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 agreement—the 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.
FEATURES OF THE ACT
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.
CIRCUMSTANCES LEADING TO ENACTMENT
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
Three powerful labor leaders—John L. Lewis, Walter Reuther, and George Meany—ride a horse, whose head is an axe, toward the Taft-Hartley Act, which put restrictions on organized labor. Published in the Buffalo Courier-Express, February 24, 1953, this cartoon reflects the demands of labor to amend, if not repeal, the act. (COURTESY OF E. H. BUTLER LIBRARY, BUFFALO STATE COLLEGE, BUFFALO COURIER-EXPRESS COLLECTION/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
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.
PUBLIC AND LEGISLATIVE DEBATE
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 AND JUDICIAL REVIEW
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.
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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.
Source: Major Acts of Congress, ©2004 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved.