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June 12, 2013 11:35 AM The Wave Rolled Back: The Legacy of Taft-Hartley

By Ed Kilgore

At Democracy: A Journal, PA’s good friend and sometimes contributor Rich Yeselson has penned an important and multi-facted analysis of the contemporary plight of the American labor movement, and of prospects for its future growth after decades of falling membership, especially in the private sector.

In this post (there will be at least one other on Yeselson’s essay), I just want to highlight Rich’s reminders of the impact of the Taft-Hartley Act in halting and then reversing the strength of the labor movement at a crucial point in U.S. history. He helps explain why Taft-Hartley’s legacy is still powerful today, particularly in the role it played in the decimation of unions in the South and in encouraging that region’s race-to-the-bottom approach to economic development, which the Republican Party has chosen as a national model for dubious prosperity.

Taft-Hartley, Yeselson notes, represented a reaction not only to the sensational growth of unions in the decade following enactment of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, but also to a large wave of strikes reflecting labor movement fears that a post-World-War-II economy (with relatively high unemployment due to the reentry of troops into the labor force, and perhaps high inflation unleashed by the lapse of wartime price controls) would wipe out wage and benefit gains secured during the war. Other factors, of course (including a resurgence of post-war neo-isolationism, and a natural voter fatigue with liberal governance after 14 years of Democratic control of Congress and the White House), fed the 1946 Republican landslide, but Taft-Hartley was and remains the most important product of the 80th Congress, as southern Democrats fearful of the civil rights agenda of labor united with the GOP to rein in unions:

[A]t the high-water mark of its power and size, the labor movement generated an even more powerful backlash from the nation’s power elite, which was augmented by an obsessive determination from the white South to make its region as union-free as possible. Southern elites, led by their nearly unified bloc in both houses of Congress, feared an ongoing alliance between labor and the first signs of a sustained African-American civil-rights movement, fueled by the return from the war of African-American soldiers newly emboldened to seek justice. The CIO, observing the same phenomenon, hopefully launched “Operation Dixie” in 1946, a well-funded effort to organize throughout 12 Southern states. Southern elites ruthlessly race-baited, red-baited, and intimidated poor black and white workers. Operation Dixie failed dismally, only making the Southern bloc more determined to stop unions in the region. Ira Katznelson, the great historian and political scientist, has called this implacable opposition of the South to African-American rights and the labor movement “the Southern cage.”

Taft-Hartley did not, as Yeselson concedes, immediately produce major reductions in union membership. But it did, via its state “right-to-work” option, essentially wall off the South from union membership gains; eliminated the ability to organize foremen and supervisors; banned highly effective secondary boycotts; and generally promoted a “bureaucratization” of unions that henceforth spent an extraordinary portion of their time and resources protecting their legal status. The wave of worker enthusiasm that fed the union boom between 1935 and 1945 subsided, and ultimately retreated as other adverse developments—notably the much-discussed phenomena of automation and globalization—took effect.

All in all, while some union fears surrounding Taft-Hartley did not materialize, and others beyond the scope of labor law became more important, the perceived importance of this landmark, which led President Harry S. Truman to explain his veto of the legislation (soon overridden by Congress) in a national radio address, wasn’t illusory. As Yeselson says:

Taft-Hartley didn’t destroy labor. But it stopped labor dead in its tracks at a point when unions were large, growing, and confident of their economic and political power; when unions really were what The Wall Street Journal still laughably calls “big labor.” The law codified a series of legal land mines—some of which didn’t detonate for decades—that forced unions to weigh the political and economic costs of doing anything too aggressive in their efforts to grow, and, indeed, to begin fighting many rearguard actions to protect the gains they had already made. Without Taft-Hartley, it’s easy to imagine a continued increase in union density rather than a flattening followed by a gradual and then dramatic decline.

It’s this kind of swift and enduring blow against its enemies that today’s conservatives hope for next time they control the White House and the Congress. It would be folly for progressives to consider that hope delusional.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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