On February 10, 1966, the Senate failed to gain cloture on an attempt to appeal Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act, a sign of the limited power of labor unions in American politics, even at the height of their membership and influence in the United States.
The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act had many terrible provisions. It is most notorious on the left for the provision that required union leaders to sign affidavits that they were not communists, which led to the eviction of active communists from the labor movement, although there was plenty of support for that in the labor movement anyway. But the most significant provision of all was Section 14(b). This allowed states to pass so-called “right to work” laws that did not require union membership or fair share fees from workers in a unionized workplace. In other words, 51% of the workplace could form a union and even if they managed to get a contract, the other 49% would gain all the benefits of said contract without paying one dime toward the union. Moreover, the union would still be required to represent non-members in disputes, etc. Essentially, what this did was give employers in non-union states, especially in the South, a great tool to ensure a union-free workplace. It proved extremely effective and the American union movement remained mostly confined to only about 12-15 states. Just as an example, at its height, over 1/2 of CIO members were in only 5 states: Michigan, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. And while they had plenty of members in smaller northeastern states and some on the west coast, most of the nation had very low union membership rates. So it remained.
From the moment Taft-Hartley passed, it was the top goal of the labor movement to repeal Section 14(b). They could live with most of the rest of the law, but the openly anti-union provision of that section was Enemy #1. In the mid-1960s, with a new tide of liberalism changing the nation, Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in full swing, and pioneering new social programs being passed, the AFL-CIO thought they finally had the power to make this happen. Moreover, LBJ, whose record on unions was extremely mixed before he was president, was on board. In fact, LBJ, who rose to Congress in the late 30s as an open liberal, ran for the Senate in 1948 by lying that his opponent was a union supporter, which he was not. But he knew what played better in Texas and he knew the truth was not always so important. Yet, as we so well know, LBJ was a complicated guy and by 1966, he supported the repeal of 14(b) and hoped Congress would pass it.
There had been a series of efforts in previous years for Taft-Hartley reform. In 1953, the Eisehnhower administration had a political debacle when it named Martin Durkin, president of the plumbers’ union, as Secretary of Labor. Durkin agreed after having been led to believe that Eisenhower was open to Taft-Hartley reform. Whoops! When Durkin gave Eisenhower nineteen amendments to Taft-Hartley, he was shocked to see the president reject them all. He immediately resigned, making his tenure the shortest in the history of the position.
By 1965, unions were ready for another shot. Johnson was at the height of his political influence and law after law was being passed that changed American for the better. But as per normal in American history, that would not be extended to organized labor. By 1965, there were 19 states with right-to-work laws. That meant 38 senators from states that already had an expressed opposition to unions. And as so often in American history, southern Democrats and Republicans would band against progressive reform. Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen was from Illinois, a union-heavy state, but he hated organized labor. While the filibuster was not as normal a part of legislating in 1965 as it is today, when reactionaries really cared about something, they would pull out. And Dirksen really cared about Taft-Hartley. So he led a filibuster and a House bill to repeal 14(b) never came to a vote.
Senate liberals were outraged and determined to bring it back very quickly. Johnson wanted it done. But nothing had really changed. There were 52 senators who publicly stated their support for repeal. There were probably 10 or so additional senators who were on the fence. For Johnson, this was a mid-level priority. What this meant is that, especially given his increased distractions in Vietnam, he wasn’t quite going to go to the mat for it. It wasn’t the Civil Rights Act or Voting Rights Act. No one was going to get the LBJ treatment for opposing it. The basic terms of the battle were fairly obvious–Senate liberals and the AFL-CIO on one side, conservatives and business groups, especially the Chamber of Commerce, on the other. Dirksen once again led the filibuster effort. And in truth, it did not come close to getting what was then the 67 votes needed to defeat a filibuster. On February 8, the vote was 51-48. Not promising. Despite two days of heavy lobbying, the February 10 vote was even worse–50-49.
Two major things happened to push those wavering senators off the fence and onto opposition, including George McGovern, a pro-labor senator from a right-wing state. First, the massive lobbying campaign from the Chamber got a lot of small-town and conservative support from right-wing states to overwhelm senators with letters of opposition, threatening their jobs. This is certainly what moved McGovern. George Meany, who normally understood these things actually did at that time, but then used it as a cudgel against McGovern in 1972 because the latter opposed what Meany cared about more, killing Vietnamese. Second, subway workers went on strike in New York City just as the bill was coming before Congress. The news coverage of the strike was not positive and for conservatives, it was a sign of the evil of unions. So that created an anti-union atmosphere at precisely the wrong time. Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz said it, “left a very bad taste in most people’s mouths about organized labor.” Johnson later claimed he did all he could to see it through, but that wasn’t quite true. In short, it’s possible that an inside straight of circumstances could have created the conditions for 14(b) repeal, but it was very, very hard to pull off.
In the aftermath of the 1966 failure, the AFL-CIO said it would only support candidates who were in favor of repeal, but the reality of American politics is that union support would often hurt candidates in much of the country. So this threat did not have that much power behind it. While there was talk under the Carter and Clinton presidencies about labor law reform to get rid of 14(b), there has never again been a serious effort to fix this gargantuan problem in American union organizing.
This is the 297th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.