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Sen. Robert Taft

On This Day: Congress Passes Taft-Hartley Act

June 23, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On June 23, 1947, the Senate overrode President Truman’s veto of the Taft-Hartley Act, which imposed restrictions on organized labor.

Congress Overrides Truman’s Veto of Taft-Hartley

In 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, commonly known as the Wagner Act. It outlawed a number of unfair, anti-union practices by employers, such as interfering with workers’ right to unionize or refusing to collectively bargain with recognized unions. It also allowed unions to create “closed” shops, under which only union members are hired.

The act gave unions unprecedented power and made possible a great number of labor victories over the next decade. Following World War II, there was “was a massive if peaceful wave of strikes,” explains the U.S. Department of Labor. “Unions sought to make what they considered well-deserved gains after enduring wage freezes imposed during the war. Workers were also prodded by the sharp inflation, fueled by pent-up consumer demand, that followed the lifting of wartime price restrictions. Strike followed upon strike in such important sectors as railroads, coal, steel, autos and oil.”

Many employers and pro-employer politicians sought to curb the power granted to organized labor under the Wagner Act. Republicans won both the House and Senate in 1946, giving them the ability to pass pro-employer legislation.

Ohio Sen. Robert Taft and New Jersey Sen. Fred Hartley sponsored a bill that outlawed unfair union practices and closed shops. It required unions to give a 60-day notice before a strike and allowed the federal government to impose an 80-day injunction on strikes that threatened national health or safety. Furthermore, it allowed states to pass “right-to-work” laws that would allow employers to create non-union shops.

The Republican Congress passed the act, officially called the Labor–Management Relations Act of 1947 but better known as the Taft-Hartley Act. Pro-labor advocates deemed it a “slave labor” bill and 28 congressional Democrats called it a “new guarantee of industrial slavery.”
President Harry Truman, a Democrat, vetoed the bill on June 20, 1947. He issued a statement reading in part, “I have concluded that the bill is a clear threat to the successful working of our democratic society. One of the major lessons of recent world history is that free and vital trade unions are a strong bulwark against the growth of totalitarian movements. … This bill would go far toward weakening our trade union movement. And it would go far toward destroying our national unity.”

Truman implored Congress not to override his veto. In a letter to Senate Minority Leader Alben W. Barkley of Kentucky, , Mr. Truman wrote, “This is a critical period in our history, and any measure which will adversely affect our national unity will render a distinct disservice not only to this nation but to the world.”

In the closing statements before the June 23 Senate vote, Sen. Taft argued that there was "an unquestioned public demand for labor legislation to end abuses which are apparent to the American people."

Needing 62 votes to override the veto, the Senate voted 68 to 25 in favor of the Taft-Hartley Act.

The Use of Taft-Hartley

The Taft-Hartley Act remains intact today. Labor leaders have long sought to repeal or amend the act. During the 1950s, even Sen. Taft believed that “some of its provisions were too harsh and needed amending,” writes Steven Wagner of Missouri Southern State College.

But, as R. Alton Lee wrote in his book “Truman and Taft-Hartley,” “urgency for amending Taft-Hartley waned during the 1950s because it did not become the slave labor law union leaders predicted. Continued prosperity calmed fears that the law would adversely affect wages, hours, and working conditions, and labor-management relations steadily improved in most parts of the nation.”
In its 64-year history, the Taft-Hartley Act has been invoked 35 times. While Truman vetoed the bill originally, he invoked it 10 times in the remaining six years of his presidency, far more than any other president. Ironically, Democratic presidents have issued approximately two-thirds of all the orders to invoke Taft-Hartley.

The act was last invoked by George W. Bush in October 2002 to avert a shutdown of West Coast ports. Bush sought to keep commerce moving ahead of the Christmas shopping season, while taking on political risk by angering labor unions a month before mid-term elections.

The New York Times noted, “a repeated problem with Taft-Hartley injunctions is that they do not guarantee a resolution of the labor dispute. When the cooling-off period ends, unions often resume their walkout.”

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