Taft-Hartley Act

views updated May 14 2018

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

Taft-Hartley Act (1947)

views updated May 17 2018

Taft-Hartley Act (1947)

Holly A. Reese

Excerpt from the Taft-Hartley Act

It is the purpose and policy of this Act, in order to 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.

The Taft-Hartley Act (61 Stat. 136), also known as the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, was created after a great number of large-scale strikes had nearly disabled the automobile, steel, and packing industries, among others. These work stoppages had caused a ripple effect through the economy, leading to public panic. The Taft-Hartley Act, an amendment to the Wagner Act of 1935, was designed to benefit all parties to a labor agreementthe employer, employees, and the labor union. Whereas the Wagner Act had spoken only of the right to participate in union activities, the new act included the right to refrain from union activities. It was clear that this new act was designed to level the unfair playing field formerly tipped in favor of labor unions.


To reach that result, the act placed restrictions on unions that were already imposed on the employer. For example, the act made it illegal to restrain or coerce employees wishing to exercise their rights to self-organization. Also made illegal were secondary strikes, secondary boycotts, and sympathy strikes, which were designed to influence employers other than those with whom the union had a contract. Many union leaders and supporters were unhappy with these new laws, and would seek repeal or revision on many different occasions.

The act gave the employer a First Amendment right to free speech that had been severely limited by the former laws. This change allowed the employer to speak out against unionization as long as the speech did not contain threats or promises to employees. The act also limited the liability of employers based on acts of managers or supervisors to those who would be considered part of these supervisors' official duty. Therefore an employer could not be held liable for a supervisor who was harassing union members for reasons unrelated to the supervisor's actual job duties.

In addition, the Taft-Hartley Act allowed states to enact right-to-work laws, which made it illegal to set union membership as a condition for employment. Many states did choose to enact such laws. Other changes included removing supervisors from the bargaining unit so as to avoid the possibility of conflicting interests, and placing guards in a separate bargaining unit without any rank-and-file members. There were also special rules for professional workers allowing them to choose whether or not they wished to be part of a separate bargaining unit.

Finally, the act required a both sides of a labor contract to bargain in good faith, which means they must meet at regular times and try to reach an agreement on a range of issues related to the employment contract. The parties must also create a written contract that includes any agreed-upon provisions. Additionally, the act created the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) to assist in the settlement of labor disputes and increased the number of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) members from three to five.


During World War II labor organizations had increased their membership at a record pace. The government relied on the labor unions during the war and even made agreements with them to prevent strikes and keep production from slowing down or grinding to a halt. During this postwar period there were concerns that labor unions had grown too powerful, as evidenced by the impact that the large-scale strikes had had on the nation.

Whether in times of war or peace, the relationship between employer and employee can have an enormous impact on commerce. Because labor disputes can interrupt commerce, it is of great importance to the federal government to maintain open communication between labor unions and employers. The Constitution's commerce clause, which allows the federal government to regulate interstate commerce, was the constitutional basis for the act.


Proponents of the act mostly fell into two categories. The first group included those who were opposed to all collective bargaining of any kind. The second group consisted of people who were generally not opposed to collective bargaining but who felt the labor unions had gained too much power during the war. Both groups thought the government should put limitations on the unions that would coincide with the limitations already in place for employers. Still others felt that labor organizations had become a cover for racketeering (fraudulent business schemes involving intimidation) and other unsavory activities.

Prior to the Taft-Hartley Act, courts had gone back and forth on the issue of supervisors and their role in bargaining activities. Legislative debate over the act focused much attention on the exclusion of supervisors from the bargaining unit. Legislators in favor of the act believed that a firm exclusionary rule was necessary, and it was ultimately included in the final version of the act. Another debated topic was the exclusion of members of the Communist Party from union leadership. Many feared labor unions were predominantly controlled by communists, although that was most likely an overstatement. The act did contain such an exclusion, but it was later repealed.


