1934 Teamsters Strike

Taft-Hartley & the Need for a Labor Party

The 1930s in the U.S. saw a massive upsurge in labor militancy. An entire decade of economic crisis and everything that goes with it had transformed the working class and turned its organizations upside down. The growth of industrial unionism; the birth of the CIO; 1934’s general strikes in Toledo, San Francisco, and Minneapolis; the sit-down strikes in Flint, Michigan; and many other labor battles were significant events in the decade preceding the Second World War.

On the basis of the Russian Revolution—the first time in history where the working class took state power and held onto it—the Communist Party’s influence  within the unions in the U.S. grew dramatically. Unfortunately, after the death of Lenin in 1924, came the influence of Stalinism in the Communist Parties around the world. Despite the political zigzags of the Stalinists, the Communist Party led important strikes throughout the 1930s and had hundreds of members and sympathizers in the leadership of many of the CIO unions.

However, after Nazi Germany invaded the USSR, the Stalinists implemented the despicable policy of supporting the “no-strike pledges,” which most unions in the U.S. had signed. It naturally followed that the Communist Party was to play a strike-breaking role for the duration of the war, in the name of “defense of the Soviet Union,” instead of a genuine internationalist policy.

Fearing union militancy in the midst of the war, the federal government offered quick arbitration in labor disputes. This, combined with a surge in industrial employment for war production, and the recent tradition of union organizing in the 30s, resulted in an explosive growth of the unions. By 1945, 35.4% of workers in the U.S. were unionized.

As the war raged on, wages began to fall. But within the confines of the no-strike pledges, there was little the unions could do. Within the rank and file of the unions, opposition to the no-strike pledges began to grow. In 1943, the United Mine Workers went on strike for twelve days, bringing out more than a half a million coal miners.

Following the end of the war, American imperialism had hoped to keep the military mobilized for what they saw as the next impending war against the USSR. This created a wave of mutinous strikes within the military of all the allied powers, as the soldiers demanded speedy demobilization and a return home. War production also slowed, leaving the potential of a return to Great Depression-era unemployment looming over the heads of American workers.

This spurred a post-war strike wave that swept the U.S., involving 180,000 autoworkers, more than half a million steelworkers, 200,000 electrical workers, and 150,000 packing house workers, along with hundreds of thousands involved in smaller strikes. In the year 1946 alone, 4.6 million workers had been on strike.

This strike wave was a continuation of the growing militancy that had begun in the 1930s. The Great Depression and the high unionization during the war had forged American unions into a force to be reckoned with. The war served to rally the labor movement’s inherent hatred of fascism behind appeals for “national unity,” which led to a temporary ebb in the American workers’ struggle. But after the Nazis had been defeated, the labor movement was ready to take on the enemy at home: their own capitalist class.

To counter this, the American capitalists whipped their press and politicians into a hysterical campaign against the unions and the leftists within them. The “Conservative Coalition,” a political bloc in Congress made up of both Democrats and Republicans, put forward hundreds of anti-union bills in a desperate attempt to stop the rising tide.

In June 1947, the Labor-Management Relations Act was passed as an amendment to the Wagner Act of 1935 with overwhelming bipartisan support. President Truman vetoed the bill in an opportunist attempt to retain the support of the unions, but his veto was overridden by Congress (as he knew it would be).

The Labor-Management Relatons Act, known to many at the time as the “Slave-Labor Bill,” and today most commonly referred to as “Taft-Hartley,” was an attempt by big business and its government to demobilize the labor movement. It faced massive opposition. Rallies were held all over the country and more than 17,000 miners went out on strike in protest against it.

At a mass rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden, Philip Murray, president of the CIO, reflected the hatred of the bill amongst most American workers: “Our liberties are threatened by reactionary monopoly, driving us on the first long step toward domestic fascism . . . From here henceforward, if this bill becomes law, the organized labor movement is on the defensive in this country . . . Let us return to private life the backers of this ugly measure.”

The original Wagner Act included a list of “unfair labor practices” that employers could be charged with, providing some level of security for workers. The Taft-Hartley amendment introduced a much lengthier list of unfair labor practices that could be charged against the unions. Most of these are specifically aimed at curbing the unions when it comes to organizing new workplaces, and enforcing membership discipline during strikes. The vagueness of these “unfair labor practices” in Taft-Hartley leaves the door open for unions to be characterized as being nothing more than groups of thugs and gangsters, who use coercion to force workers into their organizations. This was used to prevent the success of “Operation Dixie,” a bold union organizing drive in the South initiated by the CIO in 1946.

Taft-Hartley also required union officials to sign affidavits asserting that they were not communists in order for the union to bring cases before the National Labor Relations Board, something which was later declared unconstitutional—well after the damage was already done.

Pro-capitalist union leaders used this to purge the unions of Communist Party members and sympathizers, hundreds of whom had been officers in the CIO unions. Although he was against Taft-Hartley, it didn’t stop CIO President Philip Murray from leaning on it to expel the ILWU, UE, TWU, United Public Workers and Fur and Leather Workers unions from the CIO, unions which were largely under the leadership of communists. In this sense, McCarthyism began well before Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts in the 1950s.

Taft-Hartley also prohibited “jurisdictional strikes,” used to assert union members’ rights to particular job assignments associated with their industry, or to protest violations of this. This is often found in the construction industry, where it is common for employers to subcontract certain jobs to non-union workers.

Political strikes and wildcat strikes were also prohibited by Taft-Hartley. Any union engaging in these types of strikes could now be served court injunctions declaring the strikes illegal. There were also new provisions that allowed the executive branch of the federal government to issue court injunctions against strikes that “imperiled the national health or safety.” President Truman, who demagogically vetoed Taft-Hartley, ended up using this provision 12 times during his presidency.

