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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

A Bias for Action

His critics will probably say that once again Barack Obama has failed to exercise the kind of leadership that goes along with occupying the Oval Office. He’s waited too long, they’ll contend, to intervene on the West Coast port crisis and try to end the work slowdowns that have cargo backed up from San Diego to

Seattle. The impact on the region’s economy is clear and the threat the U.S. economy is growing by the day.

Obama has now dispatched his Labor Secretary to engage the warring port operators and labor unions, but still seems reluctant to apply the full power he has under the still controversial law known since its passage in 1947 as Taft-Hartley.

Under the Taft-Hartley Act, as Roll Call has noted, “the president can get involved once a strike or lockout affects an entire industry, or a substantial part of it. At that point, the president must appoint a board of inquiry to report on the factual elements of the dispute. After that, the president can petition a federal court to prevent any strike or lockout the president has deemed a threat to national health or safety.”

Obama undoubtedly knows his history and as such knows that a president can win big or sometimes lose large when he puts the prestige of the presidency on the line in a labor dispute. Still, the American public has usually rewarded decisive presidential action when it can be clearly shown to be in the broad national interest.

Wielding a Big Stick…

Theodore Roosevelt rarely – make that never – seemed to hesitate to throw himself into a fight.

When a national coal strike edged into its fifth month in 1902 and threatened a very cold winter for millions of Americans, Roosevelt became the first president to personally intercede in a labor-management dispute. Using typically Rooseveltian tactics, T.R. summoned the strikers and the coal operators to meet and urged them to work out their differences in the national interest. The workers agreed, management balked, and Roosevelt acted. He threatened to seize Pennsylvania coal fields and use soldiers to dig the coal and then he appointed a hand-picked commission to suggest a way out of the impasse.

“Ultimately, the miners won a ten percent increase in pay with a concomitant reduction in the number of hours worked each day. The commission failed to recommend union recognition, however, or to address the problems of child labor and hazardous working conditions. Still, for the first time the federal government acted to settle, rather than break, a strike.” The decisive action by Roosevelt, coming not long after he had assumed the presidency and long before Taft-Hartley, helped cement his well-deserved reputation for action and leadership.

Although Harry Truman denounced the Taft-Hartley legislation in 1947 as “a slave labor law” –

Truman vetoed the legislation only to see his veto overturned by a strong bi-partisan vote in both houses of Congress – the no-nonsense Missourian channeled T.R. in 1946 when he came close to nationalizing the nation’s railroads to end another crippling strike. Truman was incensed that two of the twenty national rail unions refused to accept a wage agreement that he had personally helped broker and he went on the radio to blast union leaders by name. His words prophetically anticipated the passage of Taft-Hartley the next year.

“I would regret deeply if the act of the two leaders of these unions,” Truman said, “should create such a wave of ill will and a desire for vengeance that there should result ill-advised restrictive legislation that would cause labor to lose those gains which it has rightfully made during the years.”

The year 1946 was a brutal year for Truman, the country and organized labor. A wave of strikes swept the country after the end of World War II and Republicans scored big wins in the mid-term elections allowing the GOP to recapture control of Congress for the first time since 1930. That historic election, coupled with the legislative cooperation that existed among conservative Republicans and conservative southern Democrats, led to major changes in the labor friendly Wagner Act, a cornerstone accomplishment of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal that passed in 1935.

The Taft of Taft-Hartley…

Taft-Hartley is the best remembered legislative accomplishment of the man once known as “Mr.

Republican” – Robert Alonso Taft of Ohio. Taft was a fixture in national politics and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination from 1940 until 1952. Taft died of cancer in 1953 having never won the Republican presidential nomination that might have allowed him to fulfill a dream to follow his father – William Howard Taft – into the White House.

What is less well remembered is that Taft – unlike the labor-hating Fred Hartley, a New Jersey Congressman who chaired the House Education and Labor Committee – was a highly respected, hugely powerful senator; a man of principle and a politician willing to compromise in order to pass important legislation. Taft was at the zenith of his legislative power in 1947.

Taft’s best biographer James T. Patterson has pointed out that the Ohio senator had “relatively little interest” in a

provision advanced by Hartley that would require union leaders to swear anti-communist oaths in exchange for recognition by the National Labor Relations Board. Patterson says that Taft, while certainly aiming to trim the sails of organized labor, “insisted on the right of labor to strike and to bargain collectively with management.” Taft also opposed too much government scrutiny of internal union operations and true to his life-long convictions opposed “extensive government intervention in the economy.”

As West Coast Democrats and many Republicans now call for decisive presidential action to end the port crisis by invoking provisions of Taft-Hartley, it is interesting to note that the region’s members of Congress were all over the map in 1947 when it came time to consider Truman’s veto of Bob Taft’s famous legislation.

Oregon’s Wayne Morse, still a Republican in 1947, was one of only three Senate Republicans who voted to sustain Truman’s veto. Three liberals, the likes of whom don’t exist any longer, Warren Magnuson of Washington, Glen Taylor of Idaho and James Murray of Montana also voted to uphold Truman’s veto. Other Republicans in the Northwest delegation in 1947 – Zales Ecton of Montana, Henry Dworshak of Idaho, Harry Cain of Washington and Guy Cordon of Oregon – voted to override Truman and make Taft-Hartley law. Those were the days when Oregon and Washington had Republicans and Idaho had Democrats.

One could argue that organized labor in the United States has been in a long, steady decline since Taft-Hartley, which ironically makes it easier from a political standpoint for a president, even a Democrat, to intervene in a situation like that that now grips the West Coast ports.

The Gipper Strikes…

Obama might remember that it was a political no-brainer for Ronald Reagan to fire striking air traffic controllers in 1981, even though the union had supported Reagan’s election. Reagan’s action in that

celebrated case allowed him to quote one of his favorite presidents, Calvin Coolidge, whose portrait Reagan had placed in the Oval Office. When air traffic controllers violated the law by striking Reagan quoted the laconic Vermonter: “There is no right to strike against the public safety of anybody, anywhere, at any time.”

Reagan biographer Richard Reeves says telephone calls and telegrams buried the White House and “supported the President’s stand by more than ten to one.” Many historians contend that Reagan’s harsh action further diminished labor’s clout, but there is little doubt his actions enjoyed broad public support and enhanced his popularity.

It appears the West Coast port situation has entered the phase where everyone involved is unable – or unwilling – to take a step back and try to find a solution. With everything from imported automobile parts to exported grain backing up there is no downside for a politician to act decisively and in the broad public interest. There is ample precedent for such action dating back to Teddy Roosevelt and ample reason to believe that a president, particularly one in the final two years of his term, would enjoy widespread public support for rolling up his sleeves and pounding the table for a settlement. A Democratic president, who surely will want to lean in the direction of organized labor, might also succeed, as a labor-friendly Roosevelt did in 1902, in crafting a solution that amounted to an historic win for workers.

In any case, in instances such as as the West Coast port issue, there is a strong bias in favor of presidential action, and sooner rather than later.

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