Home / General / This Day in Labor History: June 20, 1947

This Day in Labor History: June 20, 1947


On this date in 1947, President Harry S. Truman vetoed the odious Taft-Hartley Act, the most vile piece of labor legislation in American history.

Sponsored by Robert Taft (R-OH) and Fred Hartley (R-NJ), the Taft-Hartley Bill was a direct response to the explosion in strikes immediately after World War II as well as a sign of how mistrusted unions remained in the United States. The mid-1940s saw American labor at the height of its power in American history, even after their greatest successes. Labor had played a key role in electing Democratic politicians for the past 15 years, had helped create a huge swath of the nascent American welfare state, and had forced many of the most recalcitrant corporations to acquiesce to unions in the workplace. And this increasingly powerful labor movement was antsy. Fifteen years of delayed consumer spending came to an end in late 1945 and American labor wanted its share of the pie. Despite a wartime pledge from both the AFL and CIO not to strike, the rank and file, angry that prices were rising during the war while wages were not, had to be wrestled away from strikes throughout the war. Once the war ended, millions of Americans went on strike in the largest walkout wave in American history. Over 5 million Americans went on strike in 1946, perhaps most famously in the Oakland General Strike.

Responding to this strike wave, conservatives introduced over 250 anti-union bills into Congress during 1947. Despite the growing power of the American working class, unions, and especially the CIO, were hated by business and distrusted by regular people in many rural and southern states. As Robert Caro notes in Means of Ascent, both Lyndon Johnson and Coke Stevenson strongly supported Taft-Hartley in the 1948 Senate election in Texas–virtually every southern politician had to in order to survive. Labor unions were seen as suspicious not only because of traditions of American individualism that may be myths but are myths people believe in, but because they were concentrated on the coasts and in the Upper Midwest, because people with weird foreign names were their members, and because some had ties to communism.

The Taft-Hartley Act banned most of the actions labor used in the 1930s and mid 40s to force companies to recognize unions and to give working people a voice in American life, including wildcat strikes, secondary picketing, mass boycotts, the closed shop, and union donations to federal political campaigns. States were allowed to pass right-to-work laws that would force unions to represent people in the workplace who did not pay dues. It also expanded the ability of the government to get injunctions to end strikes if the strike impacted national health and safety, which the courts have defined quite broadly over the past 65 years. It allowed companies to terminate anyone in a supervisory position who did not follow the company line on labor issues. Finally, it required union leaders to pledge they were not members of the communist party, which for some CIO unions was a major blow.

Harry Truman, fighting for his political life after the Republicans took control of Congress in 1946, could have decided he needed to prove his conservative credentials and sign the bill. Instead, Truman took the brave stand and vetoed this odious piece of legislation. Truman was willing to support some mild curbs on union activity. But this went way too far. From Truman’s veto message:

The bill is deliberately designed to weaken labor unions. When the sponsors of the bill claim that by weakening unions, they are giving rights back to individual workingmen, they ignore the basic reason why unions are important in our democracy. Unions exist so that laboring men can bargain with their employers on a basis of equality. Because of unions, the living standards of our working people have increased steadily until they are today the highest in the world.

A bill which would weaken unions would undermine our national policy of collective bargaining. The Taft-Hartley bill would do just that. It would take us back in the direction of the old evils of individual bargaining. It would take the bargaining power away from the workers and give more power to management.

This bill would even take away from our workingmen some bargaining fights which they enjoyed before the Wagner Act was passed 12 years ago.

If we weaken our system of collective bargaining, we weaken the position of every workingman in the country.

This bill would again expose workers to the abuses of labor injunctions.

It would make unions liable for damage suits for actions which have long been considered lawful.

This bill would treat all unions alike. Unions which have fine records, with long years of peaceful relations with management, would be hurt by this bill just as much as the few troublemakers.

The country needs legislation which will get rid of abuses. We do not need—and we do not want—legislation which will take fundamental rights away from our working people.

And the evil of Taft-Hartley was defeated.

Except that Congress overrode Truman’s veto three days later by the wide margin of 68-25.

Thus began the decline of the American working class.

