Repeal Taft-Hartley

by John Q on March 9, 2016

Assuming that the US Presidential election is between Trump and Clinton (or, for that matter, Sanders) the voting bloc that’s most obviously up for grabs is that of working-class whites[^1]. Relative to expectations, working class whites have done worse under neoliberalism/market liberalism than almost any other group in the population. So, they ought to be more solid than ever against the right. But it’s easy for tribalists like Trump to blame migrants and minorities for the losses that working class whites have suffered.

What’s needed to turn this around, I think, is something, in Trump’s words “yuge”. My suggestion is repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act. Way back in 1948, Taft-Hartley prefigured anti-union laws that were passed throughout the English-speaking world[^2] from the 1970s and have spread even further since then. Its repeal would, at a minimum, be a huge symbolic step.

Would it be more than symbolic? The case for mere symbolism was presented (a little surprisingly for me) by Doug Macarey in Counterpunch

Yes, without Taft-Hartley there would be more national membership drives, more people being allowed to join unions, all of which would be a salutary, democratic effect of repeal, one that would benefit working people. But, arguably, the country is too “grown-up,” too cynical and world weary, to engage in radical industrial actions such as secondary strikes and boycotts, even if they were made legal.

With so many workers now invested in the stock market, and union expectations and identity having been profoundly warped over the last half-century, it would be hard to find a critical mass willing to engage in the more radical actions made available by repeal of Taft-Hartley.

This argument, presented in 2008, looks hopelessly dated now. Whatever could be said of the American electorate, and particularly the working class, no one today could argue that they are too “grown-up” to consider radical ideas. The question now is, what kind of radicalism they will embrace.

[^1]: This is a much abused term. Since class isn’t easily observable, it’s commonly used to refer to white people without a college degree, a group that includes Paris Hilton and Bill Gates. A further problem is that, regardless of education, Southern whites vote as an ethnic bloc, having switched their allegiance from Democrats to Republicans over the past 50 years or so. But, if we confine attention to non-Southern whites who work for a living at low or moderate wages, we still have a large group, and one whose votes can’t be taken for granted.
[^2]: I regularly get objections to commenting as a foreigner on US politics. But it ought to be obvious that the outcome of this election matters just as much to residents of client states like Australia as to US citizens who have a vote.



rootlesscosmo 03.09.16 at 1:26 am

Truman–hardly a radical President– vetoed Taft-Hartley; the veto was overriden, in part, I think, because the Act included provisions aimed at eliminating Communist influence in the labor movement. That issue is not only dead but positively decomposed, but by now the Act has the weight of inertia and ignorance to protect it; I met a man last year, the son of a once-famous Left-liberal journalist, and (like me) well over sixty, who was astonished to learn that secondary boycotts are unlawful. I agree T-H ought to be repealed, but it will be uphill work in Scott Walker’s America.


Mdc 03.09.16 at 1:30 am

Hell yes. Card check might do even more good- attach it to the repeal.


Doctor Science 03.09.16 at 3:14 am

the voting bloc that’s most obviously up for grabs is that of working-class whites[^1]

No they aren’t, you’re deluding yourself. They are the heart of Trumpism, and this demo hasn’t voted Democratic since, I dunno, Bill? Maybe?

They can be helped, but they shouldn’t be *wooed* — too much of what they want is driven by last-place aversion. No Democrat can effective attract this voting bloc without turning off or hurting the actual key Democratic voters: blacks and women. What Democrats can and should focus on is improving Hispanic registration and turnout, because that’s where the votes are hiding.


Sancho 03.09.16 at 3:14 am

Australians get to comment on American politics for the same reasons Gauls got to comment on Roman politics.


BBA 03.09.16 at 5:03 am

These days a repeal of the Wagner Act (which legalized labor unions) seems more likely.


david 03.09.16 at 7:31 am

Taft-Hartley was supported by Dixiecrats because it permitted closed-shop agreements that would allow white union locals to lock out black workers. The national union federations opposed Taft-Hartley for that same reason.

These days their fear is not of being displaced by the lower-wage black next door, however, but by the lower-wage Mexican or Chinese across the ocean. Closed shops might be effective against an undocumented Mexican but can’t do anything about the factory simply picking up and moving to Monterrey or Tianjin. That’s why Trump goes around talking about NAFTA repeal and US-Sino trade reform (and, for that matter, so does Sanders).

