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History

From THE FIGHTING MACHINISTS, A CENTURY OF STRUGGLE
by Robert G. Rodden

The Taft-Hartley Act

The Congress that was swept into Washington by the 1946 Congressional elections is remembered as one of the most reactionary in history. While Harry Truman later tagged it as a "do-nothing" Congress the description was charitable. The new Congress inflicted significant and permanent damage on the American labor movement. With their first majority in both the House and Senate since 1932 Republicans came to Washington determined to repeal as much of the New Deal as possible.

A pair of union-baiters, Representative Fred Hartley of New Jersey and Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, assumed the chairmanships of committees with jurisdiction over legislation regulating labor-management relations. In less than three months a comprehensive anti-union bill zipped through the House. The Machinist described it as "the most monstrous anti-labor measure ever proposed." One Congressman called it "the Republican scab labor bill", while another termed it "a vindictive crucifixion of American labor." According to the Journal much of this House bill, up to and including the finishing touches, was directly written by lobbyists and lawyers of such infamous Wagner Act violators as Allis-Chalmers, Fruehauf, J. I. Case and Inland Steel. The Machinist noted that for every witness favorable to labor, chairman Hartley invited seven known to be anti-union. Harvey Brown asked for, but was denied, time to testify on behalf of IAM members.

As passed by the House, the Hartley bill included all the crippling restraints Truman had vetoed in the Case bill the year before. In addition it proposed to fragment the labor movement by outlawing industry-wide bargaining and removing the authority of international unions over their own locals. Fortunately, these sections were defeated in the Senate although only by the frighteningly thin margin of one vote.

A contagion of post-war anti-union reaction was spreading throughout the country. While the House and Senate were debating and passing legislation stripping away Wagner Act protections, right-to-work-for-less laws were being introduced in no fewer than thirty-five states. Together with other mean-spirited laws designed to cripple unionism in America, fifteen of these laws mandating compulsory open shops, were passed that year--and five others have been enacted since.

This attack, from all sides, reminded old-timers of Sam Gompers' warning, "What government gives, government can take away and once it starts taking it can take more than it gave." Since it was too late to get government out of industrial relations, the Executive Council decided to try to strengthen the IAM's influence on Capitol Hill. To serve as the IAM's first full-time lobbyist, they named an old-line machinist who had spent much of his career in politics and government. Joe Tone joined the IAM in 1909 and within ten years had become a GLR. In the 1920's and '30's he left the staff but retained his membership while holding a number of political and government posts, at various times serving as a member of the Connecticut Legislature, Connecticut's labor commissioner, a candidate for Congress and a federal mediator. When Tone retired in 1954 Hayes delegated his duties to George Nelson, a member of Local Lodge 1558 since 1936 and a former business representative for District 65 in Jamestown, New York. Originally brought to Grand Lodge in 1946 for general duties Nelson lacked Tone's legislative background and experience when plunged into the merry-go-round of Congressional lobbying. Camouflaging intuitive political shrewdness with an aw-shucks just-an-old-country-boy personality, Nelson carefully nurtured a host of friendships with influential members of key committees and their staffs. In a career that eventually spanned more than two decades on Capitol Hill, he became known as the dean of labor lobbyists and was acknowledged as a journeyman in his mastery of the legislative process.

To strengthen grassroots membership support for the legislative and political objectives that would be advanced by Tone and Nelson the Council also hired Tom Tippett to establish and conduct a union-wide program of membership education. Tippett was a brilliant, largely self-taught intellectual who started as a coal miner, but who became active in workers' education early in life. During the '20's he taught at the then well-known (and highly controversial) Brookwood Labor College. During the 1930's, he headed the Worker Education Division of the New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA).*

*As a writer Tippett produced lucid and graceful prose. His published works include a study of early textile organizing called "When Southern Labor Stirs" and a novel on coal mining, "Horseshoe Bottoms." Brown, and later Hayes, came to rely on hi increasingly as a speech writer. When he reached the mandatory retirement age at Grand Lodge he was hired by District Lodge 751 to conduct education programs for members employed at Boeing in Seattle.
Less than a month after the Hartley bill passed the House, Taft succeeded in ramming a similar, though slightly less damaging, version through the Senate. The new law, known as Taft-Hartley, was a many-sided attack on the workers' right to organize and bargain collectively. It effectively annulled the right of workers to choose union representation without interference from management. Under the guise of "free speech" the bosses were now licensed to conduct vicious anti-union campaigns in the work place.

Taft-Hartley also revived injunctions and banned hiring practices that helped to stabilize employment in construction, maritime and entertainment industries. It took away a union's right to protect itself against infiltration by criminals, extremists, spies and scabs by limiting grounds for discharge under a union shop contract to non-payment of union dues. The law also forced union members to work on struck goods by prohibiting "secondary boycotts". It grudgingly permitted employers and unions to negotiate union shop contract clauses only if approved by a two-thirds majority in a secret ballot election* but authorized state legislatures to ban all forms of union security under so-called "right-to-work" laws. Taft-Hartley established highly technical strike notice requirements with stiff penalties for unions failing to comply. By requiring union officers (but not employers) to take a loyalty oath, the law presumed communist domination of the labor movement. This provision was eventually ruled unconstitutional.

