After Michigan: A Proposed Path Forward for the Labor Movement

Enactment of right-to-work (for less) legislation in Michigan was not only a momentous blow to that state’s trade unionists but also to the entire organized labor movement and the working class. By way of response, it should certainly be an occasion for galvanizing labor’s troops, allies and supporters in demonstrating an intention to mount an all-out fightback struggle. What better way to respond to this kick in the teeth to working people than organizing a march on Lansing in support of the demand to rescind Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act and with it the law rammed through the Michigan legislature under the authority of 14(b). As a key part of this, the question should be squarely put to every one of Michigan‘s state legislators—Democrats and Republicans: “Do you support recission?” and each should be held accountable for the answer given.

When on December 11, 2012—a day that will certainly live in infamy—Michigan became the 24th state in the country to adopt “right-to-work,” it sparked a long overdue and urgently needed debate on the future of the labor movement. Two things we know for sure, especially after this latest defeat: first, corporate America is out for blood in its campaign to weaken, undermine and destroy the labor movement and, second, labor’s fightback strategy to date has been inadequate to stem the tide and beat back the assaults.

The Emergency Labor Network (ELN) earnestly wishes to be part of this debate and we very much hope that our views will be considered.

We believe that a four-fold approach is needed: mass action on a scale we have not seen before, political action in a way we have not conducted it before, forging relationships with our community allies and partners to a degree we have not sufficiently done before, and unifying the labor movement as an indispensable step if we are to move forward effectively on behalf of the working class.

Let’s explore each of these as a strategy that in combination can not only beat back the attacks against us but enable labor to take the offensive in building a discrimination-free, full-employment society in which all receive good wages, quality health care, retirement security, and a society in which our people can live in peace, not with the endless wars and occupations pursued by the Democrats and Republicans.

Mass Action

We start with the proposition that even in its present crippled state, labor has available to it any number of weapons that can be employed to bring to heel the reactionary forces bent on our destruction.

We had an indication of this in the great struggle Wisconsin workers waged during the early months of 2011, when over 100,000 took to the streets, occupied the state Capitol building, and raised the level of the fight to such an apex that the South Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, passed a resolution calling for exploration of the feasibility of a general strike. What was needed in the critical March days of 2011 was for the entire labor movement to express its solidarity with Wisconsin workers not only by resolutions of support but by organizing a “March on Madison,” and an occupation of that city, which could possibly have mobilized such gigantic numbers as to turn the tide. Unfortunately, this golden opportunity was missed and instead the ill-fated electoral strategy was adopted.

Think back to the August 1981 PATCO strike, which Reagan broke by firing 11,345 air-traffic controllers out of 13,000. To its everlasting shame, labor let him get away with this, when a united movement could have shut down airports all over the country and brought the nation to its knees, with the fired controllers reinstated.

Here was the difference: Corporate America, whose interests Reagan ruthlessly served, showed its readiness to use its iron heel to throttle labor, while labor held back and allowed the union busters to get away with it.

In Michigan, right-to-work was rushed through in violation of all the established procedures, which include committee hearings and legislatively mandated open meetings. This is just another example, and there are many others, of the lengths the anti-union forces are prepared to go to crush labor and drive down the wages, benefits and working conditions of millions of workers. If we in labor do not match or exceed their resolve with resolve of our own in these daunting showdown battles with capital—if instead we play by the corporate rules in each situation—we will lose every time.

In response to the Michigan vote, Rev. Jesse Jackson proposed a march on Washington. The ELN supports this proposal, as we do with the march on Lansing, with the understanding that if it is called, it will not be just “another march,” but will have as its goal to mobilize millions, with every effort made to reach out not only to our allies and partners but also to the 90 million Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid beneficiaries. Such a demonstration should be planned with a program of action that will demonstrate to ruling circles that cutting these cherished programs will not be permitted. We are the majority and there is no reason in the world why the bi-partisan politicians should be given license to cut our earned benefits.

We also need to be out in the streets in cities and states throughout the country demanding: no to union busting and right-to-work! Rescind Taft-Hartley! No to gutting safety net programs! Medicare for all! Expand Medicaid in all states! Protect retirement security! Redirect war spending to fund human needs!

