The Taft-Hartley Act severely restricted the activities and power of labor unions in the United States. The Act, officially known as the Labor-Management Relations Act, was sponsored by Senator Robert Taft and Representative Fred Hartley. U.S. President Harry S. Truman described the act as a "slave-labor bill" and vetoed it. The United States Senate followed the United States House of Representatives in overriding Truman's veto on June 23, 1947, establishing the act as law.
Taft-Hartley amended the Wagner Act, officially known as the National Labor Relations Act, which Congress had passed in 1935. The amendments added a list of prohibited actions, or “unfair labor practices,” on the part of unions to the NLRA, which had previously only prohibited unfair labor practices committed by employers. The amendments, among other things, prohibit jurisdictional strikes, in which a union strikes to pressure an employer to assign particular work to the employees it represents, and secondary boycotts and picketing, in which unions picket strike, or refusal to handle goods of a business with which they have no primary dispute but which is associated with a targeted business. A later statute, the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, passed in 1959, tightened these restrictions on secondary boycotts still further.
The Act outlawed closed shops, contractual agreements that required an employer to hire only labor union members. Union shops, in which non-union workers must join the union within a certain amount of time, are permitted, but only as part of a collective bargaining agreement and only if the contract allows the worker at least thirty days after the date of hire or the effective date of the contract to join the union. The National Labor Relations Board and the courts have added other restrictions on the power of unions to enforce union security clauses and have required them to make extensive financial disclosures to all members as part of their duty of fair representation. On the other hand, Congress repealed the provisions requiring a vote by workers to authorize a union shop a few years after the passage of the Act when it became apparent that workers were approving them in virtually every case.
The amendments also authorized individual states to outlaw union security clauses entirely in their jurisdictions by passing what opponents of unions call “right-to-work” laws (unions call them "work-for-less" laws). Currently all of the states in the Deep South and a number of traditionally Republican states in the Midwest, Plains and Rocky Mountains regions have right-to-work laws.
The amendments required unions and employers to give sixty days notice to each other and to certain state and federal mediation bodies before they may undertake strikes or other forms of economic action in pursuit of a new collective bargaining agreement; it did not, on the other hand, impose any “cooling-off period” after a contract expired. While the Act also authorized the President to intervene in strikes or potential strikes that create a national emergency, a reaction to the national coal miners’ strikes called by the United Mine Workers of America in the 1940s, the President has used that power less and less frequently in each succeeding decade. President George W. Bush invoked that section most recently in connection with the threatened strike or slowdown by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in negotiations with West Coast shipping and stevedoring companies in 2002.
The amendments expressly excluded supervisors from coverage under the Act, and allowed employers to fire them if they engaged in union activities or did not support the employer’s anti-union stance. The amendments maintained coverage under the Act for professional employees, but provided for special procedures before they may be included in the same bargaining unit as non-professional employees.
The amendments codified the Supreme Court’s earlier ruling that employers have a constitutional right to express their opposition to unions, so long as they did not threaten employees with reprisals for their union activities or promise benefits as an inducement to refrain from them. The amendments also gave employers the right to file a petition asking the Board to determine if a union represents a majority of its employees and allow employees to petition either to decertify their union or to invalidate the union security provisions of any existing collective bargaining agreement.
The amendments gave the General Counsel of the NLRB discretionary power to seek injunctions against either employers or unions that violated the Act. The law made pursuit of such injunctions mandatory, rather than discretionary, in the case of secondary boycotts by unions. The amendments also established the General Counsel’s autonomy within the administrative framework of the NLRB. Congress also gave employers the right to sue unions for damages caused by a secondary boycott, but gave the General Counsel exclusive power to seek injunctive relief against such activities.
The amendments required union leaders to file affidavits with the U.S. Department of Labor declaring that they were not supporters of the Communist Party as a condition to participating in NLRB proceedings. The Supreme Court held that this was an unconstitutional bill of attainder in 1965.
The Act provided for federal court jurisdiction to enforce collective bargaining agreements. While Congress passed this section in order to give federal courts the abillity to hold unions liable in damages for strikes in violation of a no-strike clause, this part of the Act has instead served as the springboard for creation of a "federal common law" of collective bargaining agreements, which favored arbitration over litigation or strikes as the preferred means of resolving labor disputes.
The Congress that passed the Taft-Hartley Amendments considered repealing the Norris-LaGuardia Act to the extent necessary to permit courts to issue injunctions against strikes in breach of a no-strike clause, but chose not to do so. The Supreme Court nonetheless held several decades later that the Act implicitly gave the courts the power to enjoin such strikes over subjects that would be subject to final and binding arbitration under a collective bargaining agreement.
Finally, the Act imposed a number of procedural and substantive standards that unions and employers must meet before they may use employer funds to provide pensions and other employee benefit to unionized employees. Congress has since passed more extensive protections for workers and employee benefit plans as part of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, better known as "ERISA."
Labor activists have sought the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act since its inception, although largely only rhetorically for the last thirty years. Organized labor nearly succeeded in pushing Congress to amend the law to increase the protections for strikers and victims of employer retaliation during the Carter and Clinton administrations, but failed on both occasions because of staunch Republican opposition and lukewarm support for reform from the Democratic President in office at the time. Ralph Nader made repeal one of the planks of his platform during his bids for the Presidency in 2000 and 2004.