On the political front, President Harry S. Truman was calling for changes to the Wagner Act, while cautioning against legislation that could be considered punitive against the unions. The 1946 election brought a Republican majority to both houses of Congress for the first time in sixteen years. That majority wanted more changes than Truman had suggested and set about writing a new bill, which ultimately became the Taft-Hartley Act. Representative Fred A. Hartley, Jr., the chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, sponsored the bill in the House of Representatives. Senator Robert A. Taft, the chair of the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee, sponsored the bill in the Senate. The bill passed both houses, although the vote was much closer in the Senate than in the House.

President Truman then vetoed the bill on June 20, 1947. He felt that the proposed bill gave the government too much involvement in labor management relations. He also said that the reporting requirements for unions were overly burdensome and the bill would not have the effect desired by Congress. The House disagreed with Truman and quickly overrode the presidential veto. Two days of debate later, the Senate followed suit and the Taft-Hartley Act became law.


Enforcement of the Taft-Hartley Act comes in large part from the NLRB. With the advice and consent of the Senate, the president appoints the general counsel, who is responsible for conducting hearings in front of the NLRB. When one party wants to file unfair labor practice charges against the other party, that party may also do so in any federal court with proper jurisdiction.

The Supreme Court considered a part of the act in United States v. Brown (1965). The Court ruled that the laws preventing members or former members of the Communist Party from holding office in a labor union to be unconstitutional. Courts have gone on to define and shape various portions of the act while maintaining its congressional intent and integrity.


The Taft-Hartley Act has been amended many times over the years, with the majority of amendments occurring in the 1950s. For example, in 1951 the act was amended to allow union shops to be formed without the formality of an authorization election. Later, in 1974, the act was amended to include corporations or associations that operate nonprofit hospitals and healthcare facilities.

The Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (LMRDA) was an extension of the Taft-Hartley Act and its reporting requirements. It established what is considered a bill of rights for union members. It also requires full, fair, and participatory elections, as well as disclosure of union financial statements and expenditures. It follows the Taft-Hartley Act's intent to protect employers and employees while providing adequate means of dispute resolution.


The Taft-Hartley Act remains a powerful tool for labor-management relations. From its narrow adoption, and despite its many opponents, the 1947 act continues to provide valuable protection to employees, employers, and labor unions. Although labor strikes are still a very real consequence of failed labor negotiations, the rules of the Taft-Hartley Act have reduced the severity and frequency of such strikes.

See also: National Labor Relations Act; Norris-LaGuardia Act.


Cox, Archibald, Derek Curtis Bok, Robert A. Gorman, et al. Labor Law: Cases and Materials, 13th ed. New York: Foundation Press, 2001.

Iserman, Theodore R. Changes to Make in Taft-Hartley. New York: Dealer's Digest Publishing, 1953.

Jasper, Margaret C. Oceana's Law for the Layperson: Labor Law. New York: Oceana Publications, 1998.

Raza, M. Ali, and A. Janell Anderson. Labor Relations and the Law. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1996.


National Labor Relations Board. <http://www.nlrb.gov>.

The Wagner Act

The Taft-Hartley Act was an amendment to an earlier piece of legislation known as the Wagner Act, or the National Labor Relations Act. Passed in 1935, the law was named for Robert F. Wagner, a champion of the poor, minorities, and organized labor who served as a New York State senator, a New York State Supreme Court justice, and a U.S. senator from New York. Throughout his career Wagner was a major advocate of pro-Labor legislation, establishing public works programs, promoting industrial safety, and sponsoring numerous bills, including the Social Security Act. The legislation bearing his name contained three principal elements: First, it guaranteed American workers the right to join the labor union of their choice and to engage in collective bargaining; second, it prohibited companies from interfering with labor unions or punishing union members; and third, it established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB oversaw union elections, in which workers voted whether to be represented by a union, and if so, which one. The NLRB also heard grievances from workers who felt they had been treated improperly and was empowered to issue "cease and desist" orders to employers found to be violating the law. Extremely radical in its time, the Wagner Act is considered a cornerstone of American labor law.

