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Farewell To Taft-hartley
The great, heroic American labor movement—how it became obsolete
October 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 6
Postwar politics forced the rapid dismantling of most of these wartime regulations. Too rapidly, in fact. The regulations, of course, had not prevented the inevitable interplay of supply and demand during the war; they had just suppressed the effects. With the cork of regulation suddenly out of the bottle, the dislocations that had built up during the war exploded.
Had Roosevelt lived, he might have used his by then vast prestige to stretch out the dismantling of wartime controls and brought about a relatively smooth transition to a peacetime economy. His successor, however, a virtual unknown to most Americans, was helpless to do so. Before long “To Err Is Truman” was a national joke.
It is not hard to see why. When price controls were suddenly ended, inflation soared. Farm prices shot up no less than 14 percent in a single month and were 30 percent higher by year’s end. Meanwhile, corporate profits increased 20 percent and labor unions demanded their share of the pie. Strikes multiplied. In January 1946 fully 3 percent of the labor force, including workers in the automobile, steel, electrical, and meat-packing industries, were striking. Never before (or since) has anything like that many workers been on strike simultaneously. To many, labor unions now seemed far too powerful.
In the congressional elections of 1946, the Republicans ran on the slogan “Had enough?” The people apparently had and, for the first time since 1928, elected a solidly Republican Congress. Truman would later call it the “do-nothing Eightieth Congress,” but one thing it most certainly did was pass the Taft-Hartley Act.
As far as the Wagner Act was concerned, there were no unfair labor practices. Reaction to its sharp tilt was inevitable.
Its proponents said that Taft-Hartley did for management only what the Wagner Act had done for labor. Its opponents called it a “deliberate and monstrous movement . . . to cripple if not destroy, the labor movement.” Truman, dependent on the political support of organized labor, fought it tooth and nail. But the temper of the times was on Taft-Hartley’s side.
The act allowed employers to fully express their opinions on whether the workers should elect a union to represent them or not, as long as they used no threats in doing so. It allowed management to call for an election on its own. It forbade unions to coerce workers or refuse to bargain, just as the Wagner Act had forbidden management to do so. The closed shop (where workers have to be members of the union before they can be hired) was outlawed.
And Section 14(b) allowed states to outlaw the union shop, where all workers are required to join the union after being hired. Many states where organized labor was weak, especially in the South, promptly did so. Labor would spend more than two decades fighting to repeal Section 14(b), expending vast political capital in attempt after unsuccessful attempt.
Truman vetoed Taft-Hartley, calling it “shocking—bad for labor, bad for management, and bad for the country.” Congress overrode his veto, and it became law. But as so often happens, the problems that had brought the legislation about in the first place now began to ebb. While 125 million man-days had been lost to strikes in 1946, only an average of 40 million man-days was lost in the ensuing three years. (By 1992 fewer than 4 million man-days were lost to strikes.)
In the 1950s, with the American economy still largely immune to competition from other countries, management became more willing to ensure worker contentment by offering cost-of-living adjustments and wage increases. Both unions and management learned how to be less confrontational, to enlarge on their common interests.
But larger trends were working against labor. Manufacturing, always the heart of the union movement, remained as large a part of total GNP as it had been, but it used a steadily shrinking percentage of American workers, as ever more sophisticated equipment increased productivity, and as more and more unskilled jobs moved offshore to low-wage countries.
Today the percentage of union workers in the work force is nearly what it was in 1920. The everyone-doing-the-same-job production line, labor’s most fertile recruiting ground, is rapidly disappearing. That’s why the Wagner and Taft-Hartley acts today seem as much ancient history as the Homestead and Pullman strikes with which the labor movement began a century ago.