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The History of Right to Work, 75 Years Later

(The Center Square) – While celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Taft-Hartley Act Thursday, which allowed states to enact right to work laws, U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-NC, said “unions didn’t build the Middle Class in America. Entrepreneurs and hard-working Americans did.”

Foxx, the ranking member of the House Committee on Education and Labor, celebrated the anniversary of the law that codified the ability of states to enact right to work laws in remarks she gave on the House floor.

The Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, better known as the Taft–Hartley Act, was enacted by the 80th U.S. Congress and after Democratic President Harry Truman unsuccessfully vetoed the bill. Congressional Democrats joined Republicans in voting to override his veto.

In 1945 and 1946, millions of workers were involved in major strikes that broke out nationwide. Ten years earlier, workers were given the right to engage in strikes, join unions and bargain collectively after Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, known as the Wagner Act, signed into law by Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt. But the law granted too much coercive power to union bosses, critics said, and even against employees who didn’t want to join unions. As a result, two Republicans introduced a bill to curtail their power.

The Taft-Hartley Act, named after U.S. Sen. Robert A. Taft, R- Ohio, the elder son of the 27th U.S. president, William Howard Taft, and Rep. Fred A. Hartley Jr., R-New Jersey, banned a range of strikes and boycotts and closed union shops, among other prohibitions. It also created the ability for states to enact their own Right to Work laws.

In opposition to the law, Truman addressed the American people on the radio, saying it was bad for labor and America. But Congress disagreed and nearly two weeks later it became law on June 23, 1947.

Since then, 27 states have enacted laws to allow employees to choose whether or not they want to join a union.

“With rising inflation and gas prices, workers should not be forced to hand their hard-earned paychecks over to unions in order to keep their jobs,” Foxx said Thursday. “Time and time again, unions prove that worker representation plays second fiddle to a partisan political agenda that comes as no surprise to anyone.”

A National Institute for Labor Relations analysis found that organized labor spent more than $1.8 billion on political activity and lobbying in the U.S. during the 2020 election cycle. The majority of the money spent, $1.4 billion, came straight from union dues taken from workers who could legally be fired if they refused to fund union activities, it found.

Foxx pointed to the financial disclosures of one of the largest unions in the U.S., the AFL-CIO, which spent more than $37 million on political activity and lobbying compared to $16 million on representing workers as an example of unions not prioritizing workers.

Right to work protections ensure that workers cannot be forced to pay dues to a union as a condition of employment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 6.7% of private sector workers are union members. Recent polls have found that more than 7 in 10 Americans support right to work protections.

Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Committee and National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, notes that, “For decades, Americans have overwhelmingly agreed with the Right to Work principle that no worker should be forced to join or pay dues to a union just to keep his or her job.”

The NRWLDF advocates on behalf of workers free of charge who choose to opt out of paying union dues and object to funding union political activity.

“Big Labor’s political allies are on a mission to wipe out all 27 state Right to Work laws in the country by federal fiat by eliminating section 14(b) of Taft-Hartley, which ensures states can protect workers from being forced to pay union dues,” Mix said, pointing to the Democratic-sponsored PRO Act, (Protecting the Right to Organize Act).

The PRO-Act, if enacted, would force millions of workers nationwide to pay union dues or be fired. Small businesses came out against the bill, saying it would put them out of business. The free market State Policy Network listed 12 examples of how the PRO Act would have hurt American workers and the Kansas Policy Institute argued it was “another Biden tax increase on the middle class.”

By contrast, the AFL-CIO argued it was the “most significant worker empowerment legislation since the Great Depression, … landmark worker empowerment, civil rights and economic stimulus legislation, and an essential part of any plan to build back better from the COVID-19 pandemic and recession.”

Last March, the PRO Act passed in the House and ultimately died in the Senate.

“Right to Work is on the move,” Mix said despite Big Labor’s efforts. Five states passed Right to Work laws over the past decade and the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in a NRWLDF-won case in 2018, he notes. In Janus v. AFSCME, the U.S. Supreme Court held that forcing any public sector worker to pay union dues as a condition of employment violated their First Amendment rights.

Mix and others are urging Congress to instead to pass the National Right to Work Act, which would eliminate forced union dues powers from federal law and provide Right to Work protections for employees nationwide.