National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation (1937)

Immediately after it was established in 1935, the National Labor Relations Board was the object of a wave of lawsuits and injunctions initiated by businesses and anti-labor organizations seeking to challenge its legality and prevent it from operating as out lined in the Wagner Act. In 1937, in the case of the National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Wagner Act and ensured the continued operation of the NLRB. The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, hinged on the idea that labor unrest could disrupt interstate commerce, so Congress was indeed within its rights to provide a mechanism such as the NLRB to help prevent strikes. At the same time, the ruling described relationships between employers and employees as being inherently unequal and maintained that collective bargaining was an appropriate tool to redress the inequality. The Court prohibited employers from blacklisting union members, employing spies to report on union activities, and other unfair practices.

Taft-Hartley Act

views updated May 18 2018


TAFT-HARTLEY ACT (1947). Passed by Congress over the veto of President Harry Truman, the Taft-Hartley Act enacted a number of significant amendments to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. The 1935 law, known as the Wagner Act, may have been the most radical legislation of the twentieth century, recognizing and giving federal protection to workers' rights to organize, to form unions, to engage in strikes and other "concerted activities," including picketing, and to bargain collectively with their employers. The Wagner Act overturned a vast body of older, judge-made laws, which had enshrined, as a right of private property, employers' freedom to refuse to deal with unions or union workers. Now, the Wagner Act required them to bargain collectively with employees, and it forbade them to interfere with workers' new statutory rights. No longer could employers punish or fire pro-union employees or avoid independent unions by creating company-dominated unions; and no longer could they refuse to bargain in good faith with the unions that workers chose to represent them. What was more, the 1935 legislation created a new federal agency, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), to supervise union elections and bring "unfair labor practices" charges against employers who violated the Act.

The enforcement tools at the Board's disposal were never formidable; nonetheless, the spectacle of federal support behind vigorous industrial union drives both emboldened workers and enraged much of the business community and its supporters in Congress. During the dozen years since Congress passed the Wagner Act, the labor movement had quintupled in size, reaching roughly 15 million members, or 32 percent of the nonfarm labor force. A substantial majority of the workforce of such key industries as coal mining, railroads, and construction belonged to unions. Thus, by 1947 organized labor had become "Big Labor" and a mighty power in the public eye, and the complaints of business that the National Labor Relations Act was a one-sided piece of legislation began to resonate. The Act safeguarded workers' rights and enshrined collective bargaining but provided no protection for employers or individual employees against the abuses or wrongdoing of unions.

Changes after World War II

The end of World War II (1939–1945) saw a massive strike wave, which helped turn public opinion against "Big Labor." Thus, when the Republicans won both houses of Congress in the 1946 elections, new federal labor legislation was almost inevitable. Indeed, in the decade preceding 1946, well over 200 major bills setting out to amend the Wagner Act had been introduced in Congress. These bills had rehearsed the main themes of the complex and lengthy Taft-Hartley Act. The gist of Taft-Hartley, according to its proponents, was to right the balance of power between unions and employers. The Wagner Act, they claimed, was tilted toward unions; Taft-Hartley would protect employers and individual workers. For the latter, the new law contained provisions forbidding the closed shop and permitting states to outlaw any kind of union security clauses in collective agreements. Already, several states, led by Florida and Arkansas, had adopted so-called right-to-work measures, outlawing any form of union security—not only the closed shop, but also contract provisions that required workers who declined to join the union to pay their share of expenses for bargaining and processing grievances. By sanctioning right-to-work statutes, Taft-Hartley did not injure "Big Labor" in the industrial heartland, so much as help thwart union advance in traditionally anti-union regions like the South and the prairie states.

