Adapted from the April 2009 issue of Z Magazine
Card Check, FDR, and Right-Wing History
By Chip Berlet
The Obama administration will face stiff opposition to the pro-union "Card Check" legislation he promised to support, known officially as the Employee Free Choice Act. Opponents have launched a campaign that highlights the lack of union democracy, corruption, union bosses, and street thugs—all wrapped into a frame of coercive "Big Labor" versus individual rights.
The anti-labor campaign is a component of the broader strategy by the Republican Party and frenetic conservative commentators to paint a picture in which Obama appears to be leading the country down the road to socialism, tyranny, and financial ruin—just like FDR. To counter this, it helps to know some history of labor legislation, especially the Wagner Act and the Taft-Hartley Act.
Right-wing ideologues view the Administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a failed experiment in socialism. Some assert that it was a form of National Socialism, aka Fascism. Ultra-conservative institutions portray the National Labor Relations Act passed in 1935 as a wholesale attack on the free enterprise system. They spent the next ten years mobilizing support to gut portions of the protections granted to workers and unions; and they succeeded in this by passing the Taft-Hartley legislation in 1947.
Wagner Act of 1935
The National Labor Relations Act, (often called the Wagner Act to honor Senator Robert R. Wagner of New York), sought to ensure that working people had the right "to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid and protection."
As one government summary explains, "In order to enforce and maintain those rights, the act included provision for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to arbitrate deadlocked labor-management disputes, guarantee democratic union elections, and penalize unfair labor practices by employers."
Immediately upon passage of the National Labor Relations Act, business and political conservatives sought legislation to undercut union organizing, especially in the period 1938-1941. According to labor historian Gilbert J. Gall, "Lobbyists of the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce argued that Congress should change the law to prohibit 'coercion from any source.'" They obviously hoped that such a clause would function as a mandatory open ship provision under statutory interpretation, making it impossible for unions to obtain union security through bargaining." At the time, opposition to these proposed employer-friendly laws aimed at weakening unions and worker's rights came from both Republicans and Democrats.
Ultraconservatives remained undaunted. On Labor Day 1941, with the U.S. entry into World War II seemingly inevitable and just weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor, an editorial appeared in the Dallas Morning News: "[T]he greatest crisis that confronts the nation today," wrote editor William B. Ruggles, "is the domestic issue of the right to work as a member of a labor union, if the individual wishes, or without membership in a union if he elects." This editorial, titled "Magna Carta," coined the term "right to work."
During the war years, right-to-work legislation went nowhere on the federal level and the focus shifted to the state level where a variety of legislative battles were waged. In the "period from 1938 to 1944 numerous states passed harsh and sometimes punitive laws restricting union behavior" and "some of the laws simply aimed to harass unions," observes Gall. There was a major emphasis on restricting union security arrangements and regulations concerning picketing or strikes, although "much of this state anti-union legislation proved unconstitutional."
After World War II and the death of President Roosevelt, however, ultraconservatives developed plans to "roll back" the economic fairness and social justice policies of the Roosevelt administration. Along with a strategy to unweave the government social safety net were parallel plans to discourage workers from joining labor unions. "Right-to-Work" legislation returned on the federal level and headed to Congress.
The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947
Rollback of the New Deal was the specific aim of ultraconservatives, but they pursued a broader agenda as they fanned fears of a domestic communist threat to justify not only crushing the labor movement, but pushing back the alleged socialist social engineering and big government created by FDR's New Deal. They also launched a public campaign to expose socialist and communist subversives in Hollywood, the State Department, and U.S. universities.
The drive to gut the Wagner Act coincided with the turmoil created in the shift from a wartime economy and the return of veterans to peacetime work. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, after WWII there was "a massive if peaceful wave of strikes. Unions sought to make what they considered well-deserved gains after enduring wage freezes imposed during the war. Workers were also prodded by the sharp inflation, fueled by pent-up consumer demand, that followed the lifting of wartime price restrictions. Strike followed upon strike in such important sectors as railroads, coal, steel, autos and oil.... The strike wave mobilized widespread anti-union sentiment which soon made itself felt in the federal government."
The Taft-Hartley Act was primarily a series of pro-management amendments to the Wagner Act. The National Association of Manufacturers still considers the passage of Taft-Hartley one of its crowning achievements. In its written history, the group brags "NAM played a leading role in the 1947 enactment, overriding President Harry Truman's veto of the Taft-Hartley Act, which served to level the playing field in labor relations."
Actually, Taft-Hartley gave employers the advantage. Since then, anti-union employers have developed a variety of methods to harass, intimidate, and fire workers seeking the protection of a union contract. The Card Check plan heading for a Congressional vote this year seeks to restore the rights of workers outlined in 1937 by the U.S. Supreme Court: "Employees have as clear a right to organize and select their representatives for lawful purposes as (a company) has to organize its business and select its own officers and agents. Discrimination and coercion to prevent the free exercise of the right of employees to self-organization and representation is a proper subject for condemnation by competent legislative authority. Long ago, we stated the reason for labor organizations. We said that they were organized out of necessities of the situation, that a single employee was helpless in dealing with an employer...."
It's easy to find flaws in labor unions and union bureaucrats, but Card Check is one struggle where we should not be on the sidelines.