Labor Watch

In Defense of Taft-Hartley: Protecting the Public

In Defense of Taft-Hartley (full series)
Why Taft-Hartley Came to Be | The Taft-Hartley Consensus
Advancing Voluntarism | Protecting the Public

Protecting the Public from Labor-Dispute Fallout

The past few years should be an object lesson in why the Taft-Hartley principles limiting unions’ power to disrupt commerce and society—remember the parade of horribles that President Truman detailed during the 1946 railroad strike—should be toughened, not weakened.

The Biden administration and its Democratic allies in Congress have advanced the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a broad-based repeal of the Taft-Hartley model that among other things would lift limits on “secondary boycotts” by labor unions. Conservatives should be extremely familiar with the secondary boycott: It is plausibly described as “the Left’s ultimate weapon.” First, a definition:

A “secondary” boycott differs from a traditional boycott in which entity suffers the activists’ pain. A traditional “primary” boycott (or primary strike, primary picketing, or other primary action) targets the actor whose behavior the activist wishes to change. . . . The business under boycott is the activists’ target—the pressure is directed at the actor whose behavior the activists wish to change.

Secondary boycotts have different direct targets. The activist targets a victim with the intent of changing the behavior of a third party with whom the victim engages, usually in a commercial transaction.

The goal of the secondary boycott is to coerce the principal target by getting the third party being boycotted to compel the primary target to do the activist’s bidding. Left-wing groups like Media Matters have employed secondary boycotts to advance left-wing social policy and silence conservatives even before the rise of cancel culture. Big Labor would surely love to gain the power to coerce businesses that it has dragooned into collective bargaining into compelling suppliers to complying with DEI demands, LGBT Pride product placements, and abortion-access regimes that Big Labor prefers.

By now, anyone with eyes to see should be disabused of the notion that contemporary labor unions are “purely industrial or economical class organizations with less hours and more wages for their motto.”

Under the COVID-era lockdown regime, teachers unions extensively illustrated to the public the consequences of giving labor unions unlimited power to disrupt society. Teachers’ unions explicitly, without fear of governmental reprisal, demanded that the police be defunded, charter schools be banned, and illegal immigrants be given government benefits as a condition of reopening schools that were ostensibly closed due to COVID-19. Teachers unions denounced reopening schools as “rooted in sexism, racism, and misogyny” while their board members vacationed in the Caribbean. When America’s children needed a firm, Taft-Hartley response, the world wondered. The consequences of that failure are only beginning to be learned.

Teachers unions were not alone in their work to disrupt the social world in the name of union power. In New Jersey, the United Food and Commercial Workers praised lethargy in lifting mask mandates. The Association of Flight Attendants, a division of the Communications Workers of America, demanded that  the public-transport and airplane mask mandate continue. (The mandate was only ended by order of a federal judge in April 2022.) If unions had gotten their way, the COVID-era mandates might have been codified into law through OSHA rules.

The cowardice of public officials, conservatives as well as liberals, in the face of union demands during the COVID era starkly contrast with the proper response to organized labor taking a (metaphorical) gun to the head of the economy and society. Truman detailed it in his speeches against the 1946 railroad strike, and responded by threatening to draft the railway men into the military. Ruining the public in the name of a union benefit cannot be permitted.

President Ronald Reagan carried out the proper response when the air traffic controllers union—which had endorsed his campaign in 1980—struck in violation of federal law in 1981. In keeping with the Taft-Hartley consensus, President Reagan forbade the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization from extorting the traveling public by shutting down commercial air travel: He fired those who struck. Ruining the public in the name of a union benefit was not permitted.

It is one thing for a labor organization to strike against its employer to jawbone the employer to make concessions. In the private sector, this is both customary and legally protected. But granting organized labor—either by negligence of duty as with teachers during COVID or by design as with the proposed restoration of the secondary boycott—more power to coerce the public ought to be anathema to conservative policymakers. Any labor-relations policy change they consider should be considered in light of the coercive power unions demonstrated willingness to abuse. After all, in the immortal and infamous words of United Teachers Los Angeles president Cecily Myart-Cruz: “Our kids didn’t lose anything. It’s OK that our babies may not have learned all their times tables.”

Such perfidy must not be repaid with greater power.

Here We Must Stand

Over the 76 years since the passage of the law bearing the name of “Mr. Republican,” organized labor has done absolutely nothing to disabuse conservatives of their skepticism of it. Indeed, labor unions have moved even further to the left in recent decades as private-sector unionists who rose through the ranks at the bargaining table have been replaced in labor movement leadership by government-worker unionists who rose through the ranks of left-wing political activism.

Given that, abandoning the Taft-Hartley consensus principles and the policies that they inspire to instead:

  • Give power to compel unionist activities and funding,
  • Lift disclosures on union finances and to expand the discretionary power of ESG-inspired union pension-fund managers, and
  • Give labor unions the power to threaten widespread economic destruction in order to secure labor’s hard-Left non-economic aims

would be a blunder worthy of the Romans at Cannae or Teutoburg Forest, the Confederates at Gettysburg, or the Russians at Tsushima. Here we must stand.

The alternative is political and economic destruction.

Michael Watson

Michael is Research Director for Capital Research Center and serves as the managing editor for InfluenceWatch. A graduate of the College of William and Mary, he previously worked for a…
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