I’m not sure Australia presents any relatable politics. To Australia, Asia is a mystical place that has bought Australian commodity exports ever since Britain decided that it loved the EEC more than the white Commonwealth. That fundamentally limits just how far anti-trade populism can go. Conversely the sheep, wheat, and ores can’t move to Tianjin. So for Aussies, labor organization is the way forward, and the main obstacle is intra-labor disunity. For Americans, the political context is very different.


MilitantlyAardvark 03.09.16 at 7:43 am


“Australians get to comment on American politics for the same reasons Gauls got to comment on Roman politics.”

Indeed. We all remember the case of the ambitious Gaul Murtagh who purchased the Roman news channel Vulpes and subsequently bombarded the Forum with demands to reduce the corn dole and circuses so that the mooching and looting plebeians would learn to pull themselves up by the straps of their caligae.


James Wimberley 03.09.16 at 8:48 am

Constantine the Great proclaimed himself Augustus at York, which I think counts as commenting on Roman politics.


Matt_L 03.09.16 at 1:13 pm

Yes, and what Mdc said, pass card check. More unions, they aren’t prefect but a union is the only way people who work for a living can have some economic security and a political voice.


rea 03.09.16 at 1:23 pm

I think John Quiggin considerably overestimates the affection of white working class US voters for unions.


John Quiggin 03.09.16 at 1:35 pm

@11 Only if they overstate it themselves. A majority of all nonunion private sector workers (not all of whom are “working class” in the sense of low/middle income) would like to join a union, and nearly all union workers want to stay in the union


John Quiggin 03.09.16 at 1:36 pm

@7 Like so many ambitious Gauls, Murtagh became a Roman citizen, while still retaining great political power in his native country.


BenK 03.09.16 at 1:36 pm

Anyone who thinks that ‘white working class’ is up for grabs – and that they would be swayed by a PRO-union legislative move – is living in a cocoon in another dimension, which is part of a parallel universe.

To aspiring politicians who would like the vote of ~30% of Americans (white working class males) and perhaps at least another 15-20% (most white working class females), along with a good sized chunk of the middle class – the key is one that Trump has perhaps stumbled upon. Don’t treat them, don’t speak about them, as the enemy. At Crooked Timber, that would probably be too much to bear; to speak as if they are not the obstacle to all progress, it is not their ignorance which threatens civilization, and they are not the oppressors. If you can manage to be respectful for working Hispanics and African immigrants, some African Americans, you can probably pick up another 5-10% of the nation. That gets you to a solid 50-70% of the population.


Ronan(rf) 03.09.16 at 1:40 pm

What is the evidence on how the “white working class” vote these days? The last time I checked they were still (outside of the south anyway) primarily dems? (Although The research on this was pre Obama afaicr….)


John Quiggin 03.09.16 at 1:55 pm

Ronan, that’s correct, AFAICT, if you use working class to mean “works for low to moderate pay”, rather than “doesn’t have a college degree”. For any given income level, those without college degrees are much more likely to vote Republican. Conversely, for any given education level, those with low incomes are more likely to vote Democrat (if they vote at all)>

The media-driven confusion between the two, echoed by several commenters above, is one reason people were so surprised by Sanders’ success. But it seems the lesson hasn’t yet been learned, even by CT commenters.

[Things are complicated by the fact, mentioned in the OP, that Southern whites of all classes vote Republican almost uniformly].


Glen Tomkins 03.09.16 at 2:23 pm

Unfortunately, the only candidate of either party at all likely to propose repealing Taft-Hartley, or junking NAFTA, etc., is Trump. No, that doesn’t mean he’ll stop blaming the undocumented for the woes of the working class, but why wouldn’t he do both? He’s obviously a class traitor, one of his few redeeming qualities. (Or perhaps he is the representative of a new class, the lumpen-rich.)

Worse for Trump’s appeal with the working class, is that he is far and away the only candidate even remotely likely to get anything at all passed, repeal of Taft-Hartley, ethnic cleansing of the undocumented, anything at all. That’s the virtue, such as it is, of fascism. The Leader gets to make trains run on time, or whatever else he wants.


bianca steele 03.09.16 at 2:44 pm

I doubt repealing Taft-Hartley would be enough. Of course, if we’re proposing Trump as Superman, he can go back in time and change the culture, too, not just Supreme Court rulings. I don’t know if the divide still exists in the labor movement between, roughly, white, traditionally skilled males who intend to get a middle-class lifestyle or close to it, and those excluded by that who might both see more value in Marxist ideology and be more aware that the kind of cooperation you see in Germany or Japan would be very difficult to get.


