Today In Labor History: In 1947, Truman Vetoes Taft-Hartley
File:HarryTruman.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

On June 20, 1947, President Harry S. Truman vetoed the odious Taft-Hartley Act, the most vile piece of labor legislation in American history. But in a sign of just how weak workers were, even at the peak of union power in America, Congress overrode his veto.

Sponsored by Robert Taft (R-OH) and Fred Hartley (R-NJ), the Taft-Hartley Bill was a direct response to the explosion in strikes immediately after World War II as well as a sign of how mistrusted unions remained in the United States. The mid-1940s saw American labor at the height of its power in American history, even after its greatest successes. Labor had played a key role in electing Democratic politicians for the past 15 years, had helped create a huge swath of the nascent American welfare state, and had forced many of the most recalcitrant corporations to acquiesce to unions in the workplace. And this increasingly powerful labor movement was antsy. Fifteen years of delayed consumer spending came to an end in late 1945 and American labor wanted its share of the pie. Despite a wartime pledge from both the AFL and CIO not to strike, the rank and file, angry that prices were rising during the war while wages were not, had to be wrestled away from strikes throughout the war. Once the war ended, millions of Americans went on strike in the largest walkout wave in American history. Over five million Americans went on strike in 1946, perhaps most famously in the Oakland General Strike.


Responding to this strike wave, conservatives introduced over 250 anti-union bills into Congress during 1947. Despite the growing power of the American working class, unions -- and especially the CIO -- were hated by business and distrusted by regular people in many rural and southern states. As Robert Caro notes in Means of Ascent, both Lyndon Johnson and Coke Stevenson strongly supported Taft-Hartley in the 1948 Senate election in Texas -- virtually every southern politician had to in order to survive. In fact, LBJ actually lied about Stevenson, saying he was soft on anti-unionism, which helped tip the election to the newcomer. The irony of this is that Johnson himself had far more ties to unions than Stevenson. But when did LBJ care about a little lie? Labor unions were seen as suspicious not only because of traditions of American individualism that may be myths but are myths people believe in, but because they were concentrated on the coasts and in the Upper Midwest, because people with weird foreign names were their members, and because some had ties to communism.

That Texas election is indicative of larger problems in organizing. Half of CIO union members were in five states -- Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, and Illinois. Smaller states such as Rhode Island and Massachusetts had significant union representation too. But the point is that in most of the nation -- and the entirety of the South and Great Plains and most of the Mountain West -- politicians had nothing to fear from union power and a lot to fear from supporting unions. The fact is that the system of American government, especially the undemocratic and largely worthless Senate, has reinforced inequality time and time again. It didn’t matter how many people were in New York and Illinois if the Senate gave equal power to people representing North Dakota and Arkansas. Plus, unions did not do enough to organize those states. So even at the height of worker power in American history, lots of people did not trust them and wanted to crush them and not only the rich. None of the politicians responsible for Taft-Hartley suffered politically for it.

The Taft-Hartley Act banned most of the actions labor used in the 1930s and mid '40s to force companies to recognize unions and to give working people a voice in American life, including wildcat strikes, secondary picketing, mass boycotts, the closed shop, and union donations to federal political campaigns. States were allowed to pass so called “right-to-work” laws that would force unions to represent people in the workplace who did not pay dues. These have been very powerful in incentivizing workers to not join unions. It also expanded the ability of the government to get injunctions to end strikes if the strike impacted national health and safety, which the courts have defined quite broadly over the past 65 years. It allowed companies to terminate anyone in a supervisory position who did not follow the company line on labor issues. Finally, it required union leaders to pledge they were not members of the Communist Party, which for some CIO unions was a major blow.

Harry Truman, fighting for his political life after the Republicans took control of Congress in 1946, could have decided he needed to prove his conservative credentials and sign the bill. Instead, Truman took the brave stand and vetoed this odious piece of legislation. Truman was willing to support some curbs on union activity. The Missourian was no wild-eyed radical or even a liberal. He didn’t really trust unions. But this went way too far. From Truman’s veto message:

“The bill is deliberately designed to weaken labor unions. When the sponsors of the bill claim that by weakening unions, they are giving rights back to individual workingmen, they ignore the basic reason why unions are important in our democracy. Unions exist so that laboring men can bargain with their employers on a basis of equality. Because of unions, the living standards of our working people have increased steadily until they are today the highest in the world.

A bill which would weaken unions would undermine our national policy of collective bargaining. The Taft-Hartley bill would do just that. It would take us back in the direction of the old evils of individual bargaining. It would take the bargaining power away from the workers and give more power to management.

This bill would even take away from our workingmen some bargaining fights which they enjoyed before the Wagner Act was passed 12 years ago.

If we weaken our system of collective bargaining, we weaken the position of every workingman in the country.
This bill would again expose workers to the abuses of labor injunctions.

It would make unions liable for damage suits for actions which have long been considered lawful.

This bill would treat all unions alike. Unions which have fine records, with long years of peaceful relations with management, would be hurt by this bill just as much as the few troublemakers.

The country needs legislation which will get rid of abuses. We do not need -- and we do not want -- legislation which will take fundamental rights away from our working people.”

And the evil of Taft-Hartley was defeated.

Except that Congress overrode Truman’s veto three days later, with the Senate voting by the wide margin of 68-25. Simply put, unions had very little support in the United States.

Thus began the decline of the American working class.

The AFL and CIO went to the mat for Truman after this; without their help he would have lost in1948. Labor has tried ever since to repeal the worst parts of Taft-Hartley, but despise some hope during the Johnson, Carter and Clinton administrations, they have never succeeded and there is little sign they will in the future either. In fact, as the nation’s political institutions sprint to the far right under Republican control, we can expect the courts to declare much of what unions do illegal in the next several years.

FURTHER READING

Judith Stepan-Norris and Maurice Zeitlin, Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions

Robert W. Cherny, William Issel, and Kieran Walsh Taylor, eds., American Labor and the Cold War: Grassroots Politics and Postwar Political Culture

Maeva Marcus, Truman and the Steel Seizure Case: The Limits of Presidential Power

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Erik Loomis

Erik Loomis is Associate Professor of History at the University of Rhode Island. He's the author of A History of America in Ten Strikes (The New Press, 2018).

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