How did conservatives try to limit labor participation in elections?

United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis gave them their first opportunity when he led a strike in 1943. A labor strike during the war was hugely unpopular, which is why the CIO and the AFL had made a wartime no-strike pledge after Pearl Harbor. The coal strike broke that pledge and the CIO and AFL denounced the UMW for its action. Republicans and Southern Democrats in Congress—an alliance known as the conservative coalition—responded with the Smith-Connally Act, which regulated labor-management relations but also included a wartime prohibition against union political contributions. Congress passed the act over President Roosevelt's veto.6

The CIO got around Smith-Connally by inventing the political action committee (PAC). In 1947 the conservative coalition made the wartime contribution ban permanent. The Taft-Hartley Act, passed over President Harry Truman's veto, brought unions under the Tillman Act and added a ban against independent expenditures by corporations and unions. The CIO had already invented the PAC to get around Smith-Connally's temporary ban, and that invention became permanent with Taft-Hartley's permanent ban. Organized labor has participated in elections through union PACs ever since.

But union PACs, too, eventually came under attack. At first, they were only secondary targets of attacks on the union shop. There were many private suits against unions in the 1950s and 1960s, some of which reached the Supreme Court. The plaintiffs in the first one, International Association of Machinists v. Street (1961), did not get the injunction against the union shop they wanted, but they did begin a change in union practices by getting a partial refund of membership dues.

Under union shop contracts, unions negotiate wages, benefits, working conditions, and so on for all employees, even those who are not union members. To prevent nonmembers from being free riders, who share the benefits of membership but not the costs, all employees covered by a contract are required to pay dues. The court did not give the Machinists plaintiffs the complete refund they sought, but it did order the union to refund that portion of dues that financed political activities the dissenters opposed. The court handed down similar decisions in later cases, and dissenter rebates became a well- established practice.7

But the practice worked because PACs themselves were well established. No one had ever challenged the legality of the PAC form, but that changed when just such a challenge reached the Supreme Court in Pipefitters v. United States (1971).

 
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