The Taft-Hartley Act Brings Changes

For employers, the Act created a list of union "unfair labor practices," where previously the Wagner Act had condemned only employer practices. Taft-Hartley also greatly expanded the ability of both employers and the Board to seek injunctions against unions, thus undermining some of the protections against "government by injunction" that labor had won in the 1932 Norris-LaGuardia Act. It gave employers the express right to wage campaigns against unions during the period when workers were deciding and voting on whether to affiliate with a union. Previous Board policy generally had treated these processes as ones in which workers ought to be free to deliberate and decide free from employer interference. The new law also banned secondary boycotts and strikes stemming from jurisdictional disputes among unions. These provisions chiefly affected the older craft unions of the American Federation of Labor, whose power often rested on the capacity for secondary and sympathetic actions on the part of fellow union workers outside the immediate "unfair" workplace.

By contrast, Taft-Hartley's anticommunist affidavit requirement, like its sanction for right-to-work laws, fell most heavily on the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The statute required that all union officials seeking access to NLRB facilities and services sign an affidavit stating that they were not communists. The requirement rankled because it implied that unionists were uniquely suspect. The law did not require employers or their agents to swear loyalty, but it did demand that the representatives of American workers go through a demeaning ritual designed to impugn their patriotism or they would be unable to petition the Board for a representation election or to bring unfair labor practice cases before it.

Finally, the Act changed the administrative structure and procedures of the NLRB, reflecting congressional conservatives' hostility toward the nation's new administrative agencies, exercising state power in ways that departed from common-law norms and courtlike procedures. Thus, the Act required that the Board's decision making follow legal rules of evidence, and it took the Board's legal arm, its general counsel, out of the Board's jurisdiction and established it as a separate entity.

The CIO's general counsel, for his part, warned that by establishing a list of unfair union practices and by imposing on the NLRB courtlike fact-finding, the new law would plunge labor relations into a morass of legalistic proceedings. Already under the Wagner Act, employers had found that unfair labor practice cases stemming from discrimination against union activists, firings of union-minded workers, and the like could all be strung out for years in the nation's appellate courts, rendering the Act's forthright endorsement of unionization a hollow one.

Since the late 1930s the NLRB itself had been retreating from its initially enthusiastic promotion of industrial unionism. Now, with Taft-Hartley, the Board or the independent legal counsel, who might be at odds with the Board, would have even more reason to maintain a studied "neutrality" toward union drives and collective versus individual employment relations, in place of Wagner's clear mandate in behalf of unionism. The great irony, the CIO counsel went on to say, was that so-called conservatives, who had made careers out of criticizing the intrusion of government authority into private employment relations, had created a vast and rigid machinery that would "convert … [federal] courts into forums cluttered with matters only slightly above the level of the police court."

And so it was. Despite its restrictions on secondary actions and jurisdictional strikes, Taft-Hartley did little to hamper the established old craft unions, like the building trades and teamsters, whose abuses had prompted them; but it went a long way toward hampering organizing the unorganized or extending unions into hostile regions of the nation, and it helped make the nation's labor law a dubious blessing for labor.


Millis, Harry A., and Emily C. Brown. From the Wagner Act to Taft-Hartley:A Study of National Labor Policy and Labor Relations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950.

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

Zieger, Robert H. The CIO:1935–1955. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995

William E.Forbath

Taft-Hartley Act

views updated May 21 2018


The Taft-Hartley Act became law despite President Harry Truman's (19451953) veto. Also known as the Labor-Management Relations Act, it passed Congress in 1947 and established guidelines to correct unions' unfair labor practices.

Taft-Hartley did several things to regulate labor practices in the United States. It prohibited secondary boycotts (in which the workers of a company convince employees of another organization to cease certain dealings with the company in order to pressure the employer to meet their needs) and authorized the payment of damages to parties injured by the boycotts. It abolished closed shops, which required all workers to be a member of a labor union, and did allow for union shops under specified conditions.

In addition, the Taft-Hartley Act established regulations for workers and employers regarding representation and bargaining. Workers now had the option of choosing to organize and bargain collectively or not. Workers gained the power to revoke a union from acting as their bargaining agent. Employers, employees, and unions received new guarantees of free speech. Employers could no longer hire an employee due to union affiliation or lack thereof. The National Labor Relations Board was given the authority to decide settlements for certain jurisdictional disputes. And, collective bargaining agreements became enforceable in federal district court.

