Taft-Hartley not the answer
David Feller has been retired from teaching at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Law School for many years. It’s been longer since he’s argued in Federal District Court, as general counsel for the United Steelworkers of America, against the use of the Taft-Hartley law. Suddenly, Feller is an oft-quoted public personality as the press and electronic media desperately search out experts who can explain the ramifications of President Bush’s use of Taft-Hartley to end an employer lockout of West Coast dockworkers.
There was a time, however, when most Americans understood what Taft-Hartley meant. Shortly after World War II, a wave of major strikes resulted in significant wage increases and benefit improvements for union members who had delayed achieving their aspirations to further the war effort. Raving that labor had become too powerful, big-business associations demanded that the Republican-controlled Congress provide them with legislative relief.
In 1947, they got their wish when Sen. Robert Taft (R-Ohio) and Rep. Fred Hartley (R-N.J.) introduced sweeping legislation, dubbed the Taft-Hartley Act. Its provisions greatly restricted the rights of unions and enabled the president, after determining that a strike or lockout endangered “the national economic health and security,” to mandate an 80-day cooling-off period, forcing workers back on the job. Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act over the veto of Democratic President Harry Truman. Labor denounced it as union-busting, understanding that giving the president the power to stop worker strikes — under threat of financial penalties and imprisonment — could radically shift the balance of power in favor of employers.
In 1959, when President Eisenhower went to court to seek a Taft-Hartley injunction against the steelworkers, Feller argued that the court should rule on whether the “health of the citizenry” was endangered, not just the narrow interests of big business. Feller did not prevail, but the argument is as valid today as it was then. The good wages and benefits that the dockworkers union has secured for its members are an important source of economic development for the communities they live in.
At the heart of the dispute between the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) and the union is the question of the quality of jobs created by new technology. The union is demanding that all new jobs remain in its jurisdiction; the PMA is unwilling to make that guarantee. From the union’s point of view, the PMA is writing a recipe for community extinction. Deunionization leads to the creation of low-wage jobs providing few or no benefits, amounting to a wholesale disinvestment in working-class communities up and down the West Coast.
During the 1997 Teamster strike at United Parcel Service, President Clinton wisely resisted pressure to invoke Taft-Hartley powers, and the two sides settled after a three-week strike. President Bush’s actions, on the other hand, may only aggravate the situation.
The docks are humming now, but the dispute is far from over and there is no resort to a second cooling-off period. In 1971, President Nixon imposed the 80-day cooling-off period on the dockworkers, but at the end of that period, the union struck for 134 days. Cooling off or heating up? Stay tuned for Dec. 28th.