It’s extremely rare for the U.S. Congress to muster the two-thirds majority required to overturn a presidential veto – the body has done so only 112 times in U.S. history, accounting for just 4.3% of the 2539 vetoes on record.*
One of those 112 bills is the Taft-Hartley Act, which is considered to be “a major blow to labor” by pro-union groups. This is an important law to understand for business journalists – even if you don’t specifically cover labor or unions – as it impacts employees and businesses still today.
What came first: The National Labor Relations Act
In 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the National Labor Relations Act – commonly referred to as the Wagner Act. This was the very first major piece of labor legislation in the country that gave workers the right to join labor unions, collectively bargain through representatives of their choosing, and strike. This act also created the National Labor Relations Board.
A decade later, following the end of World War II, an unprecedented number of strikes impacted the United States as the working class confidently demanded its share of the postwar economic recovery. This included national strikes by UE, the United Auto Workers, and the United Steelworkers that shut down the nation’s largest mass production industries. Additionally, the National Association of Manufacturers ran a campaign to convince the public that “communists” were infiltrating unions and that unions would soon be “un-American.”
During the midterm elections of 1946, Republicans were able to take control of both the Senate and the House. Knowing the public would not approve of a complete repeal of the Wagner Act, the Labor Management Relations Act – or Taft-Hartley Act – was described by its sponsors as a way to “correct abuses” and restore balance between workers and bosses. After passing the House and Senate, the bill was sent to President Truman’s desk in 1947.
A presidential veto and a Congressional override
On June 20th, 1947, President Truman vetoed the Taft-Hartley Act. Truman stated in his veto speech that he believed the bill was “bad for labor, bad for management, and bad for the country.” He also stated that the bill is a “shocking piece of legislation” that is “unfair to the working people of this country” and “is no innocent bill.” Truman ended his speech by stating, “For the sake of the future of this Nation, I hope that this bill will not become law.” Unfortunately for Truman, within three days both the House and the Senate voted to override his veto, making the bill law.
The effects of the new law were considered by some as both immediate and negative for unions.
Changes to the law
The Taft-Hartley Act gave additional powers to the President to investigate labor disputes and ask the Attorney General to seek an injunction to stop a strike from happening or continuing if it was deemed that the country’s health or safety was in danger. Even though he vehemently opposed the Act and often tried to find alternative solutions, Truman ended up invoking the law ten times during his presidency.
While the Wagner Act had a list of unfair labor practices for employers, the amendments of the Taft-Hartley Act added a list of prohibited actions for unions. This included secondary boycotts, mass picketing, closed shops, and donations by unions to federal political campaigns among other prohibited acts.
The Taft-Hartley Act also expressly authorizes states to pass laws prohibiting union or agency shops. Many states promptly enacted “right-to-work” laws which gave employees the right to not belong to a union. A few states have even enshrined the right into their state constitution including Arizona, Florida, Kansas, and Nebraska. Last year, Michigan became the most recent state to repeal its “right-to-work” legislation. Without this law, “unions can require all workers in a unionized workplace to pay fees for the cost of representation in bargaining.” Currently, there are 26 “right-to-work” states.
*Fun fact: 25% (635) of these vetoes were done by Franklin D. Roosevelt over his 12 years in office.