To Organize to Scale, We Need Labor Law Reform

February 2003

The U.S. labor movement got a brutal history lesson last October 8 when President Bush went to federal court for an injunction to end the employer lockout of the International Longshore Warehouse Union from West Coast ports. Many union members probably thought that Taft-Hartley was the name of an upscale clothing store or a venture capital firm.

Given that government had not invoked Taft-Hartley’s “cooling off” provision to successfully restrain working class power since the last ILWU dispute in 1971, it is understandable that so many are unaware of its noxious features.

In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) had established workers’ right to organize and act collectively. The Taft-Hartley amendments of 1947, then, were a response by a Republican-controlled Congress that put in place a whole series of employer rights to deter union organization.

A fascinating Worker Independent News Service (WINS) interview with the author of Taft-Hartley, J. Mack Swigert, paints a clear picture of big business’s intentions in proposing Taft-Hartley.

Swigert, now 95 years old, was a junior partner in Senator Robert Taft’s law firm in Cincinnati. In the wake of massive and successful strikes in coal, auto, longshore, and petroleum in 1946, Swigert says, Taft-Hartley was needed to “give the employer a little strength to balance the power of unions.”

Today, our whole framework for labor relations is largely shaped by Taft-Hartley. The bill provided for the infamous “cooling off period,” where the President could order an end to a strike or lockout; an end to sympathy strikes and secondary boycotts; the institution of “right to work” provisions in state law, outlawing the union shop; and many other roadblocks to unions’ ability to organize and exercise power.


At one time repeal of Taft-Hartley was a principal plank in labor’s political program. Over time, lethargy and a limited political vision have set in, and there has been no major initiative to reform labor law since 1979. (The efforts early on in the Clinton Administration, which resulted in the establishment of the Dunlop Commission, had major problems with what the commission members saw as “reform,” and little resonance outside the Beltway.)

The AFL-CIO under John Sweeney has claimed credit for a more aggressive and successful political program. In the 2000 election, voters from union households accounted for 26% of the total-compared to only 19% in 1996. In 2000, 4.8 million more union households voted than in 1992. And labor’s campaign to elect 2,000 union members to office that year exceeded its goal by 500.

Despite all this political muscle, the late Senator Paul Wellstone’s labor law reform bill S. 1102, introduced in August 2001, was not even mentioned by the AFL-CIO, let alone supported by the federation or its affiliates.

S. 1102 would have remedied many of the problems that organizers in the trenches encounter day in and day out. It would have dramatically increased labor’s ability to achieve recognition for new bargaining units and to win first contracts, by providing for “card check” and arbitration for first contracts.

All organizers recognize the tremendous value of a simple card check provision for recognition. This is the law in Canada, and it makes a world of difference. Workers are not forced to run the gauntlet of the employer’s captive audience meetings and pre-election intimidation sessions. A simple signature on a card by 50%-plus-1 of the workforce triggers recognition!


The AFL-CIO’s Voice@Work program has railed against labor law violators and dramatized the difficulties of organizing when the law is stacked against unions. Yet the federation has failed to advance a comprehensive labor law reform initiative. Two views within the AFL-CIO have left labor leaders unable to create a legislative plank to fight for:

1. Labor law reform will flow naturally from conflict in the streets. Some successful organizers have no patience with a discussion of labor law reform. Their view is that if unions just get out and organize regardless of the law, forcing confrontation and unrest, the establishment will respond with labor law reform to contain the unrest.

But this view is a misunderstanding of the relationship between reforms coming from the political structure and mass activity. The 1934 West Coast longshore strike is a sharp illustration of the real relationship.

Harry Bridges and his colleagues had been active for years on the docks in San Francisco and up and down the West Coast. Despite their efforts, company unionism prevailed. When Congress passed the 1934 National Industrial Recovery Act, which provided the basic protection that workers should be “able to form organizations of their own choosing” (later to become Article 7 of the NLRA), this was the opening San Francisco longshoremen needed. They embarked on one of the battles that helped launch the CIO, culminating in a successful general strike.

2. Political reform is impossible. Many in the political machinery of the AFL-CIO, operating within the Washington Beltway, have concluded that because the Republicans hold Congress and the White House, no labor law reform is possible. But if labor doesn’t start now to educate its members and the general public about the need for such reform, then we won’t be able to pass bills when the political climate shifts in our favor.

It is heartening to hear that the AFL-CIO Executive Council decided at its August 2002 meeting to recommit to undertaking labor law reform. But such a crucial issue cannot be left to Beltway insiders. Debate should begin now, in the broad ranks of labor, on what change in the law is needed. No organizing on a significant scale, particularly in the private sector, can be done without it.

Peter Olney is Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment, University of California.

Organizing: What's Needed

Labor Notes staff: Introduction to roundtable discussion



Give $10 a month or more and get our "Fight the Boss, Build the Union" T-shirt.

Erin Bowie: The CWA's Experience, A Tale of Two Card-Check Agreements

Kate Bronfenbrenner: Union Power Means More Than Market Share

David Cohen: Labor Needs a New Approach to Organizing...But Members Must Be a Part of It

Steve Early: AFL-CIO's Organizing Summit Looks at "Best Practices" - But Leaves Much Unexamined

Steve Early: A Look at Three "Strategic Campaigns"

Lenny Gentle: South Africa's Experience of "One Industry, One Union"

Allen Gottheil: The Other Side of Organizing -- Winning the First Contract

Jeff Lacher: Members as Organizers Build Stronger Unions

Stephen Lerner: Three Steps To Reorganizing And Rebuilding The Labor Movement

Labor Notes: Summary of Lerner piece

Kim Moody: Does Size Matter? Strategy and Quality of Leadership Are More Important

Peter Olney: To Organize to Scale, We Need Labor Law Reform

Ken Paff: Failure to Organize in Core Jurisdictions Costs Teamsters Bargaining Power

Daisy Rooks: New Organizer Recruits Recognize Flaws in Staff-Centered Organizing Model

Ed Rothstein: A New Vision for Organizing

Sid Shniad: Restructuring Won't Happen Top-Down

Sam Smucker: The AFL-CIO's Organizing Institute

Wendy Thompson: Strategy and Resource Shift Needed: Auto Workers Union Need Organizing Campaign Based on an Army of Member-Organizers

Chris Townsend: Labor Law Reform Could Turn Tide on Organizing

Suzanne Wall: From Amalgamated to Focused