By: Harry S. Truman
Date: June 20, 1947
Source: Truman, Harry S. Speech Defending the Taft-Hartley Act Veto. June 20, 1947. Reprinted in Koenig, Louis W, ed. The Truman Administration: Its Principles and Practice. Washington Square, NY: New York University Press, 1956, 241–45.
About the Author: Harry S. Truman (1884–1972) became president of the United States in April 1945 upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Elected to a second term, he served until 1953. Truman actively supported liberal causes at home in the form of his Fair Deal programs. His presidency saw the beginning of the Cold War, and Truman's foreign policy was both forceful and anti-Communist, helping to rebuild Europe and Japan while fighting the Korean War (1950–53). Much maligned while in office, Truman's reputation in both foreign and domestic affairs has grown over time.
The Wagner Labor Relations Act of 1935 shifted the balance of power between business and labor toward organized labor for the first time in American history. The Smith-Connelly Act of 1943 imposed some restrictions on labor, but as a wartime measure it was repealed after American victory in World War II (1939–45). Having been held in check for several years, labor unions responded to the repeal with major strikes and other activities. Many began to feel that the labor unions were too strong. Named after Ohio Republican senator Robert A. Taft, and New Jersey Republican representative Frederick A. Hartley Jr., the Taft-Hartley Labor Relations Act of 1947 (also known as the Labor Management Relations Act) significantly reduced the power of unions, and was generally perceived as correcting an imbalance in business and labor relations.
Although most Republicans and many Democrats in Congress welcomed the passage of legislation intended to strike a blow at the power of organized labor, both primary sponsors appear as somewhat unlikely candidates for the assignment. Senator Taft's labor record prior to 1947 had been as a moderate. Taft's major complaint against unions appears to have centered around his personal opposition to the labor tactic known as "secondary boycotts"—where strikers would boycott companies that did business with the real target of their strike. Representative Hartley, a congressman from New Jersey since 1928, abandoned his long-standing pro-labor stance in sponsoring this bill.
The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 reestablished the availability of an injunction (a court order) as a significant deterrent to strikes. Specifically, it authorized the federal government to obtain injunctions prohibiting work stoppages during an "eighty-day cooling off period" if a strike threatened the safety and health of the nation. Jurisdictional strikes—strikes called as part of a dispute between unions over who would represent a group of workers—were prohibited, as were secondary boycotts. In addition, the Taft-Hartley Act outlawed the practice of the closed shop, a workplace that required union membership as a condition of employment. It also permitted states the option of passing "right-to-work" laws. These laws make it illegal for a union and businesses to agree that all jobs of a specific type would go to union members (for example, that all engine assemblers at an auto plant must be United Auto Workers members). The Taft-Hartley Act forbade members of the Communist Party from serving as labor union officials— a blow aimed directly at the Communist-infiltrated CIO unions. It also banned direct political campaign contributions from unions, although this provision would eventually be found unconstitutional.
Although a Democrat previously considered moderately friendly to the interests of organized labor, President Harry S. Truman privately sympathized with many of the provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act. He too felt that the Wagner Act of 1935 had given organized labor too much clout, and Truman recognized the need to enact some new corrective measure to remedy the balance between business and labor. Truman might have signed a slightly less anti-labor measure had one emerged as the final product of congressional deliberations. As it was, there was considerable uncertainty until the last minute as to whether Truman would sign or veto the bill.
In the end, political calculations, far beyond pure economic concerns, guided Truman's actions. The president not only vetoed the measure, but surprised many observers with his sharp public criticism of the legislation. With his action, Truman guaranteed that the Taft-Hartley Act would become a major issue in his upcoming 1948 reelection campaign.
Despite Truman's strident opposition, the Republican-dominated Congress easily overrode the presidential veto, and the measure became law. A significant number of conservative Democrats (mostly from the South) broke ranks to join their Republican colleagues to enact the legislation. The passage of such a law, designed to reduce drastically the power of a very potent special-interest group and voting block—as organized labor was in the postwar period—is rare in American history. Union conduct after World War II (1939–1945), in particular a series of disruptive strikes and flirtations with communism, cost labor the support of the American public, once generally sympathetic toward the union movement. Organized labor became viewed as yet another power center to be feared, along with big business and big government.
The American labor movement clearly overestimated its strength in the immediate postwar period. Unwilling to learn the lesson from the post–World War I era that strikes during periods of inflation and shortages only anger the public, the labor leaders after World War II repeatedthe same mistake. During periods of rising consumer prices, the public is likely to blame the rising cost of living on increased wage hikes won by unions, even if these wages increases are themselves simply trying to keep up with the inflation.
Primary Source: Truman Defends Taft-Hartley Act Veto [excerpt]
SYNOPSIS: President Harry S. Truman's veto of the Taft-Hartley Act was as much motivated by politics as by economics. Truman made a radio address to the nation on June 20, 1947, explaining in harsh terms why he was vetoing the bill. This excerpt might well have served as the blueprint for Truman's successful reelection campaign for the following year.
