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Taft-Hartley Act Overview

During the Great Depression, a variety of laws were put in place to help workers. However, during World War II, federal laws were changed to limit the power and rising influence of labor unions.

Continue reading to learn more about the history of the Taft-Hartley Act, the federal law that limited the power of labor unions.

Legislative History of the Taft-Hartley Act

To understand the Taft-Hartley Act, it's helpful to begin with the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.

Also known as the Wagner Act, the National Labor Relations Act immediately preceded the Taft-Hartley Act and was the first major piece of U.S. labor legislation. Also known at the time as "Labor's Bill of Rights," the Wagner Act gave workers the right to organize, join labor unions, collectively bargain through representatives of their choosing, and strike. Under the Wagner Act, both "closed" shops and "union" shops were legally permitted. The Act also established the National Labor Relations Board.

In the midterm elections of 1946, Republicans gained control of the Senate and the House of Representatives for the first time since 1931. At that time, there was a growing fear of Communist infiltration of labor unions. That, coupled with the growth in membership and power of unions and several large-scale strikes, led to an increasingly anti-union climate. In response, in 1947, Congress enacted the Labor Management Relations Act, otherwise known as the Taft-Hartley Act, over a veto from President Harry S. Truman. The Taft-Hartley Act repealed significant provisions of the Wagner Act.

The Scope and Influence of the Taft-Hartley Act

With the Taft-Hartley Act, members of labor unions could still organize and bargain collectively. However, the Act also outlawed closed shops, giving workers the right to decline to join a union. It permitted union shops only if a majority of employees voted for them. It gave the President the authority to appoint a board of inquiry to investigate labor disputes. It also gave the President the authority to ask the Attorney General for a federal injunction against a strike if a strike imperils national health or safety. The Act also placed restrictions on political contributions by unions and required union officers to deny under oath any Communist affiliation.

The Taft-Hartley Act also placed significant limitations on the union rights to strike and boycott. For example, it required unions to give 60 days' advance notice of a strike. The Act also prohibited certain types of strikes and boycotts, including:

  • Secondary boycotts: the boycott of an employer with which the union doesn't have a dispute, with the goal of inducing that employer not to work with another business with which the union does have a dispute
  • Sympathy strikes or boycotts: whereby the workers not involved in a labor dispute strike or boycott in support of other striking or boycotting employees or unions
  • Jurisdictional strikes and boycotts: strikes and boycotts that are initiated against an employer as a result of a dispute with another union as to the right to perform certain work

The Taft-Hartley Act also expressly authorizes the states to pass laws prohibiting union shops or agency shops. Following the enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act, many states enacted such limitations, which are known as "right to work" laws. Currently, 28 states have passed right to work legislation.

For other state-specific laws, learn more on our labor law legal answers page.

Legal Help with Labor Law Issues

While the Taft-Hartley Act is a federal law, there are labor laws in place in each state that can significantly impact your rights as a worker. If you need help with labor law or union issues, consider speaking with an experienced labor attorney to learn more about the laws of your particular state.

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