Political Action

Once again, in the immediate aftermath of the November 6 election, many of those politicians elected with labor support are turning on us with a vengeance. Leading Democrats in the House of Representatives ─ Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn ─ have expressed a willingness to significantly cut earned benefits. In the Dec. 1-2 issue of the Wall Street Journal, Nancy Pelosi is quoted as saying, “Everybody knows that we have to have cuts, we have to have growth, we have to have revenue. So why are we stalling?”

Pelosi is expressing the dominant sentiment of Wall Street, certainly not the sentiments of the great majority of the population, who oppose cuts (according to the December 15, 2012 Gallup Poll, 74% of respondents oppose cuts to Medicare as a way of coping with the deficit/debt problem).

President Obama has several times made clear his readiness to support major cuts in the safety net so long as he gets increased revenue along with it.

Labor has made no headway in winning its top priorities under the Democratic administration. These include a jobs program that would put 25 million workers back to work; card check legislation; labor law reform; Medicare For All; trade agreements that guarantee enforceable workers’ rights, especially the right to collective bargaining and the right for workers to form unions of their choice in all the signatory countries; etc. This again underscores the need for a new kind of labor politics, one based on organizing as a class, not in coalition with the big business forces that control the Democratic Party. A first step is to run independent labor/community candidates for public office, which could help lay the groundwork for forming our own labor party, as the labor movements in other industrial countries have done.

As we go forward and ponder the Michigan experience, let us also keep in mind that it was the Taft-Hartley Act passed in 1947 that allows states to pass right-to-work laws. And let us never forget that when the struggle to defeat Taft-Hartley was reaching its climax, with the organized labor movement denouncing Taft-Hartley as a “slave labor law,” a majority of Congressional Democrats went right ahead and voted for it anyway! Click here.

Community Allies

It is crystal clear that labor cannot go it alone if it is to defend its interests and the interests of the working class as a whole. For this it needs to coalesce in a new way with communities of color, civil rights organizations, the women’s movement, the immigrant rights movement, unemployed workers councils, environmentalists, faith community, retiree formations, peace groups, the health care for all campaign, student groups, the LGBT movement, and other progressive forces. If, for example, there is to be a march on Washington, wouldn’t the best course be to bring representatives of all these groups together to join in the planning and have joint ownership of the event?


The right wing is famous for uniting all the reactionary forces to work their will. A comment in Common Dreams, reporting on what happened in Michigan, stated that “Republicans, the Chamber of Commerce and a coalition of now familiar right wing millionaires … have banded together to pass right-to work legislation in Michigan, the birthplace of the United Autoworkers.” While much of the Michigan labor movement came together in this struggle, the fact remains that nationally our movement is divided and this remains a costly detriment to rejuvenating and reinvigorating our ranks.

Given the gravity of the situation, it would seem that at the very least the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, National Education Association and other independent unions could form a council to advance the cause of a united labor front around issues and campaigns that all would agree to. The best thing that such a Council could do would be to call an “Emergency Congress of the U.S. Labor Movement” to plan a program of action that would permit the full power of labor and its allies to be brought to bear.


Mass action, political action, community alliances, and labor unity ─ these are the components of a strategy that we believe are needed to turn back the tide of reaction that will continue to sweep the country if we carry on with a “business as usual” approach. After all, we are faced with nothing less than a fight for survival of the labor movement. We can and must make the needed changes, and there is no time to lose in putting them into effect.

The Taft-Hartley Act:

Why the American Labor Movement
Called it a “Slave Labor Bill”

Issued by the Emergency Labor Network

On June 23, 1947, the U.S. Senate joined the House of Representatives in voting to override President Truman’s veto of the Taft-Hartley Act and it became law, the most repressive piece of anti-labor legislation in this country’s history.

The enactment of Taft-Hartley followed a tremendous post-World War II upsurge by union workers all across the country. During the war years, workers had experienced a drastic decline in their living standards as a result of a government-imposed wage freeze, despite steeply rising living costs. Moreover, workers had been subjected to long hours, intensified speed-up and poor working conditions. Meanwhile the corporations were making profits hand-over-fist. The end of the war in 1945 found workers determined to win wage increases and improve their conditions. A massive strike wave erupted and during 1945–46 over five million workers walked off their jobs in a whole range of industries including auto, steel and steel fabricating, packinghouse, electrical equipment, coal, rail, maritime, communications, machine tools and transit.