The AFL and CIO went to the mat for Truman after this; without their help he would have lost in 1948. Labor has tried ever since to repeal the worst parts of Taft-Hartley, but despise some hope during both the Carter and Clinton Administrations, they have never succeeded.

This series has also discussed the San Francisco Waterfront Strike of 1934 and the murder of United Mine Workers reformer Jock Yablonski in 1970.

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  • DrDick

    We can’t have those filthy proles thinking they actually have a say in the system or deserve any of its benefits!

  • Joe

    “House had voted to override last Friday by 331 to 83.” The Senate vote is in the OP.


  • Joe

    As with other matters, what party you were in still mattered. On the Senate vote, the article cited notes:

    “Twenty Democrats joined forty-eight Republicans in voting to override.” 22 voted for it. So, the party was about evenly split. Three Rs voted to uphold.

  • Jameson Quinn

    The most important TDILH yet. The beginning of the end for the US.

  • James E. Powell

    I need to read more about this period in American history. I have never understood how a party whose leaders and programs had led the country out of the Great Depression and won WWII so quickly lost the confidence of the American people.

    I’m sure it’s not an easy explanation. I would be surprised if race were not in the mix because it is so present at every other time. But still. What was attractive about Republicans in 1946?

    • Well, there were a few reasons–long-term discomfort with the New Deal among a lot of people especially in the South and Midwest, fear of communism and beginning of Cold War was huge, the labor strikes. Really, the US was ready to have a conservative swing at any point after 1937 but FDR and the war managed to hold that off. In some ways, Truman himself was part of that conservative swing since he made his name as one of the relatively conservative Democrats in Congress investigating government waste. Sad days though, I am writing more about this in my book and it’s hard to see all these great ideas defeated in the late 40s.

      • Scott Lemieux

        And although FDR won in 1940 the conservative coalition took over Congress in 1938 and maintained its authority until LBJ smashed it.

    • Linnaeus

      What was attractive about Republicans in 1946?

      Truman was very unpopular in 1946, and the Republicans were able to make the midterm elections a referendum on his administration. With the end of the war, he had a delicate economic situation to deal with because Americans wanted an end to wartime rationing, but supplies were not available to meet the demand. But wartime price controls were still in place, which producers wanted an end to. So when Truman lifted price controls, prices for goods went way up; when he reimposed them, the supply of goods went down. Either way, Truman got blamed for the problem. Then there was the wave of postwar strikes, which Truman did not handle consistently, and that hurt his popularity further.

    • rea

      Note, also, that Churchill lost in a landslide in ’45–winning WWII wasn’t enough to secure re-election.

      • I thought about making the Churchill comparison myself until I realized that I know nothing about Britain so I have no idea why Churchill lost.

        • Murc

          Short version: Churchill only got to be PM in the first place because of a combination of unpopularity and fecklessness on the part of Chamberlain (and Lord Halifax refusing the post because he felt it belonged to an MP rather than a lord) and because there was a war on and the unity government decided it wanted a tough-as-nails fighter. There was never actually a national election with him as the presumptive PM until 1945.

          Prior to the war Churchill had not been popular with the british people as a whole, and he made a lot, a LOT, of enemies during the war; during the time of the unity government, if he had the choice between doing something, and doing the same thing but in a way that put the boot into Labour/Liberals (which they’d have to smile and bear their way through, ‘cos there was a war on) he’d choose the latter. Every time. They were white hot to defeat him the second they got the chance.

        • rea

          Well, IANAH, but it seems to me that in both countries, the voters were tired of wartime rationing and wage controls, and wanted new faces in charge.

        • Sly

          What Murc said. Also, Labour campaigned on various social reforms (including the NHS), arguing that if Britain can attain full employment by killing Germans, they can do it by building schools and hospitals. Churchill responded to these proposals by going on the BBC and calling the Labour Party a bunch of Nazis who wanted complete control over the economy and who would crush any public opposition to their nefarious goals by “fall(ing) back on some form of Gestapo.” This was such a ludicrously propagandistic claim that the entirety of Churchill’s remarks are now widely called “The Gestapo Speech.” The rest of the Tories followed suit, and campaigned on general slogans against socialism and the nefariousness of Labour.