* This requirement was repealed when its sponsors were thoroughly repudiated and embarrassed by the results of the balloting in union shop election. In the first four years 5,336,971 workers voted in government supervised elections in 44,587 shops and plants in every state. 4,886,141 voted for the union shop, 450,830 against. 97% of these elections went overwhelmingly in favor of the union.
Contrary to labor's first fears, the act did not immediately cripple unions in industries and areas where they were strong, but it chilled union growth in Southern and agricultural states. It also cleared the way for such anti-union phenomena as runaway shops and later, for the modern version of Pearl Bergoff's thugs--labor-management consultants specializing in throttling union organizing campaigns.

The Machinist summed up Taft-Hartley by saying it gave "employers powers which an earlier Congress recognized as vicious and took away from employers because they were used to destroy the right to organize." Even Business Week, which had opposed the Wagner Act more than a decade earlier, admitted "the Taft-Hartley Act went too far." It not only predicted the new law would be "hell for labor, purgatory for business and paradise for lawyers" but accurately foresaw that "given a few million unemployed in America, given an administration in Washington which was not pro-union--and the Taft-Hartley Act conceivably could wreck the labor movement."

Even before the Taft-Hartley Act hit Truman's desk, the IAM joined the rest of the labor movement in a nationwide letter-writing campaign urging him to veto it. In less than two weeks more than one-half million anti-Taft-Hartley messages flooded the White House mailroom. A Machinist delegation from New York, led by State Council President Bob Schrank, personally delivered petitions signed by 25,000 of New York State's 55,000 IAM members. This was but one of many delegations of machinists and other trade unionists who came to Washington to try to kill Taft-Hartley. Truman did, indeed, veto the Taft-Hartley Act, saying:

It would reverse the basic direction of our national labor policy, inject the government into private economic affairs on an unprecedented scale and . . . cause more strikes, not fewer. It would contribute neither to industrial peace nor to economic stability and progress . . . it contains seeds of discord which would plague this nation for years to come.

The Machinists Non-Partisan Political League

Truman's veto message brought a storm of fury from the GOP leadership. In less than an hour a coalition of anti-labor Northern Republicans and Dixiecrats in the House of Representatives whooped through a vote overriding Truman's veto. Both the President and Senator Taft went on nationwide radio that evening. Truman defended his veto and the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively. Taft naturally attacked those rights and three days later the Senate followed the House's lead. Truman's Taft-Hartley veto was overridden by a large margin.

This assault on labor's right to organize and bargain set off a surge of political awareness in union halls everywhere. Before Taft-Hartley political issues tended to be rather low key in the IAM. The Grand Lodge Convention endorsed Robert LaFollette in 1924 and the Executive Council urged support for each of Roosevelt's re-election bids. But from the very earliest days machinists tried to avoid the divisiveness of political dissension in conducting local lodge affairs. Under the Grand Lodge Constitution, members could discuss "subjects of political economy under the heading of 'Good and Welfare' providing such discussion does not occupy more than twenty minutes . . . and does not include maters sectarian in religion or partisan politics.

While Taft-Hartley specifically prohibited unions from making "any contribution or expenditure in connection with an election to federal offices," Harvey Brown called on all IAM local and district lodges to set up programs of political education. As a start he urged members to visit and talk with candidates and directed lodges to sponsor voter registration drives. Shortly thereafter The Machinist announced the formation of a new political arm, the Machinists Non-Partisan Political League (MNPL). Its purpose: to help working people cast their voted more effectively; Its initial goal in the 1948 presidential election: to replace the pro-employer Taft-Hartley Congress with Senators and Representatives more friendly to unions. The MNPL's founding meeting, on November 24, set a goal of $1 million in voluntary contributions to be used to educate union members and publicize voting records.

Organize, Educate, One Million by '48

IAM membership reached a wartime peak of 675,000 in May 1944 but then slipped to a little less than 492,000 by January, 1946. Layoffs at arsenals, shipyards, aircraft plants and other war production centers hit tens of thousands of wartime members. Many experts predicted 1919 all over again--with huge wartime gains in union membership melting away in peacetime. But 1946 was not 1919. The expected and dreaded postwar depression did not materialize because workers piled up lots of overtime at good wages during the war years. With nothing to buy, millions put their cash into war bonds. This backlog of accumulated purchasing power, plus a massive pent-up demand for consumer goods, fueled a postwar boom. When hiring in consumer industries began taking up the slack left by cancelled war orders, IAM membership again increased. Between January 1946 and June 1947, membership rose steadily, going from 491,924 at the beginning of 1946 to 549,515 by mid-1947.

The unforeseen membership gain created a rosy sense of optimism throughout the union. In early 1947 the Executive Council unveiled an ambitious organizing campaign, announcing the IAM aimed to celebrate its 60th Anniversary, in May, 1948, with a least one-million members. The slogan was: "Organize And Educate A Million Members by '48." A war chest of $2 million was earmarked for local and district lodge organizing campaigns and Harvey Brown urged every member to go out and personally sign up at least one other worker. The new education director, Tom Tippett, was appointed overall national coordinator. For the next several months the Journal and The Machinist beat the drums for the million by '48 campaign.

Despite exhortations and a better than average record of success in NLRB elections total membership could not be pumped up by slogans. After reaching a peak of 549,500 in June 1947, membership rolls hovered between 500,000 and 545,000 throughout the rest of the decade.


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Their Finest Hour

 

History


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