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Taft-Hartley Act: Definition & Summary

Instructor: Jason McCollom
The labor movement was dealt a major setback with the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. This act sharply curbed the power of unions, and had repercussions for decades to come, such as the proliferation of right-to-work laws. Learn about Taft-Hartley and check your knowledge with a quiz.

The Background of Taft-Hartley

When millions of soldiers returned home after World War II, they triggered an unstable economic situation. So many workers entering the work force pushed wages down, and this was coupled with inflation, which made goods more expensive for consumers. Labor organizations demanded employers raise wages, but when they resisted, union-led strikes erupted across the country. The years 1945 and 1946 witnessed 5,000 strikes involving over five million workers.

Mounted police clashing with strikers, one carrying an American flag, outside an electrical plant in Philadelphia.
Mounted police clashing with strikers, one carrying an American flag, outside an electrical plant in Philadelphia.

These massive strikes were severely disruptive. Everyday Americans blamed unions for the high prices and shortages of goods that marked the immediate postwar period. Even Democratic President Harry Truman, normally a friend of the labor movement, had had enough of the troublesome strikes. Fearing the labor unrest would negatively affect an already weak economy, Truman took aggressive action. In May 1946, railroad unions walked off the job, and Truman threatened to have the strikers drafted into the U.S. military. Though the president's threat never came to fruition, his hard line turned the unions against him and his party.

President Harry Truman.
truman, harry

During the lead-up to the 1946 congressional elections, unionists called Truman 'the No. 1 Strikebreaker,' and labor organizations abandoned the Democratic Party and voted Republican. Average middle-class voters also turned against Truman and his party. The Republican Party emerged from the 1946 elections in control of both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.

The Taft-Hartley Act and Its Impact

With control of Congress, Republicans moved to crush the power of unions. Senator Robert Taft led the charge, and pushed through the legislature the Labor-Management Relations Act, also known as the Taft-Hartley Act, in June 1947.

Official portrait of Senator Robert Taft.
Robert Taft

Taft-Hartley did several things.

  • First, it banned the 'closed shop'--this meant jobs could not be completely restricted to union members.
  • Second, it barred collective bargaining within industries. Unions used collective bargaining rights to press employers to meet workers' demands.
  • Third, union leaders were required by law to take 'loyalty oaths' affirming they were not members of the Communist Party.
  • Fourth, it empowered the president to halt strikes if he believed the work stoppage was detrimental to the public welfare.
  • Finally, Taft-Hartley allowed state legislatures to pass so-called 'right-to-work' laws. Such legislation ended the practice of requiring all workers at a company to join a union once a majority of workers there voted to unionize.

Workers and union leaders called Taft-Hartley 'the slave-labor act,' because they interpreted it as reducing their power in relation to employers. They urged President Truman to veto the bill, which he did, calling it 'unworkable…burdensome,' and 'disruptive.' With majorities in both houses of Congress, however, Republicans and more conservative Democrats joined to override Truman's veto. The Taft-Hartley Act was the law of the land.

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