When America reformed its labour laws

On June 4th, 1947, the US House of Representatives passed the Labour Management Relations Act, outlawing what were described as "unfair labour practices" by trade unions. It was to be a full generation before a UK government began to do the same. The US Act is known as the Taft-Hartley Act after the two Republican legislators, one in each house, who proposed the bill. Its passing was not the end of it because the bill was vetoed by Democratic President Harry Truman later that month, only to have his veto overridden in both houses within days, with many Democrats  joining their Republican colleagues to override the veto.

It was prompted by a wave of strikes that had seen 2m US workers active in strikes or disputes in 1946. As in Britain, workers had largely refrained from striking during the war years, but with the postwar uptick in industry, the unions wanted to increase the share going to their members. The mid-terms had, however, returned Republican majorities in both houses in 1946, and Republicans wanted to overturn some of the New Deal measures that had made it easier for industrial action to take place with impunity. The 1935 National Labour Relations Act had only prohibited unfair labour practices committed by employers; now the new Act added a list of ones to be banned for employees.

It outlawed jurisdictional (who does what) strikes, wildcat strikes, strikes done in solidarity, political strikes, secondary strikes, secondary picketing, mass picketing and it greatly restricted closed (union only) shops. It prohibited financial support by unions for Federal political campaigns, but not union participation as voluntary workers in campaigns. It allowed states to pass right-to-work laws that allowed employers to resist unionisation. It also empowered the government to seek injunctions banning strikes if they threatened national health or safety. A controversial clause that required Union officers to sign affidavits that declared them to be non-communist, was later (in 1965) ruled by the US Supreme Court to be an unconstitutional bill of attainder.

The Unions tried many times to have Taft-Hartley overturned, especially under Democratic Presidents such as Carter and Clinton, but never succeeded. Even Truman himself used its provisions 12 times during his terms. The Taft-Hartley Act paved the way for the surge in US prosperity in the 1950s, with union members benefitting from the general rise in living standards.

A similar effect followed the Thatcher labour reforms of her 1979-83 administration. It was not done in a large consolidated bill that would have motivated the unions to confront and defeat the government, as they had faced down those of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath. Rather it was a series of individual measures done one at a time, measures that cumulatively amounted to total reform. Most important was that unions were made actionable in court for transgressions, with their funds at risk of confiscation. Secret ballots were introduced to elect Union leaders, replacing factory gate show-of-hands votes that were subject to intimidation. Secret ballots also came in for the votes now required of members before unions could declare strike action. This killed wildcat strikes. Secondary picketing was banned, as was the closed shop that forced all workers into the union if they wanted a job. Union membership steadily declined, except in the public sector.

The effect was as beneficial as its US counterpart. The UK, which had topped Europe's league of days lost through strike action, now achieved the lowest number. Its economy boomed, and general living standards improved. No less important was the psychological effect. People no longer felt helpless as they were bulled by overbearing unions; they felt they had regained control of their country from the militant minorities who had used their power to gain advantage for their members and supporters at the expense of the general good. In the the US and the UK, unions were brought under the law, and both countries gained in consequence. The hope must be that neither country will elect a government that will reverse those gains and head back to the days when Union muscle was allowed to override the common good.