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The Taft-Hartley “Slave Labor” Law

Following passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, giving workers collective bargaining rights and easing the ability of unions to organize workers, anti-union forces sought to repeal or amend it. Their cause was bolstered in 1946 by the greatest strike wave in U.S. history, when 4.6 million workers — 10% of the entire workforce — engaged in nearly 5000 work stoppages resulting in the loss of 116 million days of labor and crippling entire industries.

Unions, which had refrained from strikes during the war, were now blamed for their efforts to raise wages in the face of post-war inflation.

The Taft-Hartley Act, passed over President Truman’s veto in 1947, extended certain rights to employers that defeated many of the gains won by workers with the NLRA. Among these were enabling employers to initiate decertification proceedings, making it easier for employers to get injunctions against unions, allowing employers to try to dissuade workers from joining unions, permitting states to prohibit union security provisions in contracts, and requiring that all union officers sign a loyalty oath stating that they were not Communists.

By requiring unions alone to attest to their fidelity to the United States, Congress established that all unions’ loyalties were suspect. With its provision against union security clauses, section 14-b, Congress allowed for the establishment of so-called “Right-to-Work” states, where workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement are not obliged to pay union dues even though the union is obligated to represent them.

Rochester’s Central Trades and Labor Council (AFL) and Industrial Union Council (CIO), which had cooperated during the City’s General Strike of May 1946, joined with union organizations across the nation to vigorously oppose Taft-Hartley (referred to as the “slave labor” law), but to no avail.

In 1965 the Rochester Labor Council adopted a motion to urge Congress to repeal section 14-b of the Taft-Hartley Act. Area Congressman Frank Horton was hailed for bucking his party to support its repeal, but despite organized labor’s best efforts 14-b stayed on the books.