To Support Labor is to Abolish Taft-Hartley

Following the Great Depression and the mighty rise of industrial unions in the U.S., the capitalist class made some concessions to the labor movement. This was not out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they were worried an all-out revolutionary situation could erupt. These concessions, in the form of the New Deal programs and the National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act) were intended to save capitalism. But once the flood-tide of the class struggle ebbed, the bosses moved to take back those concessions, which U.S. capitalism could no longer tolerate.  Taft-Hartley was the first major example of this. As the head of General Electric C.E. Wilson put it, the Cold War had two targets: labor at home, and the Soviet Union abroad.

In 1947, Congress, under Republican control but with a majority of Democrats in favor, passed the Taft-Hartley Act (Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947), which at that time was labeled as “the slave-labor bill” by trade unionists. This set of laws has been systematically used to strangle the labor movement ever since.

Taft-Hartley makes effective and militant strike tactics illegal.  These include mass picketing – a tactic used to stop scabs and management from continuing production during a strike – as well as outlawing secondary boycotts, wildcat strikes, sit-downs and slow-downs. The Act put in place stricter National Labor Relations Board certification procedures, thereby bogging down unions in electoral formalities. It also legalized large-scale interventions by the bosses aimed at preventing unionizing drives. For example, using scare tactics to prevent organizing, and allowing employers to launch de-certification campaigns.

Taft-Hartley allows for the misnamed “right to work” laws which exist in several states, otherwise known as “right to work for less” states. These provisions allow for a state ban on “closed shops” (in which employees at unionized workplaces are required to be members of the union as a condition of employment). Taft-Hartley also increases the severity of penalties for unions while punishments for companies in violation of labor law are kept to a minimum.

To top off this anti-worker legislation, a portion of the law, which was in effect until 1965, required union leaders to sign affidavits with the Department of Labor declaring that they were not members or supporters of the Communist Party.

A major provision of the act allows the President to obtain a court-ordered injunction to stop a strike for 80 days.  This  essentially allows the bosses to prepare an army of scab replacements which is of course beneficial to the bosses and seriously harmful to the workers. This function of the law has been used 32 times since its inception. It was used most often by President Truman, who hypocritically “vetoed” the bill, but then used it ten times to attack the unions. Eisenhower invoked the law seven times against workers. Combined, the Kennedy-Johnson administrations used the law a whopping 12 times to defeat the labor movement. Richard Nixon used it twice, including once against dock workers – the ninth time the law was used against dockworkers.

In 1977, “humanitarian” Jimmy Carter used the law against a miners’ strike, which was partially over conditions. By invoking the law, Carter sought to force the miners back into the mines (truly a “slave labor law”!) The miners burnt the injunction papers and fought back against the government’s attempt to shackle them to walls of the mine.
In 1981, Ronald Reagan used Taft-Hartley and other laws to defeat the PATCO air traffic controllers’ strike by declaring it a “peril to national safety”. Reagan fired the 11,359 striking PATCO members who had defied the order to return to work, and permanently banned them from working for the Federal government. In preparation for the strike, the government had secretly trained replacements – i.e. scabs paid for by U.S. tax dollars – to continue the work after the mass firing.

Most recently, the Act was used in the summer of 2002, after 10,500 West Coast dock workers were locked out by the Pacific Maritime Association, a bosses’ organization representing shipping companies and terminal operators. G.W. Bush invoked the law and threatened the union with an injunction, and was preparing to use the National Guard as scabs. In  true non-partisan form, he was cheered on by Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein who called on Bush to invoke Taft-Hartley. This showed yet again that on all fundamental issues, both bosses’ parties have the same aim: to serve and protect the rich.

Along with several other anti-union laws passed over the last few decades, Taft-Hartley has been used to strangle organized labor nearly to death.  In 1946, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) had 6.3 million members. By 1954, just before the 1955 fusion with the AFL, membership in the CIO had fallen to 4.6 million. Although overall union membership reached a post-war high of 34.7 percent in 1954, that was followed by a steady decline, and currently the national unionization level stands at just 12.5 percent, mostly in the public sector. This in no small way explains why so many workers are struggling to make ends meet, many times holding down two or even three part-time, low-paying, non-union jobs.

These days, many in the labor movement have hopes that the Democratic Party will significantly reverse the attacks of the last few decades.  Such a significant step would involve repealing Taft-Hartley. But the fact is, the Democrats have never moved to repeal this anti-union Act. Although Truman vetoed the bill, he used it unsparingly against workers. In 1979, Jimmy Carter acted to prevent a modest change of parts of the Act after attempting to crush a strike with it. In 1994 under Clinton, the “Striker’s Rights” bill was left to wither on the Senate floor, lacking any major support from either party.

After busting PATCO, Reagan cynically remarked, “I supported unions and the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively.” In other words: unions and strikes are just dandy, so long as they in no way threaten capitalism! Ironically, PATCO, along with the Teamsters and other AFL-CIO unions gave political and financial support to Reagan in the 1980 election – clearly a huge mistake.  However, an even bigger mistake is organized labor’s continued support for the Democrats, who have used Taft-Hartley more times than the Republicans. These laws are a weapon used by the ruling class to prevent working people from organizing and defending our rights and interests. This is why the WIL explicitly calls for an end to all anti-union laws in the first point of our program, starting with Taft-Hartley.

But experience shows that workers cannot simply wait around for the Democrats to fix our problems for us. The interests they defend are the exact opposite of ours. We need strong and militant unions to take on the bosses, but we also need our own political party. Once in power, such a party would start by repealing all anti-labor legislation, thus untying labor’s hands so we can really fight back against the bosses’ attacks on our  wages, conditions, and even our dignity.

Repeal all anti-union laws including Taft-Hartley! For a mass party of labor based on the unions to power with class-independent and socialist policies!


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