By Ralph Nader
July 18, 2002
This year marks the 55th anniversary of the passage of the Taft-Hartley
Act, one of the great blows to American democracy.
The Act, which was drafted by employers, fundamentally infringed on workers'
Legally, it impeded employees' right to join together in labor unions,
it undermined the power of unions to represent workers' interests effectively,
and it authorized an array of anti-union activities by employers.
Among its key provisions, Taft-Hartley:
o 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 increase employer leverage to resist unions by enabling them to
benefit from free riders; and vastly decrease union membership, thus
dramatically diminishing unions' bargaining power.
o Outlawed the closed shop, which required that persons join the union
before being eligible for employment with the unionized employer. (Still
permitted are provisions which require any member of a bargaining unit
to pay a portion of dues to that union.)
o Defined "employee" for purposes of the Act as excluding supervisors
and independent contractors. This diminished the pool of workers eligible
to be unionized. The exclusion of supervisors from union organizing
activity meant they would be used as management's "front line" in anti-organizing
o 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.
o Required that election hearings on matters of dispute be held before
a union recognition election, thus delaying the election. Delay generally
benefits management, giving the employer time to coerce workers.
o Established the "right" of management to campaign against a union
organizing drive, thereby scuttling the principle of employer neutrality.
o Prohibited secondary boycotts -- boycotts directed to encourage neutral
employers to pressure the employer with which the union has a dispute.
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 10 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.
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