My fellow countrymen:
At noon today I sent to Congress a message vetoing the Taft-Hartley Labor Bill. I vetoed this bill because I am convinced it is a bad bill. It is bad for labor, bad for management, and bad for the country.
I had hoped that the Congress would send me a labor bill I could sign.…
But the Taft-Hartley bill is a shocking piece of legislation.
It is unfair to the working people of this country. It clearly abuses the right, which millions of our citizens now enjoy, to join together and bargain with their employers for fair wages and fair working conditions.
Under no circumstances could I have signed this bill!
The restrictions that this bill places on our workers go far beyond what our people have been led to believe. This is no innocent bill.…
We have all been told that the Taft-Hartley bill is favorable to the wage earners of this country. It has been claimed that workers need to be saved from their own folly and that this bill would provide the means of salvation. Some people have called this bill the "workers' bill of rights."
Let's see what this bill really would do to our working men.
The bill is deliberately designed to weaken labor unions. When the sponsors of the bill claim that by weakening unions they are giving rights back to the individual workingman, they ignore the basic reason why unions are important in our democracy. Unions exist so that laboring men can bargain with their employers on a basis of equality. Because of unions the living standards of our working people have increased steadily until they are today the highest in the world.
A bill which would weaken unions would undermine our national policy of collective bargaining. The Taft-Hartley bill would do just that. It would take us back in the direction of the old evils of individual bargaining. It would take bargaining power away from workers and give more power to management. This bill would even take away from our workingmen some bargaining rights which they enjoyed before the Wagner Act was passed twelve years ago. If we weaken our system of collective bargaining, we weaken the position of every workingman in the country.
This bill would again expose workers to the abuses of labor injunctions.
It would make unions liable for damage suits for actions which have long been considered lawful.
This bill would treat all unions alike. Unions which have fine records, with long years of peaceful relations with management, would be hurt by this bill just as much as the few troublemakers.
The country needs legislation which would get rid of abuses. We do not need, and we do not want, legislation which will take fundamental rights away from our working people.…
We have been told by the supporters of the Taft-Hartley bill that it would reduce industrial strife. On the contrary, I am convinced that it would increase industrial strife. The bill would soon upset security clauses in thousands of existing agreements between labor and management. These agreements were mutually arrived at and furnish a satisfactory basis for relations between worker and employer. They provide stability in industry. With their present types of agreements outlawed by this bill, the parties would have to find a new basis for agreement. The restrictions in this bill would make the process of reaching new agreements a long and bitter one. The bill would increase industrial strife because a number of its provisions deprive workers of legal protection of fundamental rights. They would then have no means of protecting these rights except by striking.
The bill would open up opportunities for endless lawsuits by employers against unions and by unions against employers. For example, it would make employers vulnerable to an immense number of lawsuits, since grievances, however minor, could be taken into court by dissatisfied workers.
In so far as employers are concerned, I predict that if this bill should become law they would regret the day that it was conceived. It is loaded with provisions that would plague and hamper management. It is filled with hidden legal traps that would take labor relations out of the plant, where they belong, and place them in the courts.
Another defect is that in trying to correct labor abuses the Taft-Hartley bill goes so far that it would threaten fundamental democratic freedoms.
One provision undertakes to prevent political contributions and expenditures by labor organizations and corporations. This provision would forbid a union newspaper from commenting on candidates in national elections. It might well prevent an incorporated radio network from spending any money in connection with the national convention of a political party. It might even prevent the League of Women Voters— which is incorporated—from using its funds to inform its members about the record of a political candidate. I regard this provision of the Taft-Hartley bill as a dangerous challenge to free speech and our free press.
One of the basic errors of this bill is that it ignores the fact that over the years we have been making real progress in labor-management relations. We have been achieving slow but steady improvement co-operation between employers and workers.
We must always remember that under our free economic system management and labor are associates. They work together for their own benefit and for the benefit of the public. The Taft-Hartley bill fails to recognize these fundamental facts. Many provisions of the bill would have the result of changing employers and workers from members of the same team to opponents on contending teams. I feel deep concern about what this would do to the steady progress we have made through the years.
I fear that this type of legislation would cause the people of our country to divide into opposing groups. If conflict is created, as this bill would create it—if seeds of discord are sown, as this bill would sow them—our unity will suffer and our strength will be impaired.
This bill does not resemble the labor legislation which I have recommended to the Congress. The whole purpose of this bill is contrary to the sound growth of our national labor policy.
McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Millis, Harry A. From the Wagner Act to Taft-Hartley: A Study of National Labor Policy and Labor Relations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950.
White, William Smith. The Taft Story. New York: Harper, 1954.