The ruling circles in the U.S. decided it was time to crack down on the labor movement and throttle the rising tide of discontent. The result was the Taft-Hartley Act and it was passed by politicians from both of the bosses’ parties. The House vote was 331-83, with Democrats voting 106-71 in favor of the measure. The Senate passed it by a 68 to 25 margin, with 20 Democrats voting to override the veto and 22 voting to uphold it. Thus a majority of Democrats in Congress voted to join the Republicans in approving a measure the labor movement characterized as a “slave labor bill.” As for Democratic President Truman, he did little or nothing to galvanize support for upholding his veto.

This paper will examine the major facets of Taft-Hartley and how this legislation undermined and weakened the labor movement, making it far more difficult to organize the unorganized and protect workers’ living standards.

Injunctions to Break and Prevent Strikes

The original National Labor Relations Act, called the Wagner Act, was adopted by Congress in 1935. This law enumerated a number of employer unfair labor practices with nothing directed against labor organizations. The Taft-Hartley Act changed this with a number of Draconian unfair labor practices targeting unions and prohibiting them and their members from conduct that would  “threaten,” “restrain,” or “coerce” other employees and employers in the exercise of their rights.  Taft-Hartley thus made it far easier for courts to issue injunctions banning mass picketing during strikes and reducing the number of pickets to a token few. This, in turn, made it much easier for scabs and strike breakers to cross picket lines of striking workers.

The Act also empowered the President to set up a fact-finding board to inquire into any strike which the President deemed to affect the national health and safety. Upon receiving the board’s report, the President can seek a federal court injunction to make the strike illegal for a “cooling off” period of 80 days.

Outlawing Secondary Strikes and Boycotts

 Unions’ strategy for winning strikes has historically been to cut off business of the struck employer by spreading the strike to that employer’s suppliers and customers. Taft-Hartley largely put an end to that practice by prohibiting secondary strikes and boycotts.

Here’s how it worked: Prior to Taft-Hartley, if a union struck the Heinz Ketchup Company and the Kroger supermarket chain insisted on continuing to sell the struck product, the union could picket Kroger stores and urge customers to shop elsewhere. Kroger employees might also decide to honor the picket lines and refuse to work. So as the price of continuing to sell Heinz Ketchup, Kroger could face a tremendous loss of profits and even have some of its operations shut down or at least curtailed. Faced with this, Kroger might have decided its best course was simply to sell other brands of ketchup, not the Heinz brand. This obviously was a powerful weapon helping the Heinz workers win their strike.

Taft-Hartley took away this weapon. It made secondary strikes and boycotts — actions directed against suppliers and customers of a struck company — illegal. So in the situation described above, a union that today goes on strike against Heinz Ketchup can request that Kroger not carry the Heinz product, but if Kroger persists in doing so, all the union can do is urge customers going into Kroger not to buy the struck product. The union cannot ask customers not to shop at Kroger, nor can it encourage any Kroger employee to stay off the job. Taft-Hartley has made this illegal.

Authorizing States to Outlaw Union Shop Agreements

 Taft-Hartley also contained a misnamed “right-to-work” provision, Section 14(b). This enables states to pass legislation prohibiting union shop agreements. Twenty-four states, mostly in the South and West, but now also in the Midwest, have done precisely that.

A union shop agreement specifies that all workers in a workplace where the union has been voted in (or otherwise been recognized by the employer after demonstrating majority support) must belong to the union as a condition of employment or at least pay dues to the union. Under federal law, the union is required to represent all the workers in a given unit, so it is only fair and right that all employees in the workplace contribute to the cost of maintaining the union by paying union dues. After all, all workers in the unit receive the pay increases and benefit improvements negotiated by the union. And any worker can be fired unjustly resulting in the union filing a grievance and spending sometimes thousands of dollars from the union’s treasury to win back that worker’s job through arbitration. Workers wishing to avail themselves of the union’s grievance procedure should surely contribute to paying their fair share so that the union can protect the rights of all workers.

But Taft-Hartley says a state can bar that. In “right-to-work” states, a worker can accept all the wage increases and benefit improvements negotiated by the union, and utilize the union’s grievance procedure, but never belong to the union or pay any dues toward its upkeep. This is simply another device imposed by government to divide workers and weaken the union.

Closed Shop Outlawed

Taft-Hartley also outlawed the closed shop. A closed shop agreement obligated an employer to hire only workers who are already union members. This was of particular importance to the building trades unions, which sought to ensure that all construction be done by union labor and that building trades workers receive good wages standardized throughout the industry. So under a closed shop, employers who needed workers got them through the union.

