American History 101: War Fever Allows Government To Clamp Down on Unions

In the past, war emergencies have given government an opportunity to put limits on worker rights and union activities. The appeals to national unity that go along with a war climate, along with appeals to workers' patriotism, have been used to argue that no one should challenge the status quo.

In World War II, unions signed a no-strike pledge as industry geared up for war production. The surrender of the strike weapon cost workers dearly: it contributed to falling real wages and the substitution of a bureaucratic grievance procedure for direct action on the job. The results are seen today in the prevalent "servicing" model of unionism.

After World War II, employers and government joined in an offensive against labor that was strongly linked to another kind of war, the Cold War. The Taft-Hartley Act was proposed in 1946 and passed in 1947. It restored anti-strike injunctions; limited mass picketing; prohibited secondary boycotts; authorized states to ban the union shop; and required union officers to sign affidavits that they were not communists.

This anti-labor offensive attempted to link the fight against "international Communism" to "America's enemies at home"-anyone, from unionist to liberal Democrat, who questioned the consensus of the time. C.E. Wilson, head of General Electric, frankly declared that the Cold War had two targets: the Soviet Union abroad, and labor at home.

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Although they fought Taft-Hartley, many union leaders signed on to the government's definitions of who was "a good American." They undertook a witchhunt inside their unions; many individuals, members of the Communist Party and others, and entire unions were expelled from the house of labor.

Throughout the McCarthy period in the 1950s, government spying on-or destruction of--any kind of dissident group was condoned. Union leaders did not speak out for the right to question authority.

Today the official enemy is terrorism rather than Communism. Police in Portland, Oregon, for example, have used their Joint Terrorism Task Force (with the FBI) to spy on union activities. Once again the real fear that many of us are experiencing may be used to convince workers and union leaders that we must give up our rights.