The Taft-Hartley Act created a more neutral government stance on labor and unionism. Prior to the act, labor was regulated under a more pro-union policy established in the Wagner Act of 1935. Taft-Hartley allowed for more unbiased regulation of labor and unions while still protecting the rights of employees to be free from employer coercion.

It did, however, place a controversial requirement on unions. All union leaders had to take an oath declaring they were not members of the Communist party. Any union leader who did not take this oath was refused protection under the law. This provision was an early indicator of the "Red Scare" that swept the nation during the 1950s, when the government actively sought and tried citizens for alleged Communist beliefs.

See also: Closed Shop, National Labor Relations Board

Taft-Hartley Act

views updated Jun 08 2018

Taft-Hartley Act

The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 was a revision of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (also known as the Wagner Act). The Wagner Act is considered the most important labor law in American history and is often referred to as the laborer's bill of rights. (See Labor Movement .)

Among other things, the Wagner Act gave workers the right to join labor unions (formally organized associations of workers that advance members' view on wages, work hours, and labor conditions), negotiate together through representatives of their own choosing, and to strike (refuse to work until specific conditions are met). It also established the National Labor Relations Board , which was an independent federal agency designed to administer the act.

Opposed by unions

Business owners did not like the Wagner Act, nor did the majority of Republicans, who traditionally supported big business. On June 23, 1947, a Republican-dominated Congress overrode President Harry S. Truman 's (1884–1972; served 1945–53) veto (disapproval of a bill or resolution) to pass the Labor-Management Relations Act, also known as the Taft-Hartley Act (named after its two sponsors). Labor leaders called the new law the slave labor bill.

The act was largely considered antilabor, as it gave power to the government and limited a number of labor union practices such as boycotts and certain strikes. Under the new law, the president of the United States could request a court order to end a strike if it was found that the strike would endanger national health or safety. Union shops (workplaces run by labor unions and which hired only union members) were no longer allowed to discriminate against nonunion members. A major point of conflict with the Taft-Hartley Act was the provision that required all union officers to take an oath that they were not Communists (people who adhere to an economic theory in which everything is government owned and distribution is controlled).

By the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century, presidents had used the Taft-Hartley Act more than thirty times to call a halt to labor strikes. All but two of them were successful.

Taft-Hartley Act

views updated Jun 11 2018


Over President harry s. truman's veto, zthe Taft-Hartley Act—which is also called the Labor-Management Relations Act (29 U.S.C.A. § 141 et seq.)—was passed in 1947 to establish remedies for unfair labor practices committed by unions. It included amendments to the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the wagner act of 1935 (29 U.S.C.A. § 151 et seq.), which were crafted to counteract the advantage that labor unions had gained under the original legislation by imposing corresponding duties on unions. Prior to the amendments, the National Labor Relations Act had proscribed unfair labor practices committed by management.

The principal changes imposed by the act encompass the following: prohibiting secondary boycotts; abolishing the closed shop but allowing the union shop to exist under conditions specified in the act; exempting supervisors from coverage under the act; requiring the national labor relations board (NLRB) to accord equal treatment to both independent and affiliated unions; permitting the employer to file a representation petition even though only one union seeks to represent the employees; granting employees the right not only to organize and bargain collectively but also to refrain from such activities; allowing employees to file decertification petitions for elections to determine whether employees want to revoke the designation of a union as their bargaining agent; declaring certain union activities to constitute unfair labor practices; affording to employers, employees, and unions new guarantees of the right of free speech; proscribing strikes to compel an employer to discharge an employee due to his or her union affiliation, or lack of it; and providing for settlement by the NLRB of certain jurisdictional disputes.

The act also makes collective bargaining agreements enforceable in federal district court, and it provides a civil remedy for damages to private parties injured by secondary boycotts. The statute thereby marks a shift away from a federal policy encouraging unionization, which has been embodied in the Wagner Act, to a more neutral stance, which maintains the right of employees to be free from employer coercion.


Labor Law; Labor Union.