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Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Legal History Shows Tactical Shifts of Right-to-Work Movement

Leon Bates (UAW leader) handing out UAW—United Auto Workers literature during the 1941 organizing drive at Ford.

Leon Bates (UAW leader) handing out UAW—United Auto Workers literature during the 1941 organizing drive at the Ford Motor Company - River Rouge plant - gate #4 on Miller Road. PD.

This week, the state of Michigan passed and Governor Rick Snyder signed into law new right-to-work legislation. The two measures ban unions from requiring workers to pay membership dues. The tactics employed by supporters to pass the measures show they have learned from recent efforts. The measures were attached to an appropriations bill, which exempts it from being taken to a referendum. The measures also exclude firefighters and police, groups that were critical in overturning similar measures in Ohio. The right-to-work effort underway in a number of states also demonstrates the power of conservatives at the state level, despite the Republican loss in the presidential election.

Last week, Sophia Lee, an assistant professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, presented a chapter on her forthcoming book at the Miller Center’s GAGE Colloquium. Lee’s new book provides insight into the current situation by examining the history of two important and powerful, but competing movements since the 1930s – the civil rights movement and the right-to-work movement.  Her book explains why the state action doctrine survived the civil rights and conservative revolutions, and explores the implications of this history for the workplace and beyond.

The thriving right-to-work movement at the state level today has its roots in the 1940s. Though it hasn’t always been politically successful, the right-to-work movement has been deeply intertwined with the conservative and anti-New Deal movement. Lee documents one of the earliest conservative efforts to apply the Constitution to the workplace. In 1944, Hollywood impresario and showman, Cecil B. deMille brought a lawsuit to the court challenging the constitutionality of a one-dollar fee levied on him by his union. Lee notes that this was the first of many campaigns to pass a right-to-work law banning mandatory support for unions in the state of California.  According to Lee:

Like the black railroad workers of his day, deMille struggled to articulate why the Constitution reached his workplace. To say he was unsuccessful would be an understatement. The California courts found his claim near incomprehensible. But deMille was not deterred. He spent the rest of the 1940s building a foundation to champion the right-to-work and taking his constitutional theories to the prominent public pulpits at his disposal.

In the 1950s, right-to-work advocates, with the help of deMille, formed their first organizations dedicated to getting the Supreme Court to declare mandatory support for unions “in conflict with the Bill of Rights.” Although the right-to-work movement won potentially promising precedent in the Supreme Court, it didn’t achieve all that it had hoped for.

The Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act: Organized Labor’s Toxic Cocktail

Bernard Spindel (d. 1972) whispers in ear of James R. Hoffa (b. 1913) after court session.

Bernard Spindel (d. 1972) whispers in ear of James R. Hoffa (b. 1913) after court session in which they pleaded innocent to illegal wiretap charges. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper staff photographer: Roger Higgins. PD.

Today's post is written by Miller Center National Fellow James J. ("Jack") Epstein. In this post, Jack explores the origins and development of the unexpectedly related crossroads of labor law and crime control. The impact of these policies no doubt are alive in this election year. Both the Republican and Democratic Parties included planks on labor and crime control in their platforms. Furthermore, the relationship between labor and Democratic Party continues on an ambivalent path and appears to be at an important crossroads based on events from the Wisconsin recall election of Scott Walker, to the Labor Unions' holding of their own shadow convention in July, to the teachers' union strike in Chicago.

On this date in 1959 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA), popularly known as Landrum-Griffin.  A notoriously complex law, Landrum-Griffin marked the achievement of two long-standing policy objectives for conservative opponents of organized labor.  On one hand, it restricted considerably unions’ use of effective, and thus always controversial, organizing tactics like “secondary boycotts” and “hot cargo agreements.”  On the other, it brought unprecedented federal oversight. LMRDA thus was a kind of toxic cocktail for labor, a more muscular version of Taft-Hartley, mixed with a variation of public regulation akin to the Securities and Exchange Commission’s supervision of corporate activities.  Despite this breadth of coverage, however, Landrum-Griffin has lived long in the historical shadows of the key federal labor laws that preceded it – the 1932 Norris-LaGuardia Act, the 1935 Wagner Act, and the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act.  Yet it is as vital for a full understanding of American politics today as any of its more famous predecessors. 

Passed by landslides in both the Senate (95-2) and House (352-52), LMRDA showed above all the awesome political power of a criminal concept used since the late 1920s to attack American trade unionism – labor “racketeering.”  Supporters used public fears over the power of union “racketeers” – or labor “czars” or “bosses,” to cite other common catchphrases of the day – to attack labor and to garner political capital sufficient to pass their law.  And so, at the height of organized labor’s historical strength – in the mid-1950’s, roughly 35% of the non-agricultural workforce carried union cards – Congress passed, and Ike signed, a law aimed directly at the interests of unions.