Repeal the Taft-Hartley Act

This August marks the 60th anniversary of the Taft-Hartley Act, one of the great blows to American democracy, going into effect.

The Act, which was drafted by employers, fundamentally infringed on workers' human rights.

Legally, Taft-Hartley: impeded employees' right to join together in labor unions; undermined the power of unions to represent workers' interests effectively; and authorized an array of anti-union activities by employers. Among its key provisions, Taft-Hartley:

Authorized states to enact so-called right-to-work laws. These laws undermine the ability to build effective unions by creating a free-rider problem -- workers can enjoy the benefits of union membership in a workplace without actually joining the union or paying union dues. Right-to-work laws thus increase employer leverage to resist unions by undermining individual workers' incentives to join a union; and thereby vastly decrease union membership, thus dramatically diminishing unions' bargaining power.

Outlawed the closed shop, which required that persons join the union before being eligible for employment with the unionized employer. (Still permitted are provisions that require any member of a bargaining unit to pay a portion of dues to that union, though not to join the union.)

Defined "employee" for purposes of the Act as excluding supervisors and independent contractors. This diminished the pool of workers eligible to be unionized, and has become an increasingly serious problem as courts and the National Labor Relations Board have authorized ever-expanding employer definitions of what constitutes a supervisor. The exclusion of supervisors from union organizing activity meant they would be used as management's "front line" in anti-organizing efforts.

Permitted employers to petition for a union certification election, thus undermining the ability of workers and unions to control the timing of an election during the sensitive organizing stage, forcing an election before the union is ready.

Required that the employer be able to demand hearings on key matters of dispute -- such as what constitutes an appropriate bargaining unit -- before a union recognition election, thus delaying the election. Delay generally benefits management, giving the employer time to coerce workers.

Established the "right" of management to campaign against a union organizing drive, thereby scuttling the principle of employer neutrality.

Prohibited secondary boycotts -- boycotts directed to encourage neutral employers to pressure the employer with which the union has a dispute. Prior to 1947, secondary boycotts had been one of organized labor's most potent tools, for organizing, negotiating and dispute settlement.

The political damage of Taft-Hartley was just as severe. In addition to starting an era of red-baiting with the American labor movement which led to harmful internal division (a now-invalidated provision of Taft-Hartley required union leaders to sign anti-communist affidavits), the Act sent a message to employers: It was OK to bust unions and deny workers their rights to collectively bargain.

In short, Taft-Hartley entrenched significant executive tyranny in the workplace, with ramifications that are more severe today than ever. Union membership is at historic 60-year lows, with only 8 percent of the private economy's workforce unionized. Employer violations of labor rights are routine, and illegal firings of union supporters in labor organizing drives are at epidemic levels.

Major unions in the United States have rallied around the Employee Free Choice Act, which would begin to repair some of the damage caused by Taft-Hartley and the anti-union culture it engendered. They should also speak out for abolition of Taft-Hartley, and not concede this monumental employer usurpation, during this period of giant multinational corporate power.

Once again, neither the AFL-CIO nor other major unions have denounced what they believe to be the most anti-labor law ever enacted by the federal government. Such chronic resignation would never be the case within the business community were there a similar law on the books stifling their organizational powers for so many years.

It is past time for the repeal of Taft-Hartley. That would be one important step in restoring workers right to organize into unions, achieve a living wage in the Wal-Marts, McDonald's and other workplaces, and in revitalizing American democracy.

Will any members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus introduce long overdue repeal legislation?