Abby 03.09.16 at 3:18 pm

The white working class that helped give Sanders a victory last night in the Michigan primary would likely support T-H repeal and other pro-union efforts. The white working class that helped give Trump a victory last night in the Mississippi primary would likely be less receptive to such efforts given the history of anti-union rhetoric in the South. I see the latter as all the more reason to counter that rhetoric.


rootlesscosmo 03.09.16 at 4:06 pm

Taft-Hartley was supported by Dixiecrats because it permitted closed-shop agreements that would allow white union locals to lock out black workers. The national union federations opposed Taft-Hartley for that same reason. ”

This is sort of a muddle. “Closed shops” were places whee union membership was a prior condition of employment. They were found mostly in skilled trades, where craft unions controlled entry to the trade by means including closed shop contracts, regulation of apprenticeships etc., and informally, in many cases, by restricting admission to members’ families, whence the term “father-son local.” Racial exclusion was of course one consequence of this structure. In “union shops” union membersgip was a condition of continued employment–new hires had to oin the union within a stated interval after stareting in the job. “Open shops” were places where neither closed shop nor union shop conditions existed.
Taft-Hartley was silent on the subject of racial exclusion, which continued as an official policy of some unions (including some the railroad craft Brotherhoods, one of which was the ancestor of my union, the UTU) until the 1960s. What Taft-Hartley did was (a) prohibit closed shops and (b) authorize states to pass laws that would prohibit union shop agreements as well (so-called “right-to-work” laws).
I don’t mean to minimize the important ways in which US unions have colluded in the presevation of racial inequality (frequently, as in the railroad industry, by creating laws and practices “race-neutral” on their face–see, e.g., Fred Arnesen, “Brotherhoods of Color.”) But “closed shop,” “union shop,” and “open shop” were never explicitly about racial exclusion, and Taft-Hartley was about eliminating the first and undermining the second of these, in favor of the third.


Sandwichman 03.09.16 at 4:17 pm

Canadian labour law scholar Roy Adams calls the Wagner Act “the administrative model of collective bargaining” and points out that it has not been effective in extending the right of collective bargaining to all workers. Taft-Hartley was built on the foundation of Wagner and that is precisely the problem with Wagner.

The Wagner Act, and its predecessor labor section of the National Industrial Recovery Act was brought in as a compromise during a time of militant labor ascendency with widespread popular support in the U.S. The A. F. of L. sponsored Black 30-hour bill passed the Senate easily and would have passed the house if the Roosevelt administration hadn’t intervened with the N.I.R.A. The labor section with its collective bargaining provisions and wage and hour codes was put in as something to mollify labor with.

Restoring the status quo ante Taft-Hartley is not enough to revive collective bargaining. Labor leadership is complacent, compromised and thoroughly committed to the administrated model that has held collective bargaining hostage to “labor peace” for three-quarters of a century.

What is needed is an entirely different model of collective bargaining with more emphasis on the collective and less on the bargaining.


RNB 03.09.16 at 4:20 pm

T-H prohibited secondary boycotts and strikes, as quote in OP implies. You never know where those would take us in a radicalized situation.


SamChevre 03.09.16 at 4:30 pm

On defining “working-class”:

The tricky part is that the ideal would be “low-to-moderate income workers who expect that to continue.” It muddle statistics considerably to count a college student, working part-time as a bartender (me) but reasonably expecting to work a professional job after college, or a post-doc, or someone working between college and grad school in a policy or lobbying shop, as “working-class”.


Hidari 03.09.16 at 5:40 pm

This piece on Trump from the Guardian might be of interest:

‘Let us now address the greatest American mystery at the moment: what motivates the supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump?

I call it a “mystery” because the working-class white people who make up the bulk of Trump’s fan base show up in amazing numbers for the candidate, filling stadiums and airport hangars, but their views, by and large, do not appear in our prestige newspapers. On their opinion pages, these publications take care to represent demographic categories of nearly every kind, but “blue-collar” is one they persistently overlook. …

When members of the professional class wish to understand the working-class Other, they traditionally consult experts on the subject. And when these authorities are asked to explain the Trump movement, they always seem to zero in on one main accusation: bigotry. Only racism, they tell us, is capable of powering a movement like Trump’s, which is blowing through the inherited structure of the Republican party like a tornado through a cluster of McMansions….

