Taft-Hartley Act Passes over Truman’s Veto

Superseding the pro-labor Wagner Act, the Taft-Hartley Act invoked federal authority to restore a popularly acceptable balance of power between management and unions.

Summary of Event

The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 represented a national reaction against the perceived excess of power wielded by labor unions in the aftermath of World War II. By 1946, it was widely believed that the labor reforms of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administrations had pushed prolabor legislation too far and had unbalanced the operations of a competitive marketplace. Informed by vocal interest groups, a popular consensus developed around the notion that the existing statutory rules governing collective bargaining ignored the rights of employers, vitiated the rights of individual workers (notably those uninterested in joining unions), and jeopardized the public interest. These opinions were strongly reflected in the dominant mood of the Eightieth Congress, the members of which were overwhelmingly conservative and overwhelmingly Republican. Taft-Hartley Act (1947)[Taft Hartley Act]
Labor-Management Relations Act (1947)[Labor Management Relations Act]
Labor unions;Taft-Hartley Act[Taft Hartley Act]
[kw]Taft-Hartley Act Passes over Truman’s Veto (June 23, 1947)[Taft Hartley Act Passes over Trumans Veto]
[kw]Act Passes over Truman’s Veto, Taft-Hartley (June 23, 1947)[Act Passes over Trumans Veto, Taft Hartley]
[kw]Truman’s Veto, Taft-Hartley Act Passes over (June 23, 1947)[Trumans Veto, Taft Hartley Act Passes over]
[kw]Veto, Taft-Hartley Act Passes over Truman’s (June 23, 1947)[Veto, Taft Hartley Act Passes over Trumans]
Taft-Hartley Act (1947)[Taft Hartley Act]
Labor-Management Relations Act (1947)[Labor Management Relations Act]
Labor unions;Taft-Hartley Act[Taft Hartley Act]
[g]North America;June 23, 1947: Taft-Hartley Act Passes over Truman’s Veto[02080]
[g]United States;June 23, 1947: Taft-Hartley Act Passes over Truman’s Veto[02080]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 23, 1947: Taft-Hartley Act Passes over Truman’s Veto[02080]
[c]Business and labor;June 23, 1947: Taft-Hartley Act Passes over Truman’s Veto[02080]
Truman, Harry S.
[p]Truman, Harry S.;and organized labor[organized labor]
Taft, Robert A.
Hartley, Fred Allan, Jr.
Lewis, John L.

Specifically, many members of Congress believed that the time had come for amendment of the Norris-LaGuardia Act Norris-LaGuardia Act (1932)[Norris LaGuardia Act] of 1932, which deprived the federal courts of jurisdiction over most labor disputes, removed unions from subjection to the antitrust legislation of the Sherman Antitrust Act and the Clayton Antitrust Act, and ensured unions’ freedom to employ the full gamut of their organizing weapons to secure collective bargaining. Similar views extended to operations of the National Labor Relations Act National Labor Relations Act (1935)
Wagner Act (1935) (the Wagner Act) of 1935, which threw the authority of the federal government behind workers’ right to select unions of their own choosing and to bargain collectively with employers. Employers, whose businesses were still targets of antitrust legislation, were further constrained by the act’s delineation of practices deemed unfair to labor.

Hostility toward labor that manifested itself in Congress also appeared to characterize several dramatic moves by the Democratic administration of President Harry S. Truman. Anomalously, through most of his political career Truman had been a reliable ally of organized labor. Truman had won support from the leaders of railroad unions, but these relationships were ruptured abruptly when an irate Truman ordered federal seizure of the railways and threatened to draft striking workers into the armed forces during the nationwide railroad strike of 1946.

The rail strike was only one of a series of labor explosions that the president and the country had had to confront in an uncertain postwar economy. Soaring prices tended to cancel workers’ wartime wage gains. Corporate profits were the highest in history, and a massive wave of mergers raised new fears of monopoly. Organized labor’s response was to demand higher wages. Some unions, such as John L. Lewis’s United Mine Workers United Mine Workers (UMW), went further, demanding employer-financed health and welfare benefits.

Although employment had reached new heights and the overall number of work stoppages was modest, crippling strikes erupted between 1945 and 1947 in critical industries including steel, railways, automobiles, electrical goods, rubber, meatpacking, and coal mining. Moreover, these strikes and the threat of others were complicated by shutdowns resulting from union jurisdictional disputes provoked by feuds between the American Federation of Labor American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Controlling Congress for the first time in twenty-eight years, the Republican Party Republican Party, U.S. , through one of its principal leaders and a presidential hopeful, Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, determined to capitalize on an individualistic nation’s antipathies toward seemingly strident dictatorial labor leaders and the unions they represented. Taking his cues from a manifesto of the National Association of Manufacturers, Taft became a spokesman for those who sought to curtail what were widely regarded as labor’s own unfair practices: secondary boycotts (encouraging others not to trade with a particular business), refusals to bargain or failures to bargain in good faith, violations of contracts, the overt use of coercion against nonunion workers to force them into unions, demands for the closed (or all-union) shop, “featherbedding” (creating jobs or making jobs simpler to add to union membership or benefit members), and jurisdictional strikes.

