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Labor Day 2017: A Look to the Past (Part Two)

September 4, 2017 by

In the first installment of this piece, we looked at the Great Strike of 1877 and the U.S. Supreme Court’s approval of the National Labor Relations Act in 1937. Passage of the NLRA in 1935 (and the Court’s approval of the law) led to an explosive growth in U.S. union membership.


1937: Flint Sit-Down Strike 

Growth in union membership following enactment of the NLRA is epitomized by the UAW strike against General Motors in 1937. The strike began at the GM Fisher Body plant in Flint, Michigan, when workers shut down the line and barricaded themselves inside the plant. By peacefully taking control of the plant, the workers prevented GM from continuing operations with scabs. Two weeks into the strike, police attacked the plant with tear gas, but the strikers drove the police back, tossing door hinges and other auto parts and turning fire hoses onto the police. A month into the strike, GM obtained a court injunction ordering the strikers out of the plant, but the labor friendly governor of Michigan stalled on enforcing the injunction; his mediation efforts then led GM to recognize the UAW, bringing the strike to an end.

The Flint sit-down strike was a great victory for U.S. unions, and the sit-down strike became the organizing tool of choice. Between 1935 and 1937 there were over 900 sit-down strikes in the U.S. But reflecting a trend that would only intensify with time, legal developments robbed labor of this effective tool. In 1939, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed sit-down strikes by workers. (Ironically, sit-down strikes continued to be effective in other spheres, for example the 1960 civil rights lunch-counter sit-in at the Greensboro Walgreen’s, and the 1977 Stanford student sit-in protesting investment in apartheid South Africa.)


1947: Taft-Hartley Act Passed

Union membership, as a percentage of nonagricultural employment, peaked at 35.4% in 1945. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, with union membership at its historic high, strikes broke out across the country seeking wage gains following the war years’ stagnant wages. 1946 in particular witnessed a huge number of strikes, including a general strike in Oakland. 1946 also saw the Republicans take control of both houses of Congress, eager to roll back the New Deal.

In 1947, Senator Robert Taft of Ohio introduced a bill to amend the NLRA to clip the wings of the labor movement. The bill, the Taft-Hartley Act, sailed through the House and the Senate, only to be vetoed by President Harry Truman. But the GOP had enough votes to override his veto, and that’s exactly what they did. Among the setbacks for unions featured in the new law were a ban on what had been a very effective labor weapon, the “secondary boycott” (that is, picketing an employer that does business with the struck employer), exclusion of supervisors from coverage under the law, and an authorization for states to enact laws banning union membership as a condition of employment (the so-called “right to work” laws).

The Taft-Hartley Act was designed to hamstring American unions, and it worked. By the early 1950’s, union membership as a percentage of total employment began a decline which has continued to the present.


1977: Democrats Control 95th Congress  

Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, at the same time Democrats regained control of both houses of Congress. Labor was anxious to use the opportunity to reverse decades of waning strength and adverse legislation and court decisions by enacting labor law reform. The Carter Administration also seemed keen to work with labor to make labor law reform (which wouldn’t cost the government a penny) a springboard for the re-election campaign.

The bill introduced in the House included provisions to expand the number of NLRB members from 5 to 7, reduce the number of Board members needed to OK an administrative law judge decision from 3 to 2, ban willful violators from government contracts for 3 years, provide double backpay for discriminatory discharges, and provide unions equal access to employees at work prior to NLRB elections. The bill passed the House easily, but then ran into resistance in the Senate. Carter’s support for the bill was ultimately no better than tepid, and the bill fell two votes short of passage.

The other shoe dropped a few years later with Ronald Reagan’s election as president. In 1981, Reagan fired over 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, and in one stroke emboldened private employers to use their “permanent replacement” weapon in response to almost every strike. Since then the frequency of strikes in the U.S. has plummeted.

In 20-20 hindsight, the failure of labor law reform under Carter presaged the collapse of its 2009 version (the “Employee Free Choice Act”) under President Obama. (EFCA never even got to a vote.)


In the next piece of this Labor Day 2017 series we’ll take a Look to the Future.

The material on this website is provided by Beeson, Tayer & Bodine for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Readers should consult with their own legal counsel before acting on any of the information presented. Some of the articles are updated periodically, and are marked with the date of the last update. Again, readers should consult with their own legal counsel for the most current information and to obtain professional advice before acting on any of the information presented.