Last week, I decided to watch several hours of Trump speeches for myself… I … noticed something surprising. In each of the speeches I watched, Trump spent a good part of his time talking… about trade.

It seems to obsess him: the destructive free-trade deals our leaders have made, the many companies that have moved their production facilities to other lands, the phone calls he will make to those companies’ CEOs in order to threaten them with steep tariffs unless they move back to the US….

A map of (Trump’s) support may coordinate with racist Google searches, but it coordinates even better with deindustrialization and despair, with the zones of economic misery that 30 years of Washington’s free-market consensus have brought the rest of America.’

One could make a case that the true divide in the current election campaign is not the increasingly meaningless ‘Republicans’ versus ‘Democrats’ charade, but between pro-free traders and those against, with Clinton and Cruz on one side, and Sanders and Trump (allegedly) on the other.


Henry (not the famous one) 03.09.16 at 5:57 pm

As my labor law professor taught us nearly forty years ago, the Wagner Act protects stronger unions but doesn’t do much for weak ones and the workers they represent; think Billie Holiday. But secondary boycotts can go a long way to overcome that otherwise iron law because they permit unions to leverage their power through both solidarity with other workers and pressure on the businesses on which the targeted employer depends (or which really run the show). Repealing Taft-Hartley would make a difference.

As for closed, union and open shops, rootlesscosmo has it right. Worth noting, however, that much of the initial drive for so-called “right to work” laws came from white supremacists in Texas and other parts of the Deep South. That dynamic hasn’t changed; Haley and Corker may not preach white supremacy, but they practice it in its modern form. Repealing Taft-Hartley would not eradicate racism or overcome the anti-Union culture of the South that has spread north, but it wouldn’t hurt.


Sandwichman 03.09.16 at 6:28 pm

“A map of (Trump’s) support… coordinates even better with deindustrialization and despair, with the zones of economic misery that 30 years of Washington’s free-market consensus have brought the rest of America.”

Ah, the “lump of labor” comes home to roost. All “economics” comes down to an academic debate about the infallibility of a long forgotten 325-year old claim about the employment effects in the home economy of the colonial plantation slave trade. Good job, economists!

Who has ever heard of Say’s Law (hint: it “sank without trace” after Keynes debunked it)?

Who has ever heard of Dean Tucker’s “infallible Maxim” which stated Say’s Law fifteen years before J.-B. was born.

Who has ever heard of proposition in Sir Josiah Child’s Discourse about Trade that inspired the Maxim that preceded the Law (that sunk without trace) that built the Models that informed the Consensus that promoted the Trade that destroyed the Jobs that employed the Workers that go to the Rallies where Trump speaks?

…where Liberty and Property is better preserved, and Interest of Money restrained to a low rate, the consequence is, that every person sent abroad with the Negroes and Utensils, he is constrained to employ, or that are employed with him; it being customary in most of our Islands in America, upon every Plantation, to employ eight or ten Blacks for one White Servant; I say, in this case we may reckon, that for Provisions, Clothes and Household-Goods, Sea-men, and all others employed about Materials for building, fitting and victualling of Ships, Every English man in Barbadoes or Jamaica creates employment for four men at home. [italics in original]

“Whether Sir Josiah Child did not call it a Vulgar Error to say, We have more Hands than we can employ? Whether he was a Judge of Trade? And Whether it is not an infallible Maxim, That one Man’s Labour creates Employment for another?” — Josiah Tucker


Metatone 03.09.16 at 8:20 pm

Dani Rodrik had a good post on Trump and trade. Of course, Rodrik has done more work than most adding much needed subtlety to modern discussions of trade inside economics.


Oxbird 03.10.16 at 3:01 am

If I agreed with your assessment of the consequences of T-H repeal, given the current and likely future makeup of Congress for many years, if not a bridge too far, repeal is certainly a bridge in the distance. And if you are considering changes in law that might be achieved over a reasonable number of years that would favorably impact the working class you should also look to the many changes in law, some federal and some state, over the last several decades that have impacted adversely on the working class. These include pretty much defining the sole legitimate purpose of a corporation as earning profits for its shareholders, as opposed to taking into account other constituencies (such as communities served and employees); insulating directors from liability for a wide range of improper conduct; allowing for mergers and other transactions that are designed to reduce employment; allowing for multi-trips through the bankruptcy courts to break labor contracts, and many more. The real world impact on the working class poor from changes on these types of issues might be much more direct and tangible.

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