          This had the impact of pissing off a whole hell of a lot of Labour voters, many of whom has risked their lives to defend Britain against totalitarianism, who might have otherwise voted for the Tories and maintain the “Unity Government.”

          • rea

            This was such a ludicrously propagandistic claim that the entirety of Churchill’s remarks are now widely called “The Gestapo Speech.”

            A very strange thing for Churchill to say about his wartime deputy Prime Minster.

            Although oddly, Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom,” which said essentially the same thing, now is relatively popular.

        • Linnaeus

          Of course, six years later, Churchill was prime minister again.

    • Lee

      The only two political parties that were able to achieve relatively permanent control in a democratic manner were the Social Democrats of Sweden and the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan. In other countries, even competent parties get voted out if they have been in power long enough according to the whims of the voters. Besides the factors mentioned by others, a lot of Americans might simply have been tired of the Democratic Party in 1946.

      • joe from Lowell

        Just look at Presidential history since then. In the past 66 years, the American public has only returned on of the parties to the White House for a third term once (1988). After eight years, the sins of the opposition party are largely forgotten, while the sins of the incumbent party are right there in everyone’s face. Meanwhile, whatever personal affection the public might have for the outgoing two-term President does not transfer to anyone else.

        This is why I don’t buy the argument that Al Gore enjoyed some kind of incumbency advantage, and should have had no problem beating Bush by running on “four more years.”

        • LeeEsq

          Or in terms of total control over the executive and legislative branches, the Democrats and the Republicans were only able to pull of long term dominance once after the other party really messed up. The Republicans did so after the Civil War till the Cleveland administration. The Democratic Party after the Great Depression. Both only lasted for about a generation.

  • DaveP

    How did the Republicans ever win in 1946? What the hell were voters thinking? “Gee, the Hooverite, isolationist Republicans did such a great job of digging us out of the Depression and preparing us for the fight against Nazism and Japanese imperialism, we’ll reward them with control of Congress so they can set us on the long march backward. Our grandchildren will thank us!” And then their grandchildren voted Republican in 2010. We are such a screwed-up country.

    • DaveP

      Obviously I posted my comment before I saw the conversation between James and Erik. Sorry for the redundancy.

      • No, no, these are good conversations to have. It’s all good.

    • Njorl

      I find the swing to the Republicans in 2010 to be vastly more confusing than the switch to Republicans in 1946. Some people voting in 1946 were only 4 years old when the Republicans flushed the country down the toilet in 1929. They never knew what they were like. Others had plenty of time to forget. There was even a chance that they were different.

      In contrast, there was no reason to think Republicans were capable of governing in 2010. They were the same inept, corrupt and hateful monsters that ruined the country, but it was all forgotten. It’s too implausible for fiction, yet here we are.

      • Hogan

        In the words of Peter Milligan, that’s the great thing about this country. Nobody remembers anything.

      • James E. Powell

        I see the 2010 election as a combination of voters’ response to what they perceived as inaction or inadequate action on the economy with rage directed at ‘that man’ who they never liked to begin with.

        It’s tired now, I guess, to point out that Obama & the Democrats should have done more to demonize the Republicans and their policies as the cause of the economic problems. But the fact that it’s tired doesn’t make it any less true.

      • Sly

        The people who voted for Republicans in 2010 to “fix” the economy are the same people who think the financial collapse occurred because Jimmy Carter and/or Barney Frank gave a trillion dollars worth of housing to black people.

        Personally, I think trying to discern the “national mood” through a legislative election in which about 40% of eligible voters actually voted to be more confusing.

      • Lee

        The Republicans in 1946 were also a more moderate party that mainly made their peace with the New Deal. The might have been unwilling to expand it but most of them thought advocating ending it would be politically disastorous or even immoral.

      • joe from Lowell

        In contrast, there was no reason to think Republicans were capable of governing in 2010.

