To Truly Honor American Workers, Taft-Hartley Has To Go
Published on Monday, September 1, 2003 by
To Truly Honor American Workers, Taft-Hartley Has To Go
by Ralph Nader

As Americans celebrate Labor Day and honor the nation's working people, we should all be ashamed that American labor law and American labor law enforcement makes a mockery of workers' basic rights to organize, join unions and exercise collective bargaining rights.

Workers in industry and commerce face enormous obstacles to form a union and exercise fundamental rights once unionized. One in ten union supporters campaigning to form a union is fired illegally, and employers are effectively free to fire ("permanently replace") workers on strike.

Much of the flawed framework of American labor law is traceable to the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Fifty-six years after its passage, it is time for Congress to repeal this denial of workers' civil rights.

Employers and other forces opposed to unions' right to exist passed Taft-Hartley in a climate of fear and anti-union zealotry. The result remains a heavily imbalanced labor law, which includes Taft-Hartley provisions that:

* Ban secondary boycotts, severely diminishing the organizing and bargaining power of labor unions.

* Define "employee" to exclude supervisors and independent contractors. This diminishes the pool of workers eligible to be unionized. The exclusion of supervisors from union organizing activity has meant they are used as management's "front line" in anti-organizing efforts.

* Require the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election to determine representation; prior to Taft Hartley, the Board at its discretion could certify unions through other means, potentially including card-checks.

* Authorize states to adopt misnamed "right-to-work" laws, barring union security clauses. Union security clauses mean all workers in a unionized shop who receive the economic benefits of union representation pay dues to share the cost of maintaining the union (though they do not have to be members and cannot be compelled to support political positions they oppose).

* Permit decertification elections -- enabling employers to maintain ongoing campaigns against unions' very existence.

Strong, vibrant and democratic unions are essential to advance workplace safety, to ensure decent conditions of work, to restrain corporate employers' exploitative instincts and more broadly to ensure a functioning and flourishing democracy. Unfortunately, union representation and labor power have steadily declined over the last four decades -- with unions now representing only approximately 10 percent of the private workforce, the lowest percentage in 60 years.

More and more workers are toiling in jobs near the minimum wage, in non-unionized operations like Wal-Mart, K-Mart and McDonald's. These service sector jobs are not inherently low-wage. They are low wage because they are non-union.

The decline in union representation is due to many factors -- including unbridled corporate globalization -- but high among them is Taft-Hartley and our system of inadequate legal protections for workers. Other industrialized countries with more substantial legal protections for workers -- such as Canada and countries throughout Western Europe -- evidence much higher rates of union membership.

Repeal of Taft-Hartley should be a priority of every American who believes in civil rights, and a top priority of all politicians who consider themselves friends of labor.

Yet of all the announced candidates for President from the two major parties, only one, Representative Dennis Kucinich, has expressed a willingness to repeal any element of the Taft-Hartley Act.

To truly honor American workers, the Taft-Hartley Act blemish should be removed from our laws.