Taft-Hartley made that practice illegal. Union workers today are faced with the threat of non-union contractors who employ non-union workers at lower wages and less benefits, and drive down industry standards. This has the added benefit for the employers of pitting union workers against non-union workers and dividing the workforce.

Strikes by Federal Employees Outlawed

The Taft-Hartley Act prohibited strikes by federal government employees or workers in government-owned corporations. Even if federal workers are paid poverty level wages or toil under unbearable working conditions, they are forced to stay on the job. If they dare to strike, they can expect to face harsh sanctions.

A dramatic example of this occurred in 1981 when the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) struck. The workers were fired ¾ some were hauled away in ball-and-chain to serve prison sentences — and PATCO was destroyed. This was government strike-breaking and union-busting at its worst.

Contributions by Unions to Candidates for Federal Office Outlawed

As a further step to weaken unions and limit their political power, Taft-Hartley made it illegal for unions to contribute any money from their treasuries to candidates for federal office.

Of course, a union can still collect money from individual members given on a voluntary basis and contribute that to a candidate for federal office. But many unions have substantial treasuries and could, if it were not illegal, contribute larger sums in furtherance of their program to elect people to office who support a workers’ agenda.

Damage Suits Against Unions

Taft-Hartley permits employers to file damage suits against unions for breach of contract. Because the American legal system is not kind to unions and the workers they represent, a union that fights hard for its members can find itself in court, defending unsuccessfully against a damage suit for millions of dollars. Such an award was issued years ago against the American Airline pilots union after pilots called in sick at a time when they could not get a decent contract.

This legal weapon given the corporations to sue unions for damages is intimidating and dangerous. It is another device to discourage unions from taking strong actions in defense of their members to protect living standards and working conditions.

Anti-Communist Oath

Taft-Hartley required officers of local, national, and international unions to file an affidavit swearing they were not members of the Communist Party and did not support any organization advocating the overthrow of the government by force or any “unconstitutional” means. Even rabidly anti-communist union leaders opposed this measure because they saw it as another unwarranted government intrusion into unions’ internal affairs, and because they recoiled at the idea of being forced to swear out the affidavits, which they regarded as insulting and degrading.

The Supreme Court later declared this provision of Taft-Hartley unconstitutional.


The negative effects of Taft-Hartley upon the ability of unions to organize, bargain collectively and strike have been devastating. In fact, this Act profoundly affected the relationship of forces between management and workers to the detriment of the organized labor movement.

Moreover, the situation was compounded when Congress passed the Landrum-Griffin Act in 1959. This Act further barred union solidarity actions when it prohibited unions from negotiating “hot cargo” agreements, thus forcing union workers to either handle and process scab products from other work places that are on strike or face discharge. In addition, Landrum-Griffin gave the government unprecedented oversight and control over internal union affairs, dictating the conduct of elections and the handling of finances. And the government has from time to time expanded its control over unions in the U.S.  by ruling off the ballot in union elections candidates who had never even been indicted or convicted of any crime.

In the aftermath of Taft-Hartley, the labor movement made its repeal an overriding priority. But as time went by and as the so-called friends of labor in both the Democratic and Republican parties made clear that Taft-Hartley was staying on the books, union leaders adapted to it, and the cry for its repeal became muted. The Labor Party, formed in 1996, called for a labor bill of rights which included the repeal of Taft-Hartley and all other anti-labor legislation.

For years, legislation to protect workers’ right to strike by barring the hiring of permanent replacements has been before Congress. But to date, the measure has not been adopted, not even when the Democrats occupied the White House and had a majority in both Houses of Congress.

It is clear that American workers will have their rights protected only when they use their clout to bring to power a working class government. That is the mission and the goal of the Emergency Labor Network. Building a workers party should be the priority for all who believe in the sanctity of labor and the democratic right of unions to build a better standard of living with dignity and security for all workers.


About elnwebmaster

This is the discussion blog of the Labor Fightback Network, an auxiliary to the website. It is designed to facilitate discussion among labor activists concerning the critical issues facing working people in the current economic crisis. Readers’ comments are welcome, but flaming is not. Any comments which are racist, sexist/homophobic, or disrespectful on a personal level will not get past moderation.
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