        I blame the Cult of the Presidency. The opposition that people felt towards Republican leadership was directed at Bush, not at those nice Republican candidates, many of whom were very upset indeed at Bush’s deficit spending. Meanwhile, the public’s dissatisfaction with the economy was directed towards Obama, because he’s the President, making it easy for the Republicans to run against him.

      • Joe Benge

        The Republicans lost the House again immediately in 1948, dropping 75 seats, and they lost 9 Senate seats that year too, so people obviously wised up pretty quickly to what it was like being governed by Republicans again.

        • Davis X. Machina

          Yet Taft-Hartley survived the changed landscape.

          However much Americans admire unions in theory, boy howdy, they hate them in practice. Or is it the other way ’round.

          Anyhow, by 1948 — civil rights plank, Thurmond’s third-party run — when it came to domestic and economic politics, we were about to begin 40 years of worrying about things far more important than whether the worker gets a fair shake.

  • PZ

    I’d like to point out Taft-Hartley is unconstitutional in that it interferes with a person’s freedom of association. However, the courts have never agreed with me on this sadly…

    • rea

      Taft-Hartley is unconstitutional in that it interferes with a person’s freedom of association.

      While there are many things wrong with Taft-Hartley, it’s hard to see how that’s one of them.

      • PZ

        By allowing states to prevent dues collection aka “open shop” states, it allows states to purposefully prevent unions from having power.

        Also, the banning of secondary strikes, boycotts, etc, can easily been seen as infringing on freedom of speech…

        • rea

          I think right-to-work laws are wrong because of the “free rider” problem, but I just don’t see how a law that says you can’t be forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment violates freedom of association. The whole problem is that the free riders don’t want to be in the union.

        • joe from Lowell

          “unions having power” is not the same thing as “free association.” You have to be able to show someone not being able to associate with someone, not just that the association is less effective at what it does.

      • Lee

        IMO, PZ is probably arguing that labor unions should protected by the First Amendment because they are an expression of freedom of association.

        One of the biggest problems that labor unions had in the United Stats is that many working and lower-middle class Americans were hostile to them for various reasons. Its easy for the rich to fight against unions if natural union members are also against them. Does anybody know if unions elsewhere faced similar distrust from natural members?

        • rea

          labor unions should protected by the First Amendment because they are an expression of freedom of association.

          Well, that’s right, but it doesn’t suffice to render “right to work” laws unconstitutional

        • Davis X. Machina

          There’s a long history in the UK of this, and come the ’70’s it culminates with the rise of working-class Thatcherism — and that was, or became, wide and deep enough to found a party on.

          The Conservatives of 1985 are not the Conservatives of 1945.

    • Joe

      Closed shop and union shop contracts are drawn up through free negotiation between unions and employers, so the states and the Federal government shouldn’t really have the power to say that these kinds of agreements are illegal. Is that what you mean?

  • Only want to note that I am glad this has led to some useful discussion.

  • rea

    I guess I just don’t see Taft-Hartley as the great turning point in the history of unions. Unions were doing just fine in the 50’s and 60’s. What happened instead was that the old New Deal political coalition broke down over Vietnam, civil rights, and culture war issues, with the mass of union members (individually and sometimes as unions) siding with the right. Union members were instrumental in voting into office the very people who wanted to destroy the power of unions in the workplace.

    • I disagree–what historians are increasingly finding is that corporations were laying the groundwork in the 50s and 60s to roll back all the gains labor had made since the 30s, starting the processes of globalization and outsourcing, using mechanization to lay people off and increase profit margins, etc. On the surface, the glory days of labor were the 50s and 60s, but the foundation that created those conditions was already crumbling. Whether we date that change precisely to Taft-Hartley or not is up for debate but it makes more sense to me than any other point.

      • rea

        I can’t hope to get into a technical argument with you as to what the historical record shows, Erik, since you’re a professional in the area and I’m not.

        All I know is, as someone who grew up as the child of a mangement labor relations specialist in the 60’s, that’s sure not how my dad and his associates were thinking about unions. They thought their companies’ best interests were served by labor peace and cooperation over common interests (And of course, they were right, even though it’s not fashionable today to think that way).

        But, anecdotal evidence, I know.

