workers continued to participate in wildcat strikes whenever they felt conditions warranted such action, and unions were still able to protect many members who participated and negotiated issues that brought on these strikes. However, such union protection was generally extended to strikers only after they had agreed to go back to work under the existing conditions.

This trend toward institutionalizing bureaucracy in the labor movement continued even as Taft-Hartley was amended. In 1951 legislation that allowed unions to negotiate union-shop agreements with employers without previously polling employees became law. This was a great advantage for union treasuries and staff but further removed the local union from the members that it represented. In the short term, this provision allowed unions to stabilize their finances; however, by making union dues just another payroll checkoff over which laborers had no control, it gave the rank and file the impression that the union was merely one more faceless entity sucking off a portion of a worker's check.

Legacy of the Taft-Hartley Act

By accepting the limitations imposed by Taft-Hartley, labor unions also gave up any hope of contesting control of the workplace. This left issues like the pace of work and automation solely within the purveyance of management, to the detriment of workers and, eventually, their unions. This was particularly devastating for unions that relied upon control of the shop floor to protect members' jobs. The prime example of workers injured by being replaced by technology was the Typographical Workers Union (ITU). Before Taft-Hartley became law, the ITU had negotiated contracts that guaranteed members the retention of their jobs, even when the task they performed was taken over by a machine. Taft-Hartley's clause forbidding "featherbedding"—the retention of union members whose jobs have been replaced through technology—meant this protection no longer existed. Therefore, machines replaced many ITU members, and the union became a shell of its former self. Walther Reuther of the United Automobile Workers initially welcomed the introduction of technology to the workplace, with the promise of shorter workweeks for members, but he quickly became disenchanted when it became apparent that instead of shorter workweeks for everyone, fewer workers would work for the same amount of time. In fact, when a plant manager pointed out to Reuther that the robots in the factory would pay no union dues, Reuther retorted that they would buy no automobiles, either. With labor unions restricted in the role that they could play by Taft-Hartley, however, there was little Reuther or any other labor leaders could do about the situation. The result of Taft-Hartley has been to roll back the gains labor made under the Wagner Act and to ensure that labor remains the junior partner in the management-labor partnership.

Key Players

Hartley, Fred A., Jr. (1902-1969): Hartley was a representative from New Jersey when he became the House sponsor of the Taft-Hartley Act. The House version of the bill was much more severe than the Senate's, and Hartley was instrumental in working out the compromise for the legislation. Hartley was not reelected to the House in 1948.

Murray, Philip (1886-1952): Murray was the second president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), succeeding his mentor in the United Mine Workers Union, John L. Lewis. Murray was adamantly opposed to passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, but after passage of the law he used the anticommunist clause to rid the CIO of communists and other leftists.

Reuther, Walter (1907-1970): Reuther, president of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) from 1946 to his death in an airplane crash in 1970, utilized discontent among rank-and-file membership against communist and communist-sympathizing leadership, and then used the anticommunist clause in Taft-Hartley to rid the union of most of the opposition to his leadership.

Taft, Robert A. (1889-1953): Taft was known as "Mr. Republican" during much of his time in the U.S. Senate. Taft was concerned with labor's influence in the political and economic policies of the country, and saw the Taft-Hartley Act as "equalizing" the imbalance that occurred because of the New Deal. Despite efforts to unseat Taft after passage of the act, he remained a member of the Senate until his death in 1953, although his bid for the presidential nomination from his party was spoiled in 1948 and 1952 because of the opposition this stirred in the labor movement.

See also: AFL, CIO Merge; Congress of Industrial Organizations; National Industrial Recovery Act; Strike Wave, United States; Wagner Act.



Halern, Martin. UAW Politics in the Cold War Era. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1988.

Lipsitz, George. A Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Tomlins, Christopher L. The State and the Unions: Labor Relations, Law, and the Organized Labor Movement in America, 1880-1960. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.


Lichtenstein, Nelson. "Taft-Hartley: A Slave Labor Law?"Catholic University Law Review 47 (1998): 763-789.

—Gregory M. Miller

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