Passed in 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act remains the cornerstone of United States labor law today. This act amended the Wagner Act of 1935. Commonly called the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, this legislation reflects the attitudes of post-World War II America towards labor. Due to "national emergency" strikes during the war, postwar strikes, and the advantages given to unions by the Wagner Act, a Republican-controlled Congress passed the Act in an attempt to restore the balance of power between labor and management. The Act restricts the activities of unions in four ways by:
The Taft-Hartley Act prohibited several labor practices judged to be "unfair." First, the Taft-Hartley Act made it illegal for unions to restrain employees from exercising their guaranteed bargaining rights. Therefore, a union cannot threaten the jobs of employees who vote against the union, once the union is recognized. Employees who criticize the union or testify against it in hearings or court cases cannot be punished.
Second, the act named as unfair any action by the union that would result in employers' discrimination against employees in order to encourage or discourage membership in a union. Exceptions to this include "'closed" or "union" shop situations in which union membership is a prerequisite for employment. A closed shop is one in which the employer can hire only union members. Closed shops were outlawed in 1947, but still exist in some industries, largely left to the discretion of state governments. A union shop is one in which the employer can hire non-union employees, but employees must join the union within a certain period of time. If an employee does not join the union and pay dues, he or she can be terminated. In either situation, the union cannot force the employer to dismiss an employee for any other cause.
Third, the Taft-Hartley Act required unions to bargain "in good faith" with employers, and outlawed "wildcat" strikes (refusing to work while a valid contract exists). Bargaining in good faith requires both the union and management to communicate and initiate counter proposals, and make every reasonable effort to reach an agreement. The parties are not required to make concessions, only to meet and to discuss proposals.
Finally, the Act made "featherbedding" illegal. Featherbedding is the practice of making employers pay salaries to individuals who perform no work.
The Taft-Hartley Act also protected employees' rights against their unions. Closed shops that forced employees to join unions were considered to violate an individual's right to freedom of association. Without the Taft-Hartley Act, states could not have enacted "right-to-work" legislation, which guarantees employees will not have to join a union as a condition of employment.
Right-to-work laws prohibit closed shops. Many states in the southern United States have enacted such laws. In the North, however, where unions have traditionally been strong, most states have not enacted right-to work legislation.
Critics of right-to-work laws point out that, since unions in a bargaining situation with a company are compelled to represent all employees in that company (as opposed to just those that belong to the union), non-unionized employees are in fact receiving the benefits of union representation for free. Such employees, these critics argue, benefit at the expense of the union. For this and other reasons, organized labor opposes right-to-work laws.
Under the Taft-Hartley Act, employers have the right to express their views and opinions concerning unions and the results of unionization. Employers may say anything they wish about unions as long as they avoid threats, promises, coercion, and direct interference. For example, employers can claim that unionization might result in a plant closing; but cannot say that a particular plant will be closed if the union is voted in.
The Taft-Hartley Act gives the president of the United States the power to intervene when a strike becomes a "national emergency strike." National emergency strikes are those that can endanger national health or safety. The president may appoint a board of inquiry charged with making a report of the situation. Based upon this report, the president could apply for an injunction restraining the strike for 60 days. If there has been no resolution at the end of 60 days, the injunction can be extended for another 20 days. During this period, employees are polled in a secret ballot to determine their willingness to comply with the terms of their employer's last offer.
The Taft-Hartley Act amended the Wagner Act of 1935. The Wagner Act was commonly referred to as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), whose function was to monitor the collective bargaining process.
The NLRB is composed of five members, all of whom are appointed to five-year terms by the president of the United States, with the consent of the U.S. Senate. The general counsel of the NLRB is also appointed by the president, to a four year term. The board is charged with running over fifty different offices throughout the United States.
The responsibilities of the NLRB include:
The NLRB can issue cease-and-desist orders for unfair labor practices. These orders are then enforced, upon appeal, by the U.S. Court System.
Any person or organization may file a charge of unfair labor practice with the NLRB. In addition, the NLRB accepts petitions to either certify or decertify an employee representative, with respect to collective bargaining issues. The NLRB will then conduct secret ballots of employees to determine the certification or decertification of a union.
Officially listed as the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, the LandrumGriffin Act amended the Wagner Act (1935), and further enumerated unfair labor practices not named in the Taft-Hartley Act. The clear purpose of this Act was to further protect union members from possible wrongful acts on the part of their union leaders and officers. This legislation affords union employees with a number of rights within the framework of their union. The election processes were made more open through requirements that eliminated closed nomination systems. Union employees were assured of their right to sue their union for just damages without fear of retaliation. Union employees cannot be fined or suspended by the union without due process. Such due process includes a list of specific charges, a fair hearing, and time in which to prepare a defense. This Act also required unions to provide copies of the applicable collective bargaining agreement to all members working under that contract.
In addition, unions were banned from engaging in secondary boycotts, and from making agreements that forced employers to deal exclusively with other union shops or buy only union-made goods. Picketing an employer who had a valid collective bargaining contract with another union was also forbidden.
The greatest period of growth for unions occuffed between the Wagner Act of 1935 and the TaftHartley Act of 1947. During these years, union membership increased from approximately 3.5 million to 15 million. It is clear that the Taft-Hartley Act slowed the growth of union membership in the years following its passage. The issue of the proper balance of power between employers and employees continues, for which the Taft-Hartley Act functions as a historical backdrop.
[ Bruce D. Buskirk and
John E. Oliver ]
Jacoby, Daniel. Laboring for Freedom: A New Look at the History of Labor in America. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1998.
Kovach, Kenneth A. Strategic Labor Relations. Boston: University Press of America, 1997.
Nelson, Daniel Shifting Fortunes: The Rise and Decline of American Labor, from the 1820s to the Present. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1997.