During the 80th Congress, from 1947-1949, for one two-year period in the postwar era, the Republicans enjoyed a majority in both the House (246 R to 188 D) and the Senate (51 R to 45 D). The GOP seized its moment, passing over President Truman’s veto on this day in 1947 the Labor-Management Relations Act, better known as the Taft-Hartley Act.
Taft-Hartley gave back to management and also to the government much of what the Wagner Act of 1935 had taken away.1 Where the Wagner Act sought to limit the size and power of government by giving unions the power to bargain legally for workers’ compensation—“[W]e intend to rely upon democratic self-help by industry and labor instead of courting the pitfalls of an arbitrary or totalitarian state,” Wagner explained—the Taft-Hartley Act increased the power of the state to regulate unions.
It was easy to find the reason for Taft-Hartley’s popularity. In 1946, hours of labor lost to strikes reached a record high. Two steel strikes, two coal strikes, and a railroad strike that year all threatened to shut down of the national economy.
The reason for the strikes was equally easy to find: the war had ended and with it the no-strike pledge. Pent-up demand for increased wages, of which a generation had been deprived by depression and war, suddenly sprang loose. Not all such demands met with understanding from management. And so the strikes came.
On January 6, 1947, in his State of the Union address, Truman asked Congress for “the early enactment of legislation to prevent certain unjustifiable practices.” Despite the submission of some dozens of bills to Congress, the lawmakers reached a decision relatively quickly, and once Truman vetoed their law on June 20, they re-passed it over his objections almost immediately.
Where the Wagner Act had left much basic state law in place, Taft-Hartley increased the scope of federal control. The new law created a provision for “national emergency,” which let the president shut down strikes. It banned the closed shop and permitted states to ban union shops. It offered a list of forbidden kinds of strikes. And it went on and on; as one analyst noted, “It is a long law, covering twenty-nine pages of eight-point type….”2 But the basic point was pretty clear: to give the federal government new powers to curb unions.
Now, it turned out the 80th Congress was not very popular. In 1948, despite a Dixiecrat challenge, the Democrats kept the presidency and won back both houses of Congress. The Democratic platform included a paragraph advocating repeal of Taft-Hartley. Despite the victories the repeal didn’t come. Perhaps it is because some of the equalization provisions of the law seem to provide a needed, equitable treatment, applying the same restrictions to unions as to management. Perhaps it is because lawmakers like the government’s increased power over labor-management relations, preferring a bigger government to Wagner’s vision of a nation in which the increased power of unions prevented an increase of power to the state. Perhaps it is because the Dixiecrat challenge revealed how beholden the Democrats still were to their southern wing which, among other things, was not particularly pro-union, and a shift in Democratic policy on unions would have to wait—even longer than the shift in Democratic policy on civil rights.
1More excellent material about the Wagner Act here.
2Sumner H. Schlichter, “The Taft-Hartley Act,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 63, no. 1 (February 1949): 1-31, quotation on 8.
The title is a paraphrase from Harry Millis and Emily Clark Brown, From the Wagner Act to Taft-Hartley.