        • Fake Irishman

          True, but also remember that private sector labor had a critical mass in the ’50s and ’60s to work from that forced business to work with them. Also, that critical mass helped open the door for unionization in the public sector in the 1950s and 1960s, which helped partially mask private-sector unions’ growing weaknesses in the 1970s.

          By making it harder to organize (restrictions on actions) and maintain (opening the door for Right-to-Work Laws) unions, Taft-Hartly bled the organizing effectiveness and financial power of unions. When the economy changed to the detriment of the traditional industries, it was much harder to organize the new service sector.

    • rea

      Although another big part of it is that US capitalism has lost its bearings in a very self-destructive way. The focus is now on short-term profits and high pay for corporate executives and financiers rather than the long-term interests of the company. Management stopped seeing unions as long-term bargaining partners with mutual interests, and reverted back to the old-style way of thinking, under which unions were enemies to be beaten in the interests of putting every available cent into the pockets of corporate executives and bankers.

      • I don’t think companies ever actually did see unions as long-term bargaining partners. It was a necessary compromise but they looked to bail immediately.

        I recommend Jefferson Cowie’s superb Capital Moves on this point.

        • James E. Powell

          For a more detailed view of what was going on in the post-war expansion, it is important to look beyond the large manufacturers to the NAM members who were the Koch’s of their day.

          • Joe Benge

            Kim Phillips-Fein’s book Invisible Hands is really good on this. There’s a whole hidden level of labor relations consultants, business lobbies, and industry-funded think tanks working from the very beginning of the New Deal to regain the upper hand over the unions. There never was any labor peace other than the big accords negotiated to keep the rank and file workers quiet, and these were always tenuous.

            • I need to read Invisible Hands actually. This is a good reminder.

              • Joe Benge

                It’s the best explanation of the origins of modern conservatism that I’ve read. The bits on the theorizing of freedom and the markets by guys like Hayek and von Mises, funded by industrialists and business groups is fascinating.

                • I think the worst part about being a professor is that it is so hard to find time for reading.

    • bradp

      I’m gonna throw this out there in hopes of getting some opinions:

      In the thirties, unions were making much of their gains through direct action and marshalling their own collective industrial power against employers. Political gains were obviously a goal as well, but their success was not defined solely by the friendliness of government.

      If electing the wrong candidate, especially because of civil liberties and foreign policy, is a critical blow to union power, the unions had already lost.

      In the end, the government was never going to give unions more than they could take for themselves, and reliance on politicians would have always been a losing battle.

      So while I see the NLRA as both the summit and nadir of unionism in this country, Taft-Hartley was an obvious and clear statement as to where labor’s place was in the grand scheme of things. That is to say, low.

      • Davis X. Machina

        No one is happy about it, or happy about even mentioning it, but it seems like a plausible threat of violent revolution, and a wave of expropriation, is a precondition for any serious change in labor-capital relations.

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  • Ken Meyer

    Re: Trumans comment of…

    “Unions exist so that laboring men can bargain with their employers on a basis of equality.”

    …. it says much about why Taft-Hartley had to come about, if only because the simple truth is that “laboring men” and “employers” are NOT equal; there is no shortage of “laboring men” – or those willing to labor – while there is generally a very REAL shortage of employers; i.e. – those entities which, through their OWN labor, their OWN initiative, their OWN capability, have put themselves in a position in which they can offer the OPPORTUNITY of the “laboring men” to actually be compensated for their labor.

    Like it or not, this world needs more constructive employers, and the odds are that “laboring men” will always be seeking them out. And while employers may need “laboring men” generally, in this day and age, they need fewer and fewer of them, and they don’t necessarily need those of any one particular locality. In truth, giving [so-called] “unions” even more destructive power only serves to drive employers away. Look at what the UAW has done to the jobs of its member base. Or the IAM. Or the UFCW. Or USW. Or the Teamsters. Or the UMW.

    In short, thank goodness Truman’s veto was over-ridden back in ’46, because I suspect that if it hadn’t been, this nation’s economy – and the well-being of the “laboring men” – would be in much worse shape than it is today.

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