Taft Hartley Protests: 1947
An anti-labor, anti-union law passed in 1947 over President Harry S. Truman's veto.

The law severely weakened labor unions and its effects continue to be felt as of this writing.

Labor unions saw some initial growth in the wake of the Act as the large scale industrial organizing that took place beginning in the mid-1930s drew to a close, but labor union membership and power soon began to drop steadily continuing into the 21st century.

The act was passed in the wake of the biggest strike wave in U.S. history 1945-46.

As GIs returned to the U.S. after World War II and sought employment, workers’ hours, and thereby their take-home pay, were cut in nearly all industries.

Pay demands were also pent up due to relatively small raises granted during the war years of 1942-45 where many unions entered no-strike pledges. The companies also began pushing elimination or weakening of seniority and other work rules designed to protect employees.

The strike wave involved workers in the auto, meatpacking, steel, coal, railroad, mining and oil industries, among others. The government responded by seizing the railroads, threatening to seize other industries and to draft strikers into the army.

Corporations responded to this rising worker militancy with a campaign to reduce union power.

The Taft-Hartley Act and its effects:

1.Outlawed secondary strikes, secondary boycotts and sympathy strikes designed to pressure employers. For example, it would be illegal for a union to organize a boycott of advertisers during a newspaper strike.
2.It permitted employers to wage anti union campaigns in their workplaces, including holding captive audience meetings. Since unions could generally be barred from workplace facilities, this tilted union organizing drives in favor of the company.
3.The Act permitted states to enact so-called “Right to Work” laws that permit workers covered by union contracts to opt out of union membership or service fees. This meant that unions had to represent workers that paid nothing into the union and further meant that unions had to devote resources to recruiting members. 28 states as of this writing now have right-to-work laws.
4.The law also barred members of the U.S. Communist Party and convicted felons from holding office in labor unions. At the time, communists led ten major unions and held major and minor offices in many others. The law effectively ended democracy in many unions as communist opponents expelled their opposition from the unions. Most of the ten communist-led unions ultimately dissolved or were greatly weakened. The overall effect was to decapitate the more militant wing of the labor movement.

There were other components, but these major restrictions effectively brought to an end labor union power in the U.S. While an uneasy labor-management peace took effect in the 1950s and 1960s, it ended when companies began a productivity drive in the late 1960s that produced a more than ten-year strike wave that ended in defeat after defeat for unions culminating with the air traffic controllers union being broken by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Despite a few starts and spurts since then, it has been a steady downhill trajectory in labor union power.

While the Taft-Harley Act is not solely responsible for this decline, it severely crippled unions in their ability to resist the employer offensives that have taken place since its passage and acted as an effective curb to union organizing.
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