Losing Strategy; Inactive Voters; When Harry Met Taft-Hartley

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Good morning, it’s Thursday, June 20, 2019. On this date in 1947, Harry Truman gave a peppery radio address to the nation explaining why he had vetoed bipartisan legislation design to curb the power of organized labor.

Officially known as the Labor Relations Management Act of 1947, it was then and forever more known as Taft-Hartley. Living up to his “Give ’Em Hell, Harry” nickname, Truman denounced Taft-Hartley as “a shocking piece of legislation” that would cripple the rights of working people, increase industrial strife, and lead to a “dangerous challenge” to free speech and a free press.

“I vetoed this bill because I am convinced it is a bad bill," Truman said. “It is bad for labor, bad for management, and bad for the country.”

Bold talk, but in hindsight we can say two or three additional things about Taft-Hartley. For starters, Truman played this issue like a fiddle. Second, it probably saved his presidency. I’ll offer a third observation in a moment. First, I’d point you to RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion columns spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters and contributors, including the following:

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The Labor Relations Management Act of 1947 came in response to perceived excesses of the Wagner Act, a 1935 cornerstone of the New Deal.

The Wagner Act (which, notably, did not cover government employees) conferred on Americans the right to collectively bargain with their employers or to join labor unions that would do it for them. It prohibited employers from thwarting those efforts either by attempting to take over the unions or undermining them with discriminatory hiring and firing practices. To enforce these provisions, the Wagner Act created the National Labor Relations Board. The 1935 law, union leaders proclaimed, was nothing less than “labor's Bill of Rights.”

But a rash of strikes as the United States emerged from the shadow of the Depression and World War II led to a widespread perception that the Wagner Act went too far. It had created “closed” shops (in which employers agree to hire only union members), allowed secondary strikes, and made no provisions allowing the government to delay, even temporarily, a union walkout in industries of critical national importance. Taft-Hartley, which enjoyed broad support on Capitol Hill among Democrats and Republicans, was the corrective.

But did it go too far in the other direction? Although Truman didn’t think so at first, prominent labor leaders characterized Taft-Hartley as a bill that would lead to “slave labor.” More than two dozen congressional liberals signed a letter calling it a “new guarantee of industrial slavery.”

The issue was joined just as a presidential election season was taking shape. Finding his voice as a full-throated union man helped the president; Truman’s narrow reelection victory in 1948 could not have been accomplished without labor support.

Yet, and this is the third point that I promised, it’s an observable fact of American political history that once presidents are given new authority, they relish it -- and use it. Harry Truman certainly did. His veto of Taft-Hartley was overridden by Congress and in his second term Truman repeatedly invoked Taft-Hartley's 80-day “cooling-off period” in strikes or threatened strikes that he ascertained would imperil the “national health or safety."

In 1952, Truman also used the law to briefly nationalize America’s steel industry. Five years after he had taken to the radio waves to denounced Taft-Hartley as a “dangerous challenge” to working people, Truman gave another speech from the White House. This time, he argued the issue from the opposite perspective.

“My fellow Americans, tonight our country faces a grave danger,” Truman said on April 8, 1952. “These are not normal times. These are times of crisis.”

What had changed in five years? Well, for one thing, America was at war again. Truman used his evening address to explain that the labor dispute between steel companies and their workers threatened to deny U.S. troops the weapons and tanks they needed to fight in the Korean conflict. “I would not be faithful to my responsibilities as president if I did not use every effort to keep this from happening,” insisted the commander-in-chief.

It’s a rationale that presidents had used before -- and are still using today. Viewing it through the lens of non-partisanship, one can acknowledge two competing ideas are true at the same time.

First, using the power at your fingertips to right what you see as a wrong is simple human nature -- no matter who is in the Oval Office. Second, under our system of government, it is the job of the legislative and judicial branches to curb this temptation, as was done in this very case to Harry Truman. But that is a subject for another day. 

Carl M. Cannon  
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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