The chances of independent candidate Ralph Nader winning the presidency are as remote as ever in this, his fourth try. But he has important things to say about vital matters that mainstream contenders virtually ignore.
Democrat Barack Obama professes to be – and undoubtedly is – a strong supporter of organized labor. Like most other Democratic office seekers, he’s endorsed the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, which is designed to reverse the steady decline in labor’s fortunes,
But neither Obama nor any of labor’s other Democratic allies has called for the step beyond enactment of the Free Choice Act that is essential if labor is to grow and prosper. Ralph Nader demands it: "Repeal Taft-Hartley!"
That’s the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 — aka in labor circles as "the slave-labor bill" – which was passed by Congress over the veto of President Harry Truman in response to the great labor militancy that followed World War II. Nader says its passage was "one of the great blows to American democracy." He calls it an employer-written law that has "fundamentally infringed on workers’ human rights" — most importantly, their right to unionize.
Taft-Hartley drastically amended the National Labor Relations Act, which was enacted during the Great Depression to encourage unionization. Taft-Hartley reversed the act’s intent by authorizing employers to engage in what Nader notes as "an array of anti-union activities."
Most significantly, it allows employers to intervene in union organizing campaigns. Rather than remaining neutral as before, employers can demand that workers vote on whether to unionize. That enables employers to wage anti-union campaigns that include requiring workers to listen to their arguments against unionization during working hours, often at mandatory meetings
Taft-Hartley seriously limits workers’ ability to act in solidarity with other workers by prohibiting union members from waging sympathy strikes -secondary boycotts — in support of striking members of other unions.
Another key provision outlaws the closed shop, which required workers seeking jobs with unionized employers to join the union representing their workers before being hired. The law does allow the union shop, which requires workers to join the union only after being hired, but allows states to enact so-called right-to-work laws that outlaw the union shop.
Twenty-two states have such laws, greatly weakening unions by allowing workers to reap the benefits that unions get in negotiating contracts with unionized employers, but without having to help pay the unions’ costs by joining and paying dues.
Taft-Hartley denies union rights to workers designated as "supervisors" — an "ever-expanding" designation, as Nader says, that includes steadily increasing numbers of workers. What’s more, employers can fire supervisors who nevertheless try to unionize.
Employers can also use a wide assortment of legal devices to delay for months, sometimes for years, negotiating contracts with unions that win representation elections. They also have the right to call for elections to try to decertify unions that have won such elections.
Unions calling strikes with potentially great national impact face the prospect of the federal government moving in to require an 80-day cooling off period while mediators try to bring about a settlement.
There’s more, none of which is designed to further unionization, but rather to hinder it. The Taft-Hartley Act, notes Nader, "sent a message to employers: It was OK to bust unions and deny workers their rights to collectively bargain."
New laws such as the Employee Free Choice Act that pro-union reformers have proposed are not enough to nullify the message. Only outright repeal of Taft-Hartley will do that.
Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based journalist who has covered labor and political issues for a half-century, Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.