In a broadcast to the AFL-CIO merger meeting On December 5, 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said,
“You of organized labor and those who have gone before you in the union movement have helped make a unique contribution to the general welfare of the Republic--the development of the American philosophy of labor. This philosophy, if adopted globally, could bring about a world, prosperous, at peace, sharing the fruits of the earth with justice to all men. It would raise to freedom and prosperity hundreds of millions of men and women--and their children--who toil in slavery behind the Curtain.
One principle of this philosophy is: the ultimate values of mankind are spiritual; these values include liberty, human dignity, opportunity and equal rights and justice.
Workers want recognition as human beings and as individuals-before everything else. They want a job that gives them a feeling of satisfaction and self-expression. Good wages, respectable working conditions, reasonable hours, protection of status and security; these constitute the necessary foundations on which you build to reach your higher aims. “
When Eisenhower gave this speech in the 1950s, more than one-third of all American workers were members of a union. Unions were largely credited with bringing about the 40-hour work week, the 8-hour day, the concept of a “weekend,” health coverage, pension reform, and safe working conditions. But today, union membership in the private sector has fallen to 7.2% While some of that is due to changes in industry structure in the US, the single biggest factor that has contributed to the elimination of union protections and bargaining powers is the Taft-Hartley Act.
Passed in 1947 over the veto of President Harry Truman, the Taft-Hartley Act (often known in labor circles as "the slave-labor bill") has been described by Ralph Nader as "one of the great blows to American democracy…that fundamentally infringed on workers' human rights" -- most importantly, their right to unionize.
The includes the following provisions:
- Authorizes 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 and vastly decrease union membership, thus dramatically diminishing unions' bargaining power. 23 states are currently right-to-work states, with legislation threatening in New Hampshire and Wisconsin.
- Defines "employees" for purposes of the Act as excluding supervisors. This diminishes the pool of workers eligible to be unionized. The exclusion of supervisors from union organizing activity also means they can be used (and coerced) as management's "front line" in anti-organizing efforts; what's more, employers can fire supervisors who try to unionize.
- Defines "employees" for purposes of the Act as excluding independent contractors. It means that institutions such as colleges can hire staff, often using grant funds, as ‘independent contractors,’ thus excluding them from benefits such as health insurance and pension, and denying them union membership and contractual benefits.
- Requires that election hearings on ‘matters of dispute’ be held before a union recognition election, thus delaying the election; these delays enables management to ‘buy time,’ and has been shown to give management an advantage as over time workers feel coerced into avoiding organizing activities.
- Establishes the "right" of management to campaign against a union organizing drive, thereby eliminating the time-honored legal principle of employer neutrality.
- Prohibits secondary and sympathy boycotts—boycotts directed to encourage neutral employers to pressure a defiant 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 prior to the passage of Taft-Hartley.
- Enables the federal government to move in and demand an 80-day cooling off period if it deems a strike to be detrimental to the national interest.
The Act sent a clear message to employers: It is OK to bust unions and deny workers their rights to collectively bargain. Today, union membership is at historic 60-year lows, employer violations of labor rights are routine, and illegal firings of union supporters in labor organizing drives are at epidemic levels.
The advent of unions created a balance in bargaining power between ‘producers’ of labor (workers) and purchasers of labor (employers), providing for fairer conditions overall. The attempted destruction of unions through Taft-Hartley and recent political moves against public employee unions represents a scary step backwards in American history.
On labor issues, the Republicans are essentially a lost cause, preferring to regularly side with the owners and investors of businesses at the expense of common workers.
But Democrats have not been appreciably better.
The Taft-Hartley Act passed in 1947 with majority support of the Democratic majority in Congress.
Under Truman in 1949, the Democrats failed to repeal Taft-Hartley.
Under Johnson in 1965 and 1966, the Democrats twice failed to repeal Section 14b of Taft-Hartley, the section that enabled states to outlaw union shops (so-called “right-to-work” laws).
Under Carter in 1977 and 1978, the Democrats failed to pass one bill that would have repealed the Taft-Hartley prohibition on solidarity picketing at construction sites and another bill to reform the National Labor Relations Board whose long delays and inconsequential employer sanctions had made it a shield for union-busting.
Under Clinton in 1993, the Democrats failed to pass a ban on permanent striker replacements.
Under Obama in 2009-2010, the Democrats failed to pass the Employee Free Choice Act for majority card check union recognition. Worse, unlike any previous period of Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the Democrats failed to even bring the bill to a vote.
Republicans claim that Democrats have been 'captured' by 'big union bosses.' Democrats promise to deliver in campaign appearances, but those promises have amounted to little more than empty lip-service.
It’s time for hardball politics if Labor - and the middle class - is to survive in this nation.