- Historic Sites
Farewell To Taft-hartley
The great, heroic American labor movement—how it became obsolete
October 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 6
This spring one of the largest unions in the country, the Teamsters, called a nationwide strike against the trucking industry. Much of the nation’s freight moves by truck, and its continuing to do so is vital to the economy.
Therefore, any latter-day Rip Van Winkle who had been asleep since the fifties might have expected blanket news coverage of the negotiations, presidential prodding to reach a settlement, and, finally, if no quick agreement was reached and the emergency deepened, the invoking of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, in some cases requiring an eighty-day cooling-off period while the workers returned to their jobs and government negotiators entered the talks. That’s the way big strikes were handled.
But none of that occurred in 1994. In fact, hardly anyone noticed the strike at all. Before long the strike was settled on terms the trucking companies could live with, the truckers went back to work, and the vast American economy rumbled on, none the worse for wear. No one even mentioned Taft-Hartley. Indeed, since 1970 the index of The New York Times has scarcely listed the act.
How could something that organized labor called the Slave Labor Act and that was a major issue as recently as the Johnson administration have so completely vanished from the political landscape?
Welcome to capitalism.
In the continuing ebb and flow that characterizes a dynamic, capitalist economy, winners and losers are inevitable. And yesterday’s winners are often today’s losers.
The Great Depression and the New Deal lifted the American labor movement on high after years of struggle. But the unintended consequences of much of the legislation of the period and then the emergence of the global economy brought it right back down.
Labor unions are a product of the Industrial Revolution as much as is inexpensive clothing or the automobile. In the pre-industrial world enterprises were small and family-owned; indeed, it was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that management and labor became so distant from each other, and their interests so much at variance, that the modern era in labor relations began in a series of bloody clashes, such as the Homestead Strike of 1892. By 1897, 440,000 workers were organized, but that was only about 1.5 percent of the total labor force. Labor unions remained very weak.
The problem was simple enough. Management preferred to deal with workers on an individual basis because each worker, individually, was nearly powerless. Realizing this, many workers wanted to organize and negotiate collectively for better wages and conditions. Management fiercely resisted their efforts, and the natural inertia of society to fundamental change was on their side.
Still, by 1920 union membership had increased to more than five million, 18.4 percent of the labor force. Then, during the 1920s, as prosperity and a tight labor market helped workers increase wages without union help and as adverse court decisions hurt organizing efforts, membership declined again. By 1930 it was down to a mere 11.6 percent of the total labor force.
Then came the Great Depression. If it was an unmitigated disaster for the average worker, it was the salvation of the American labor movement as a whole. As jobs disappeared by the million (unemployment was nearly 25 percent by 1933), management dominated the workers that remained.
By 1934 corporate profits were rebounding smartly, as were stock prices on Wall Street, but unemployment remained above 20 percent. The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), the centerpiece of Roosevelt’s early efforts to combat the Depression, was a failure. Its provisions designed to give labor a place at the table were circumvented by management, which set up company unions to keep out independent ones.
Liberals, utterly dominant in Congress after the elections of 1932 and 1934, passed the Wagner Act in response. It amounted to a labor-union bill of rights and, even more important, a management bill of wrongs. Hesitantly, and only after the Supreme Court had thrown out the NIRA, President Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act (officially called the National Labor Relations Act) into law.
The Wagner Act banned company unions. It guaranteed labor’s right to organize and forbade employer interference with the process. It created the National Labor Relations Board to oversee elections, certify winners, and hear complaints about unfair labor practices. Significantly, while the act listed numerous unfair practices, they all were practices that had been used by management. As far as the Wagner Act was concerned, there were no unfair labor practices used by unions. Reaction to its sharp tilt in labor’s direction was inevitable.
Thanks to the Wagner Act, union membership exploded in the last half of the 1930s, even while unemployment stayed stubbornly high. In 1934 union members were less than 12 percent of nonfarm workers, many of them in company unions. By 1940 they were 26.9 percent. By 1945 they were fully 35.5 percent of the nonagricultural work force.
But by 1945 the world, and American politics, had changed profoundly. During the war the unemployment rate was virtually zero. Further, wages and prices were frozen and strikes were forbidden.