Taft and his fellow Republicans were eager to win political advantage over a Democratic president mired in attempts to deal with a Lewis-led UMW strike Strikes and already at odds with labor leaders for what they perceived as Truman’s mishandling of the rail strike.

Such was the climate of opinion in which Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act on June 20, 1947, amending the Norris-LaGuardia Act and the Wagner Act in a number of important ways. Taft-Hartley—cosponsored by Congressman Fred Allan Hartley, Jr.—largely restored employers’ freedom to hire and fire workers regardless of union membership. The act consequently severely limited, if it did not entirely void, unions’ chances of winning the closed shop. Internal union discipline was impaired by a provision that union members could be dropped from membership only because of nonpayment of dues, thus opening the door to employers’ deployment of antiunion provocateurs, spies, and “stool pigeons” within union ranks.

The act further placed under proscription a lengthy list of unfair practices by labor. Vigorous union recruiting measures, particularly during elections to determine workers’ choices of bargaining agents, were banned. Union ultimatums to employers were banned, as were union efforts to persuade employers to discriminate in favor of union workers. The checkoff system, whereby employers deducted union dues from workers’ wages, was abolished. Under many circumstances, secondary and jurisdictional strikes and boycotts were proscribed, and when they were threatened they could be held in abeyance by court injunctions. Similarly, strikes affecting interstate commerce, which conceivably meant strikes in most industries, were subjected to the delay of eighty-day “cooling off” periods, after which the president could secure a court injunction. Unions were made subject to civil suit for damages to employers’ interests, caused by unfair practices.

Especially galling to organized labor was the provision that before the act’s administrative agency, the National Labor Relations Board National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), would hear union appeals, union officials were required to take an oath that they neither were communists McCarthyism[Maccarthyism] nor were affiliated with communist organizations. In addition, union files, finances, and the methods by which union officers were elected were thrown open to government scrutiny. Stringent restrictions were imposed on union political activities and political contributions in federal elections.

Siding with labor, whose support he was eager to regain, as well as capitalizing on doubts about the act even among its sponsors, President Truman vetoed the Taft-Hartley Act on June 20, 1947. As Truman probably expected, given the strong votes favoring it in Congress, the measure was passed over his veto, three days later. The act’s hundreds of specific provisions covered in twenty pages of fine print thus became the nation’s principal labor law.


President Truman and labor leaders alike condemned the Taft-Hartley Act bitterly. Truman argued that it would sow seeds of discord that would plague the nation’s future, that it created an unworkable administrative structure, that it complicated collective bargaining, and that it made no contribution to the resolution of complex labor-management problems. The sentiments of union leaders were summed up by their description of Taft-Hartley as a slave labor bill that threatened to eviscerate their major gains of the preceding fifteen years. Considering the national uproar generated by the act, it was to be expected that it became an important issue in the national elections of 1948 and 1952. More than being an electoral issue, it also became a touchstone for determining one of the bounds between liberals and conservatives, friends of labor and enemies of labor, and champions of business and critics of business.

In the light of the heated debates and dire predictions attending Taft-Hartley’s enactment, the subsequent history of the act’s operation was markedly placid. With organized labor’s support, Truman was reelected in 1948. Strong labor unions continued to grow stronger over the next two decades, with nearly 1.5 million workers becoming union members in the South alone during the 1950’s. Unions grew at a slower rate than in the previous decade, but there were many explanations for this in addition to the effects of Taft-Hartley.

Within two years after Taft-Hartley’s enactment, it had become clear that both organized labor and employers were managing to live with provisions of the act. Judged by the number of employer appeals to the NLRB about the unfair practices of unions, employers were far less interested in using Taft-Hartley to suppress organized labor than congressional and other political battles had indicated. In 1949, for example, nine-tenths of the appeals filed with the NLRB came from unions rather than from employers.

Union leaders acted swiftly to exploit the Taft-Hartley’s gray areas and loopholes. One provision of the act stipulated that workers’ refusal to stay on the job because of “abnormally dangerous conditions” did not constitute a strike, so unions claimed dangerous conditions when they wanted workers off the job. Furthermore, since employers could sue unions for violations of Taft-Hartley’s no-strike provision, unions simply demanded that new contracts with employers omit the no-strike pledges from the workforce. John L. Lewis, whose UMW had been released from federal control on June 30, 1947, negotiated mine operators into acceding to a new contract proviso that miners would work while they were “able and willing.”

