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65 Years Later: Time to Start Healing the Divide

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy

It has been nine years since Sen. Ted Kennedy first filed the Employee Free Choice Act.

He filed the bill on Friday, November 21, 2003 – almost exactly 40 years after the death of President John F. Kennedy.

A coincidence?  Not likely.  Here’s the back story:

The Employee Free Choice Act would restore union organizing rights that had been effectively stripped by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act.  John F. Kennedy was a member of the Congress that passed Taft-Hartley.

“The first thing I did in Congress was to become the junior Democrat on the labor committee. At the time we were considering the Taft-Hartley Bill. I was against it, and one day in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I debated the bill with a junior Republican on that committee who was for it . . . his name was Richard Nixon.” [from a 1960 recording of President Kennedy reflecting on his career]

Both Kennedy and Nixon believed that Nixon won that debate.  Weeks later, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, overriding a veto by President Harry Truman.

President Truman was eerily accurate in his predictions of what the Taft-Hartley Act would do.

Photo from Kheel Center, Cornell University via Flikr/Creative Commons

Photo from Kheel Center, Cornell University via Flikr/Creative Commons

From his radio address to the country:

“The Taft-Hartley bill is a shocking piece of legislation.  It is unfair to the working people of this country. It clearly abuses the right, which millions of our citizens now enjoy, to join together and bargain with their employers for fair wages and fair working conditions. …”

“I fear that this type of legislation would cause the people of our country to divide into opposing groups. If conflict is created, as this bill would create it—if the seeds of discord are sown, as this bill would sow them—our unity will suffer and our strength will be impaired.”

From his veto message to Congress:

“When one penetrates the complex, interwoven provisions of this omnibus bill, and understands the real meaning of its various parts, the result is startling. … the National Labor Relations Act would be converted from an instrument with the major purpose of protecting the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively into a maze of pitfalls and complex procedures. … The bill would deprive workers of vital protection which they now have under the law…. This bill is perhaps the most serious economic and social legislation of the past decade. Its effects–for good or ill–would be felt for decades to come.”

Fast-forward through those decades, and read the testimony of former National Relations Labor Board Hearing Officer Nancy Schiffer:

“At some point in my career… I could no longer tell workers that the [National Labor Relations] Act protects their right to form a union. … Over the years, the law has been perverted.  It now acts as a sword which is used by employers to frustrate employee freedom of choice and deny them their right to collective bargaining. When workers want to form a union to bargain with their employer, the NLRB election process, which was originally established as their means to this end, now provides a virtually insurmountable series of practical, procedural, and legal obstacles.”

Read this report by researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago:

“Each year in the United States, more than 23,000 workers are fired or penalized for union activity. Aided by a weak labor law system that fails to protect workers’ rights, employers manipulate the current process of establishing union representation in a manner that undemocratically gives them the power to significantly influence the outcome of union representation elections. … Union membership in the United States is not declining because workers no longer want or need unions. Instead, falling union density is directly related to employers’ near universal and systematic use of legal and illegal tactics to stymie workers’ union organizing.”

Read the report by Cornell University Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner:

“Our findings suggest that the aspirations for representation are being thwarted by a coercive and punitive climate for organizing that goes unrestrained due to a fundamentally flawed regulatory regime … many of the employer tactics that create a punitive and coercive atmosphere are, in fact, legal. Unless serious labor law reform with real penalties is enacted, only a fraction of the workers who seek representation under the National Labor Relations Act will be successful. If recent trends continue, then there will no longer be a functioning legal mechanism to effectively protect the right of private-sector workers to organize and collectively bargain.”

Now, go back and consider President Truman’s most serious prediction from 65 years ago: that the Taft-Hartley Act “would cause the people of our country to divide into opposing groups. If conflict is created, as this bill would create it—if the seeds of discord are sown, as this bill would sow them—our unity will suffer and our strength will be impaired.”

President John F. Kennedy 

Think about this past election.  Isn’t our country divided enough?  Isn’t it time to reverse the process started by the Taft-Hartley Act?

It’s been nine years since Sen. Kennedy first filed the Employee Free Choice Act.

A year from now, we will mark a half-century since President John F. Kennedy died.

 

Isn’t it time to yank the roots of discord, start ending the conflict, and heal the division that was created by the Taft-Hartley Act?

 

 

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About Liz Iacobucci

Liz Iacobucci is the former Public Information Officer for the State Employees’ Association of New Hampshire, SEIU Local 1984. Over the past three decades, she has served in government at the federal, state and municipal levels; and she has worked for both Democratic and Republican politicians.
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