Polls show that upwards of 50% of working people say they’d be interested in joining a labor union, but only 12% of America’s workforce is unionized. Even acknowledging that some of those expressing an interest in joining up were fooling themselves and misleading the pollster, there is still a huge number of working people out there who would like to become union members but either don’t quite know how to proceed or, frankly, are too frightened to make their feelings known, fearing management retaliation.
This discrepancy (between the number of those who’d like to join and actual membership) reflects brutal two truths: management has the statutory ability to limit organized labor’s power; and companies are still dedicated to the point of obsession to keeping non-union workers away from union organizers.
While insuring that the workforce remain unrepresented has always been a cat-and-mouse game, one which management has played well through the use of flattery, deceit, rewards and intimidation, the statutory limits on labor’s power are directly traceable to the Taft-Hartley Act, passed in 1947. The Act was passed by a Republican congress, with the help of southern Democrats (“Dixiecrats”), over the veto of President Truman.
Taft-Hartley not only amended or rescinded many of the bedrock components of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (commonly known as the “Wagner Act”), it more or less defanged the labor movement. It domesticated the movement. By adopting a set of “unfair labor practices” (ULPs) that applied to unions in the much the same way that the Wagner Act applied ULPs to management, Taft-Hartley effectively blunted labor’s ability to resort to “radical” action.
Taft-Hartley outlawed the closed shop, eliminated the sanctity of the union shop (allowing “right-to-work” states to exist), enacted a mandatory waiting period before calling a strike, made it illegal to engage in jurisdictional strikes, secondary strikes and boycotts, gave management the right to stall and impede a membership certification vote, and expanded the NLRB’s governing board from three to five members. In a word, Taft-Hartley made unions infinitely more “controllable.”
Right-to-work laws allow employees the privilege of choosing whether to join or not join a union. Prior to Taft-Hartley that right didn’t exist; if you hired into a facility that had a union you were required to join it, or you lost your job. Today there are 22 states with right-to-work laws on the books, mainly in the Deep South and Midwest, and four of them (Arkansas, Arizona, Florida and Oklahoma) include these right-to-work provisions in their state constitutions.
Supporters of right-to-work statutes tend to be anti-collectivist, libertarian wannabes who elevate personal choice to iconic status, and are willing to be paid less and accept substandard benefits in return for the right not to have to join a big, bad workers’ collective. When you consider the simple arithmetic involved, this antipathy to unions, this flat-out rejection of economic advancement via strength-in-numbers, isn’t merely irrational, it’s pitiful.
Then, of course, there’s the whole other matter of “free riders,” those workers who benefit from union wages and benefits by hiring into a union shop but who aren’t required to join the union. They’re able to maintain their ideological “amateur status” while simultaneously drawing a professional wage. Not too shabby.
Also, it’s no coincidence that the overwhelming majority of states with right-to-work laws have significantly poorer safety records than those without them. Say what you will about labor unions, their safety records have always been demonstrably superior to those of non-union facilities, and this has remained true even after passage (in 1970) of OSHA.
Since the enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act there have been a few half-hearted attempts at repealing all or parts of it, most recently under the Carter and Clinton administrations. Vehement Republican opposition and tepid Democratic support were responsible for the defeat of these attempts. There are simply too many lobbying groups opposed to it, too much money arrayed against it, to give anyone hope that the Act will ever be repealed.
But what would the country look like if that were to happen? How would repeal of Taft-Hartley affect organized labor?
In truth, it could be argued that too much has occurred in the intervening 60 years to result in the radicalization of the labor movement. The connection to labor’s revolutionary ideological roots has been severed. The face of the American worker isn’t what it was in 1947.
Yes, without Taft-Hartley there would be more national membership drives, more people being allowed to join unions, all of which would be a salutary, democratic effect of repeal, one that would benefit working people. But, arguably, the country is too “grown-up,” too cynical and world weary, to engage in radical industrial actions such as secondary strikes and boycotts, even if they were made legal.
With so many workers now invested in the stock market, and union expectations and identity having been profoundly warped over the last half-century, it would be hard to find a critical mass willing to engage in the more radical actions made available by repeal of Taft-Hartley. In any event, to get back anything close to the mindset labor once had would require a lengthy period of adjustment.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was president and chief contract negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org