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How Taft Hartley Restricts Labor Rights

Posted By on July 12, 2011

Sitdown Strike

Sit down strike

The US union movement was built during the last serious recession (the Great Depression, which started in 1929). Then, as now, employers took advantage of the economic downturn to cut wages, pile on work and force employees to work under sweatshop conditions. In the 1930s organized labor, largely led by the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), fought back through sit down and wildcat strikes. A wildcat strike is an unofficial strike, usually called in response to mistreatment of a co-worker. In essence, workers refuse to return until management agrees to their demands.

Because slowdowns and wildcat and sit down strikes are illegal under the Taft Hartley Act, American unions face steep fines for engaging in them.  In 2011, if a worker is bullied, harassed or illegally fired by an employer, his only option is to file a grievance through the National Labor Relations Board, a process that can drag out for months or years. Because there are no real sanctions against employers, workplace bullying and harassment are incredibly common in the US. In my Seattle practice, I counseled numerous victims of workplace harassment while they waited for their grievance hearing. The stress of trying to work productively in a hostile environment is so enormous that most are forced to quit or take unpaid leave while waiting for their grievance to be heard.

Other Taft Hartley provisions that restrict labor rights:

  • Taft Hartley authorizes states to enact right-to-work laws. These laws outlaw collective bargaining contracts (contracts agreed on between union and management) that make union membership a condition of employment. Such laws are virtually unheard of in other countries, as they permit “free-rider” workers to enjoy the hard won benefits of union membership (wages and benefits are always better in a union company) without joining the union or paying dues. In the 22 states (mostly in the South and Rocky Mountain region) that have them, they have reduced union membership to a level that it has virtually no effect on working conditions.
  • Taft Hartley excludes supervisors and independent contractors (which includes most doctors) as employees for purposes of union membership. This has allowed companies to arbitrarily designate thousands of employees as independent contractors and/or supervisors and thus deprive them of union protection. As well greatly reducing potential union membership.
  • Taft Hartley makes pass picketing illegal – a common tactic used during the 1930s to discourage scab labor from entering the worksite.
  • Taft Hartley allows the President to obtain an 80 day court ordered injunction to halt a strike, allowing the employer sufficient time to recruit scabs to replace striking workers.
  • Taft Hartley establishes the right of management to campaign against union membership (often incorporating coercive scare tactics) during a unionizing drive. This is in marked contrast to European countries, where employers (who always have an unfair advantage)  are required to maintain a neutral stance towards union organizing.
  • Taft Hartley allows the employer to petition for a union certification election and/or decertification election. Similar laws are also unheard of in Europe. Management frequently uses this provision to force a premature certification vote, before workers have had a full discussion of the pros and cons of union membership.
  • Taft Hartley prohibits secondary boycotts directed against neutral companies to pressure employers who are refusing to negotiate. Prior to 1947, this was one of organized labor’s most potent tools.
  • Taft Hartley allows employers to delay union certification by demanding National Labor Relations Board hearings on key matters of dispute (such as what constitutes a bargaining unit). Management often uses the time to coerce individual workers to vote against the union.
  • Taft Hartley establishes heavy penalties against unions who violate the Act and negligible penalties for employer violations. This tends to make employer violations of labor rights (e.g. illegal firing of labor supporters during organizing drives) routine.
  • (Prior to 1965) Taft Hartley required all union leaders to sign an anti-communist pledge. Prior to its 1965 repeal, this led to massive red-baiting in the union movement, with the result that the most militant union members were either expelled or forced out.

To be continued.


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