Taft-Hartley also legally deprives the unions of one of our most powerful tools: solidarity strikes, boycotts, and mass picketing. It also requires unions to give state and federal mediation bodies 60-days’ notice before any strike. This gives the employer time and opportunity to sabotage union activities and to prepare scab labor for the duration of the strike.

In addition, Taft-Hartley reaffirmed the right of employers to express their opposition to unions. This has led many employers to hire modern day Pinkertons to give presentations about the “criminality of unions” and the showing of “informational” videos intended to spread disinformation about unions.

Closed shops—a union security agreement where the employer has to hire only union workers—are also prohibited by Taft-Hartley. Despite this, it allows for the “union shop” agreements to continue to exist, a similar security agreement where workers hired at particular workplaces are required to join the union within a certain period of time, determined by the contract. This setup provides a loophole for employers to hire workers on temporary contracts, never being required to join the union. It also allows for state governments to prohibit union shops by passing so-called “right to work” laws, which are in reality “the right to be fired for no reason and with no recourse to a grievance” laws.

Provisions were added that required the workers at any given workplace to vote on whether to become a union shop or not. Congress later repealed this when it became apparent that in every single case that this was voted on, the workers voted in favor of the union shop. Pretty embarrassing for the “right to work” politicians!

Interestingly, the Screen Actors Guild has since found ways around some of the limitations of Taft-Hartley. On SAG productions, when an unorganized extra says a line in the film, becoming a “principle performer,” they are immediately considered “SAG eligible” and must join the SAG within 30 days if they wish to work on any SAG productions. Amusingly, this process is described as being “Taft-Hartleyed” into the SAG.

Did you ever wonder why so many workplaces have such a complicated hierarchy of supervisors? Taft-Hartley introduced new provisions that exclude supervisors from union representation. This allows for employers to fire supervisors that engage in union activities. It has created a dynamic in the workplace where most supervisors will resist union organizing for fear of losing their job. This creates an additional layer of protection between the bosses and the ordinary workers, although often, supervisors are little more than ordinary workers with a different title.

Although many provisions of Taft-Hartley have been declared unconstitutional throughout the years, it is still fundamentally intact and has set important precedents. For example, in 1981, the PATCO air traffic controllers’ union went on strike for a 32-hour work week, higher wages and better working conditions. Although these federal workers were not even covered by Taft-Hartley, President Ronald Reagan, once President of the Screen Actors Guild, leaned on the provisions of the law in his vicious attack on the union. He declared their action a threat to national security and sent in the National Guard. This resulted in thousands of air traffic controllers losing their jobs and the decertification of the union. Ironically, in 1980, PATCO had backed Reagan’s candidacy because of his promise to defend PATCO workers—something all-too-familiar when it comes to the unions’ relationships with the parties of big business.

Although it has served the American capitalist class well as a legal tool to combat the unions, this law alone is not the only explanation for labor’s decades-long decline. The objective role played by the post-war boom was even more important. The massive destruction caused by World War II left much of Europe and Japan in ruins. It is estimated that it took until 1958 to rebuild what was destroyed. This gave a huge impetus to the development of capitalism. The crisis of overproduction, which was a root cause of the Great Depression, was turned into its opposite. Suddenly, the world’s capitalists found new room to expand (never mind the millions killed by the war!).

The postwar boom left the world’s capitalists, particularly in the U.S., with more crumbs to give to the working class in the form of reforms and rising wages. The class struggle was temporarily blunted and as a result, the perceived urgency for union organization faded. This paved the way for the crystallization of bureaucratic layers within the unions and the spread of business unionism, which advocates a “partnership” between the bosses and workers. The union support for the Democrats was also solidified during this period.

In the mid-1970s, the first worldwide recession since the end of the war took place. The capitalists temporarily averted another Great Depression-style crisis through the massive expansion of credit. But as even a child can understand, accumulation of debt can only take place for so long; eventually it must be repaid. This is why capitalism finds itself in crisis today.

In 2008, most of the unions in the U.S. backed Barack Obama, particularly because of his vocal support for the Employee Free Choice Act. This “card check” bill would have streamlined the process required to legally certify unions. If a majority of workers in a workplace signed union cards, the union would be recognized. In the context of an increase in the class struggle on the basis of the current capitalist crisis, this could have opened the floodgates for organizing drives across the country. Given their organic ties to big business, it should come as no surprise that Obama and the congressional Democrats largely sabotaged the passage of EFCA. And as for repealing Taft-Hartley? That’s not on their agenda either.

Unions are the most basic form of workers’ collective organization, allowing them to defend their interests in the workplace. They are the most effective tool the working class has to fight for this or that economic demand. But at a certain stage, an accumulation of economic demands becomes generalized and is qualitatively transformed into political demands. This can clearly be seen by the 8-hour working day, which was won after years of struggle in individual workplaces before becoming a national and international movement. This was a monumental victory and particularly impressive because it was achieved in the U.S. without a mass workers’ party.

With this in mind, it is important to ask: how can individual unions effectively fight against the restrictions imposed by Taft-Hartley? In short, they can’t. Only mass mobilizations, strikes, pickets, solidarity actions, and boycotts can bring the full power organized labor to bear against the bosses—even if this means “breaking the law” and openly defying the courts and their injunctions.

Of course, unions can challenge certain provisions in the courts, as has been done with little success in the past. But this doesn’t prevent more vicious anti-union laws from being passed in the future. This is why the struggle most be both economic and political. Without a political party of its own, the labor movement is largely at the mercy of big business and its representatives in the Democratic and Republican parties.

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