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In the Public Interest

The Taft-Hartley Act
By Ralph Nader
July 18, 2002

This year marks the 55th anniversary of the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, one of the great blows to American democracy.

The Act, which was drafted by employers, fundamentally infringed on workers' human rights.

Legally, it impeded employees' right to join together in labor unions, it undermined the power of unions to represent workers' interests effectively, and it authorized an array of anti-union activities by employers.

Among its key provisions, Taft-Hartley:

o Authorized states to enact so-called right-to-work laws. These laws undermine the ability to build effective unions by creating a free-rider problem -- workers can enjoy the benefits of union membership in a workplace without actually joining the union or paying union dues. Right-to-work laws increase employer leverage to resist unions by enabling them to benefit from free riders; and vastly decrease union membership, thus dramatically diminishing unions' bargaining power.

o Outlawed the closed shop, which required that persons join the union before being eligible for employment with the unionized employer. (Still permitted are provisions which require any member of a bargaining unit to pay a portion of dues to that union.)

o Defined "employee" for purposes of the Act as excluding supervisors and independent contractors. This diminished the pool of workers eligible to be unionized. The exclusion of supervisors from union organizing activity meant they would be used as management's "front line" in anti-organizing efforts.

o Permitted employers to petition for a union certification election, thus undermining the ability of workers and unions to control the timing of an election during the sensitive organizing stage, forcing an election before the union is ready.

o Required that election hearings on matters of dispute be held before a union recognition election, thus delaying the election. Delay generally benefits management, giving the employer time to coerce workers.

o Established the "right" of management to campaign against a union organizing drive, thereby scuttling the principle of employer neutrality.

o Prohibited secondary boycotts -- boycotts directed to encourage neutral employers to pressure the employer with which the union has a dispute. Secondary boycotts had been one of organized labor's most potent tools, for organizing, negotiating and dispute settlement.

The political damage of Taft-Hartley was just as severe. In addition to starting an era of red-baiting with the American labor movement which led to harmful internal division (a now-invalidated provision of Taft-Hartley required union leaders to sign anti-communist affidavits), the Act sent a message to employers: It was OK to bust unions and deny workers their rights to collectively bargain.

In short, Taft-Hartley entrenched significant executive tyranny in the workplace, with ramifications that are more severe today than ever. Union membership is at historic 60-year lows, with only 10 percent of the private economy's workforce unionized. Employer violations of labor rights are routine, and illegal firings of union supporters in labor organizing drives are at epidemic levels.

It is past time for the repeal of Taft-Hartley. That would be one important step in restoring workers right to organize into unions, achieve a living wage in the Wal-Marts, McDonald's and other workplaces, and in revitalizing American democracy.