Lewis was also in the forefront of labor leaders’ bitter fight against Taft-Hartley’s imposition of a noncommunist oath. A few unions were controlled by communists, but the vast majority were not. Labor leaders were furious that on questions of loyalty they, and not employers, were being singled out. Although a number of unions reluctantly acceded to oath requirements, hoping to placate the NLRB and public opinion, Lewis, a staunch Republican himself, adamantly refused. The NLRB overruled its own general counsel by dropping the oath requirement.

Taft-Hartley’s almost universal ban on union political activities, particularly the ban on union political expenditures, was fought by being ignored pending resolution by the nation’s courts of the issues involved. The AFL initiated, as a subterfuge, voluntary fund-raising campaigns among union members that were designed to ensure the political defeat of Senator Taft and those politicians who had supported him. As it transpired, a circuit court decision in March, 1948, pronounced the Taft-Hartley ban on political activity unconstitutional. Loopholes were widened when the United Auto Workers (UAW) negotiated contracts exempting it from several of the act’s restrictions and several other unions won “no-liability” contracts from employers that removed them from dangers of employer-filed civil suits for unfair practices.

The remainder of 1947 after passage of Taft-Hartley was relatively free of major strikes. Serious stoppages recurred in early 1948, however, providing important challenges to the act. One major stoppage involved the UMW, led by John L. Lewis. When negotiations between Lewis and mine operators over the pending 1949 contract remained unsettled, Lewis, without calling a strike, nevertheless engineered a work slowdown. When operators, in turn, refused to contribute to the UMW welfare fund—as Taft-Hartley permitted them to do—Lewis called a full strike. A federal injunction sanctioned by Taft-Hartley was swiftly issued. Lewis ordered the men back to work, but many refused. Lewis, in company with twenty other UMW officials, subsequently was charged with contempt. A federal district court on March 2, 1950, exonerated the union officials. On March 3, President Truman called upon Congress for authorization to seize the mines and channel their profits into the U.S. Treasury. Within hours, the strike was resolved in a compromise favoring the UMW. There would be six other occasions in 1948 alone in which the president would invoke Taft-Hartley’s national emergency provisions to force resolution of strikes, or threats of strikes, that were against the public interest.

Taft-Hartley, on balance, did not bring peace between management and labor. Both sides continued to fault the act, the former because it did too little to curb the monopoly power of unions, the latter because it was excessive and discriminatory in regulating unions. The act did involve the federal government in guiding and controlling certain activities of both employers and unions in discrete ways, a trend strengthened by the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (the Landrum-Griffin Act). Taft-Hartley Act (1947)[Taft Hartley Act]
Labor-Management Relations Act (1947)[Labor Management Relations Act]
Labor unions;Taft-Hartley Act[Taft Hartley Act]

Further Reading

  • Beik, Millie Allen. Labor Relations. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005. History of labor relations in America, including a chapter analyzing the Taft-Hartley Act. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Cox, Archibald. Law and the National Labor Policy. Los Angeles: Institute of Industrial Relations, University of California, 1960. An excellent, readable survey of events and policies leading to Taft-Hartley. Notes and a usable index.
  • Donovan, Robert J. Conflict and Crisis: The Presidency of Harry S. Truman, 1945-1948. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977. A fine, informative book. Chapter 33 is excellent on Truman’s reaction to Taft-Hartley. The entire book provides a splendid context for post-1945 labor problems. A few photos, useful chapter notes, and index.
  • Gregory, Charles O. Labor and the Law. 2d rev. ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1961. An excellent and authoritative survey of the subject. Valuable on the first decade of Taft-Hartley’s impact and complications. Some notes, brief bibliography, and good index that includes cases. A fine introduction for lay readers.
  • Hughes, Jonathan R. T. American Economic History. 5th ed. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1998. Detailed history of the colonial and U.S. economy from 1607 through the mid-1990’s.
  • Lee, R. Alton. Truman and Taft-Hartley. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1966. Scholarly and detailed. A bit turgid, but invaluable. Notes, modest bibliography, and useful index.
  • Northrup, Herbert R., and Gordon F. Bloom. Government and Labor: The Role of Government in Union-Management Relations. Homewood, Ill.: Richard D. Irwin, 1963. Chapters 4 and 5 discuss Taft-Hartley’s content, meaning, and implications and provide an appraisal. Detailed and informative. Page notes, chapter bibliographies, table of cases, and name and subject indexes.
  • Wilcox, Clair. Public Policies Toward Business. Homewood, Ill.: Richard D. Irwin, 1966. Strong on businesses’ required adaptations to Taft-Hartley. Chapter 32 on government and labor is especially informative on Taft-Hartley as an extension of government’s intervention in the economy. Many page notes and brief chapter bibliographies. A valuable synthesis.

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