What Is the Taft-Hartley Act? A Guide for Employer/Union Partnerships
The Taft-Hartley Act, a United States law passed in 1947, is an amendment to the 1935 Wagner Act. The goal of this Act was to clarify the rights, powers, and capabilities of labor unions. This federal law doesn’t just matter to union workers, however; it’s a big deal for employers and even non-union employees.
Here’s a closer look at what the Taft-Hartley Act is, why it matters, and how it enables great employer/union partnerships.
Labor relations, Union Rights, and More
The Taft-Hartley Act is also known as the Labor Management Relations Act — a title that perhaps more clearly describes the law’s intentions. To understand what that means for you as an employer, it’s important to understand the context.
The story begins with the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act. It was the first significant federal law protecting American workers’ right to join labor unions, go on strike, and participate in collective bargaining. To ensure these rights, the Act created the National Labor Relations Board, an agency that “protects the rights of private sector employees to join together, with or without a union, to improve their wages and working conditions.”
It was great news for labor unions — and, even more important, for the employees they represented. However, between an uncertain political climate and fear surrounding the Communist Party, the labor movement was unfairly targeted by legal efforts to control American workers. Things got particularly complicated after a series of strikes following World War II, and the result was the Taft-Hartley Act.
The Act got its name from its two key sponsors: Senator Robert Taft (R-Ohio) and Representative Fred Hartley Jr. (R-N.J.). Despite a veto from President Truman, the United States Congress officially enacted the law on June 23, 1947. Its goal was to limit the scope and impact of the Wagner Act, controlling what a union could and couldn’t do.
Some saw this as a way to protect employees from potentially predatory labor environments. Others, particularly those who had seen firsthand the benefit of union activity, weren’t convinced.
Simply put, the Wagner Act was an attempt to restrict the power a single employer can have, while the Taft-Hartley Act was a response that put some of the same restrictions on unions. This back-and-forth reflected difficult labor relations at the time, but today employers and unions can learn from these Acts and build better relationships going forward.
The Taft-Hartley Act changed certain parts of the Wagner Act while simultaneously introducing new restrictions and limitations. Here are some of the most important elements:
- No closed shops: In a closed shop arrangement, employment at a particular place requires membership in a particular union. The Taft-Hartley Act outlawed closed shops and gave workers the right to decline union membership.
- Strike limitations: Part of the Act’s reach was to require 60 days’ advance notice from unions intending to strike. There were also new ways to stop a strike if it created national health and safety issues.
- Right-to-work laws: The law gave individual states the power to enact “right-to-work” limitations, which restricted a union’s ability to require membership or request payment from non-member workers still benefiting from union activity.
- Fees: In another blow to finances, the Act put limitations on the dues and fees unions could require.
- Investigations: If a labor dispute did arise, the Taft-Hartley Act granted the government the authority to investigate and take necessary actions.
- Elections: Representation elections were significantly changed, and new types of elections were added. For example, an employer could opt for a Board-conducted election in certain scenarios.
- Unfair labor practices: The law also claims to protect workers from any “unfair labor practice,” as determined by the law itself. There are six such practices, including certain kinds of strikes (such as political or solidarity strikes) and discrimination against non-union members.
The Taft-Hartley Act exists today and continues to influence United States labor relations. Here’s a look at how its impacts have changed over time:
- Repealed provisions: Some parts of the Act have been eliminated since its initial passing. For example, the authorization of union shop elections was repealed in 1951.
- Upheld provisions: On the other hand, the Supreme Court has upheld various parts of the law throughout the years. A provision requiring union officers to complete non-Communist affidavits was upheld in 1950, while another upholding the prohibition of secondary boycotts was protected in 1951.
- Tightened restrictions: In some cases, the Taft-Hartley Act has been amended to be more restrictive, including further limitations on secondary boycotting.
The conversation around the Act is evolving, but it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. It’s up to unions and employers to adhere to restrictions while still supporting each other.
What the Taft-Hartley Act means for employer/union partnerships
As an employer, the restrictions put in place by the Wagner Act may seem more relevant to your own activities, but you’re also impacted by the Taft-Hartley Act. Each labor law impacts unions and employers differently, but the result is the same: an environment where each party must communicate clearly and actively work to understand the other.
Here’s what the Taft-Hartley Act means for employer/union partnerships:
Under the Act, it’s entirely legal for individual states to enact right-to-work laws and therefore limit certain union activity. If you operate in one of these states, you can’t make union membership a requirement for employment. Similarly, unions can’t withhold benefits from non-members.
What that means for you: Because of state laws, unions have less power in your area. They follow all the rules of collective bargaining and negotiate benefits for paying members, but non-members receive those perks without supporting the union financially or otherwise. As an employer, you need to understand how this dynamic impacts union membership and what you can do to make things more equitable for your employees.
Employees at different levels
Part of the Taft-Hartley Act’s power is establishing different kinds of treatment for professional and non-professional employees. It’s particularly relevant for supervisors, who may technically be terminated for participating in union activity or failing to uphold your company’s union stance; the Act even excluded supervisors from bargaining units.
What that means for you: In many ways, this Act creates the kind of power imbalances it was trying to eliminate. Although it may grant you certain legal rights, you have to take advantage of them. Ensure you treat employees as fairly as possible and negotiate with unions to ensure workers at different levels are protected.
Bargaining in good faith
Both the Wagner and Taft-Hartley Acts impose “good faith bargaining,” which is all about communication, fair treatment, and smart choices. For example, as an employer, you can’t repeatedly refuse to meet with union representatives at reasonable times; similarly, unions can’t engage in a strike to pressure you into making midterm contract modifications.
What that means for you: It’s your job to ensure that every move you make is done in good faith. That means you have a legal responsibility to work with union members and make compromises where possible. Unions are required to approach you in the same manner, creating a foundation for a strong relationship.
How the Taft-Hartley Act impacts modern labor
In many ways, the Taft-Hartley Act complicates labor relations, undermines the value of collective bargaining, and makes union membership less powerful. In other ways, it sets the stage for you as an employer to take more responsibility for your role in avoiding unfair practices and protecting organized labor.
The key to working around potential limitations and leveraging the Act’s advantages is to understand the importance of working with unions. Benefits include:
- Reduced turnover: When employees feel respected, listened to, and properly represented, they may be more likely to stay in their current positions.
- Improved productivity: Appropriate breaks and other practices, often negotiated by a union, can help employees stay focused and get more done.
- Better cooperation: Unions help employees understand their team members’ needs and enable employers to hear what it’s really like working for their company. This valuable exchange of perspectives helps ensure people at different levels are cooperating and communicating.
- Increased trust: When you follow relevant guidelines, adhere to regulations, and work with a union instead of against it, employees see you as a more trustworthy employer. They might be willing to take on new responsibilities, recommend colleagues for particular roles and otherwise contribute more fully to your success.
The Taft-Hartley Act alone may complicate life for union leaders, but no labor law exists in a vacuum. As an employer, you can take actions and make decisions that benefit you and union employees; all it takes is a little knowledge of the environment.
Learn more about the growth of the labor movement
When you look at the Taft-Hartley Act as a response to both the Wagner Act and the political climate, there’s no question that the labor movement will always grow, change, and evolve. Unions and employers will always need to put active effort into building strong relationships.
Want to be a better partner for your union? Start by learning more about the labor movement.